Which might explain the success of UK fashion brand Rapanui: In 2009, brothers Rob and Mart Drake-Knight launched the company on the Isle of Wight with a mere £200 and a drive to make a difference and a career at the same time. The brothers built Rapanui’s business model around sustainability from day one, using only sustainable materials such as organic cotton and bamboo to create products in wind-powered factories that live up to ethical accreditation standards, while also helping address youth unemployment on the Isle of Wight.
Since then, the brand’s reputation as one of the industry’s sustainability leaders quickly grew, winning awards and acknowledgement from big names including Sirs David Attenborough, Richard Branson and Ranulph Fiennes. The company has since created a supplier traceability map for its materials and production, looped itself into the circular economy with its product takeback scheme, and set a new standard for thinking beyond profit by lowering its prices after seeing the financial benefits of reducing waste. This year, Rapanui also introduced its first product made entirely from fabric waste.
Sustainable Brands caught up with co-founder Mart Drake-Knight to learn more.
There are now a variety of fashion brands focused on incorporating sustainability into their business model, but one of the things that sets Rapanui apart is your supplier transparency and traceability map. What steps did you take to develop such a resource and what difference do you think it makes to consumers?
Mart Drake-Knight: When we started it was kind of a new thing, so it’s great to see other brands starting to think about sustainability. Our traceability maps are popular because they are visual and interactive. The environment is often packaged up with guilt. Rapanui started with values, which meant we really didn’t want to do that. It’s not that people don’t care about this stuff, it’s just they don’t know. It’s hard to know where stuff comes from, how it was made and who made it. Our mission was to make traceability easy, fast and interesting.
You mention that you haven’t achieved the results with the online traceability maps that you wanted, so you converted your own internal ratings into ecolabels. You wanted to push the EU to make them law — how’s that going? Do ever see that becoming a reality?
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MDK: It went ok for a bit — got picked up by some MEPs — but politics failed. It won’t become law through us. The reality is you need a lot of time and money to change that kind of law these days, as popular groundswell for accountable ethics in clothing doesn’t exist across the social spectrum, let alone across borders and there’s just not the interest there from the politicians.
The market has their own ideas about this stuff and is developing its own ratings and labels in response to pressure, albeit slowly. One founding principle of our ecolabel is that the brands and businesses shouldn’t dictate what’s “good” or acceptable: we wanted to run it to show it’s possible, then have it picked up independently and developed, so it’s a failure in that sense. However I think we have contributed to the conversation and maybe spurred a little action in some quarters.
I think the biggest success/contribution is that we’ve shown in a real life environment that once we introduce ecolabels, shoppers choose the higher-rated stuff rather than the low-rated stuff, independent of price. A lot of people doubted, and still doubt, that eco ratings will work for fashion. They’re wrong, and we continue to enjoy the benefits of that.
There is a big shift towards trying to develop a circular economy model for textiles at the moment, and Rapanui have been part of that for a few years now with your BacktoRapanui.com scheme. What has been the uptake rate of the re-crediting promotion?
MDK: Yeah, this is really cool! We’re lucky enough to be just round the corner from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the world’s top think tank on the circular economy. For us it just makes sense, and since we’ve launched our material recovery programmes we’ve managed to start integrating circular economy products and materials in our collection. Our biggest new product for 2015 is designed entirely from waste, and at the end of its life we will recover it and close the loop.
Uptake has been okay — luckily our programmes are all free. Our newer products (since December 2014) have the return address and instructions inside on the hem label and on the product packaging, so we’ve had a little more awareness since then. Another issue limiting the uptake is that the products we make actually survive longer than we predicted: We forecast people getting bored of their t-shirts after a year or two, but many people keep them for years as they sometimes feel that a comfy t-shirt gets better with age.
Once we start making more products outside of our casualwear range, with more technical materials, we will be able to do more with circular economies — for us, the big challenge was making the finance work first (paying someone to return it, and making the whole process free). We’re set up now to recover our waste sustainably as we scale, and that’s a good place to be.
There’s often the perception that conscientious fashion inevitably costs more, but last year, Rapanui managed to slash its prices by 25 percent due to improved profits from less waste. Do you think this proves the business case for incorporating more sustainable practices?
MDK: That used to be so frustrating: “But it’s more expensive” was a big barrier. We don’t really advertise it but we’ve invested a lot in developing our own manufacturing technology on the back of the control we have from having a vertically integrated supply chain. Basically we can save so much money, and develop new products and systems through tech, that our economies of scale and profit is sufficient to allow us to put the price down and compete with the mainstream. It means our profitability isn’t as high as it could be, but we’re a values-based business that is all about sustainability being a choice. If it’s not accessible to the average person, that’s not sustainable.
Here’s a little exclusive: To demo some of the tech behind our new more sustainable printing technology at our Isle of Wight factory, we hacked a little twitter program we wrote into a raspberry pi. It means when you tweet an account a picture, we tweet back a t-shirt product.
Your brand has come a long way since your first t-shirt back in 2009 — what’s next on the agenda? Where do you see the company heading?
MDK: New products made from more sustainable materials, expanding from casualwear into more functional apparel. Trying to develop our design work to reach more people and make sustainability cool, fun and accessible. Developing more technology and innovations to solve the next round of challenges on the way to unblocking the floodgates and getting everyday consumers buying more sustainable fashion.