Is it possible for a clothing manufacturer to integrate sustainability throughout its entire supply chain? Yes, according to Rob Drake-Knight, co-founder of multi award-winning ethical clothing company, Rapanui
Each month, the Good Business column catches up with people leading social change. It’s hosted by Impact Hub Islington, an incubation space for socially driven entrepreneurs.
Nicola: In a nutshell, can you sum up your business?
Rob: Rapanui makes clothing just like the high street, but from more sustainable materials such as organic cotton, bamboo, and eucalyptus. All our factories are powered by wind energy and the entire supply chain is ethically accredited and fully audited by the Fair Wear Foundation to ensure the people who work at the factory and on the farms are given a fair living wage, clean and safe working conditions, the right to representation and the right to be part of a union.
How do customers know the clothing they buy from you is as sustainable as you say?
We have a traceability tool online where people can see exactly where and how all of our clothing is made. You can see videos of people picking the cotton in the fields and the camels that transport the raw materials. Quite often it’s not that people don’t care about where all their clothes come from and how they are made, it’s that they can’t find that information.
“The thing that makes decisions really easy is having really strong core ethics in place.”
In store, our products have codes on the tickets so you can scan them and view the information in a smartphone-friendly format. We also we have a Wikipedia-like encyclopedia which features all the information about our supply chain, and we’ve developed an eco-labeling system that sums up the eco-friendliness of each product in an easily accessible format.
We’re fortunate in that we designed the business from the beginning with sustainability in mind, so we have nothing to hide.
How did it all begin?
My brother Martin and I started Rapanui in 2008 with a few hundred quid each. We had both learned a lot about sustainability through Martin’s university course in renewable energy engineering, so we bought a box of t-shirts and set up an office in our parents’ shed.
We had realised that there was a lot of stuff that needed to be highlighted and therefore fixed in the fashion industry, but also that it could be a really good opportunity in terms of trendsetting. There’s a lot of power in people thinking something is cool. We thought if we could package that and apply it to sustainability, then we might be on to something.
How did Rapanui grow from your shed to a successful sustainable business?
We had some really big press features when we were still in the shed, because there weren’t many companies taking a complete supply chain approach.
Probably the biggest break was our first ever bespoke clothing contract. So another side to the business is that we make clothing for other businesses because they want access to that supply chain, or to cover themselves from a PR disaster.
Our first contract was actually with Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream. Since then we’ve subsequently had loads of big breaks, like the endorsements we’ve had from Sir David Attenborough and Rob da Bank. We’ve also done clothing for businesses such as Red Bull and Lush cosmetics.
How do you balance staying true to your values while making the business commercially viable?
It does cost more to buy organic sustainable products, but we’re quite on it in terms of business efficiency. That’s probably why it’s succeeded.
We set it up as a sustainable business in the first place, so we didn’t need to go back and change anything. It’s not impossible to change it afterwards, but it is more difficult if you haven’t had those ethical working practices from the beginning.
Do you have any advice for aspiring social entrepreneurs?
The thing that makes decisions really easy is having really strong core ethics in place. If you always have your core principles in place, then it affects every single decision you make and you’ve always got those to turn to.