Rapanui - sustainable profits

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Deciding on a business’s ethics before you know what its service or product will be might seem like putting the cart before the horse. But for Rob Drake-Knight, co-founder of Rapanui, sustainability had to be at the core of any venture.

After his brother Mart studied Renewable Energy Engineering at University, both were keen to build on this foundation. “We initially tried to set up a sustainability consultancy. But our cheap suits and young faces, combined with the big investments needed, worked against us,” he recalls. 

The decision was then made to get people to buy into sustainability at a consumer level. While fashion may seem an odd vehicle to promote sustainability issues, Drake-Knight points out that trends can have a strong influence. “Look at Rhianna – when she dyed her hair, you saw girls everywhere with bright red hair. And the New Romantics and David Bowie led to fashions that, looking back, are very unusual.”

A changing world

Rapanui’s ambitious aims are in line with a quote from an Apple poster that Drake-Knight recites: “The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.” Nevertheless, their success from starting capital of just £400 is remarkable. 

They started by buying a box of t-shirts, which they sold to family and friends, using the earnings to buy two boxes and from there steadily building stock and sales. “Once we reached a certain size, we realised that we would have to put sustainability centre stage. We looked to source products that had been produced by people earning fair wages in clean conditions. And we looked to limit the impact of our products as much as possible.” 

This sustainable design philosophy means that renewable energy is used as far as possible and environmental impacts are kept to the absolute minimum.

Rapanui’s focus on its supply chain has won the company awards for traceability. This scrutiny (see box) encompasses everything from how the raw materials are grown and produced, to how these are transported, processed into ‘eco fabrics’ (see box), and the manufacturing and logistics of the finished products.

As well as being the bedrock of Rapanui’s approach to business, other businesses could benefit from a similar approach, Drake-Knight claims. “It’s about finding out what you don’t know,” he says. “Look at your supply chain and think about where you could improve.”
Start with ‘easy wins’, Drake-Knight advises. “Use your common sense and shop around. Instead of looking for best value for money in procurement, instead you could look for best value for the environment.”
Even simple changes such as changing how ancillary items are sourced can make a significant difference, he says. “A resort that decides to buy their uniforms or marketing wear from us could cut the carbon associated with this by up to 90%.”

Weighing up

Deciding whether to move towards sustainability is a tricky decision, Drake-Knight says. “It obviously does cost more and a business may be set up with specific margins. Getting used to absorbing the extra costs can be challenging.”

Nevertheless, in some cases the initial outlay may actually lead to long term savings. Renewable power generation for the office, for instance, can offset power bills, as can insulation and efficient heating.

In terms of the wider supply chain, sustainable business practices may be more resilient – facilities running on wind or solar power are less dependent on sometimes unreliable power sources. More modern fuel efficient transport may also be more reliable and faster. And showing responsibility in this way can be a marketing tool.
Hoever, communicating your advantages over your competitors may not always be simple – Rapanui found that others were highlighting their usage of organic crops but were reliant on fossil fuels. They found that a new way to express their commitment to their ideals was needed.

A simple QR code on clothes tags directed consumers’ smartphones to their interactive online tracing map, help cut down on card. But they realised that shoppers may not take the time to read through the details. So a clear colour-coded ‘eco label’ helps buyers make an informed decision at a glance.

“Transparency is a good place to start,” says Drake-Knight, and for Rapanui this involved also presenting the negative alongside the positive. “We found that we were ‘over-egging’ the good so we decided to change our brand marketing to be honest and open.”

Rapanui’s ‘communications pyramid’ (see below) offers increasingly in-depth layers of information for those that want to know more about its products. As the bottom layer says, the company will endeavour to respond to any query not covered elsewhere.

Most of all, Rob says, Rapanui will continue to innovate to offer a model of ethical sustainability he hopes others will emulate.

Eco label
Traceability
Elements of supply chain information
User generated content - responses to queries

Eco textiles

Eco textiles are fabrics created with the goal of making a system that can be supported indefinitely in terms of environmental and social impact they may have throughout the total life span: growth, harvest, manufacture, transport, post purchase use and disposal, including carbon footprint. Rapanui sees itself as responsible for working towards sustainability, even before the product life cycle begins:

  • Organic cotton – cotton is the most valuable non-food agricultural product, but due to the history of unethical labour practises, hazardous chemical inputs and water misuse, it has been labelled as the world’s dirtiest crop. Rapanui’s certified organic cotton helps guarantee ethical labour practises and improvement to the quality of the environment. New product lines contain organic-in-conversion cotton, helping conventional cotton farmers in the crucial period of transition to organic agriculture. 
  • Bamboo viscose – As soft as silk, half the price and fast-growing without water, pesticides or fertilisers, bamboo textiles have lots of sustainable potential. Bamboo clothing can be breathable, naturally anti-bacterial and hypoallergenic and uses one of earth’s most sustainable resources. But there is a gulf between the sustainability of bamboo as a crop and the way it is processed. Rapanui’s bamboo comes from a traceable, ethically accredited source and is processed according to specific environmental guidelines. 
  • Hemp – Hemp is one of the most environmentally friendly and versatile natural textile plants on earth - and one of the first textile plants in human history. Hemp is incredibly strong, requires no herbicides, no pesticides, and needs very little water to grow. It is UV protective and anti-bacterial and can be used for rope, bags, clothes, hats, insulation, and plasterboard. The first American flag was made from hemp, and Levi Strauss made his first pair of jeans from Hemp. Hemp a tough, rugged fibre and quite probably the most sustainable textile fabric there is. Unfortunately, it has been overtaken by cotton which is softer. Rapanui uses it for rugged outerwear and blended in with socks and leggings. 
  • Eucalyptus tencel – Tencel Lyocell, to give it its full name, is produced exclusively from the wood pulp of Eucalyptus trees certified by the Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC), and the fibre carries the Pan-European Forest Council (PEFC) quality seal. Eucalyptus is woody and therefore needs energy input to convert it into a soft fibre, suitable for clothing. The Eucalyptus is reduced down then reformed into a spin-able fibre. This is done in a process with similar principles as other semi-synthetic natural fibres, such as Viscous bamboo fabric, but importantly the Lyocell process used to make Eucalyptus is much more benign and eco-friendly, and is the most environmentally friendly man made cellulosic fibre available today. 
  • Recycled PET – Recycled polyester clothing is potentially an incredibly sustainable material due to its cradle-to-cradle potential: this means a plastic bottle could be recycled to make an item of clothing, which could be recycled to make a plastic bottle, and so on – forever. The reality is that few facilities exist to do this, the transport distance between the user and the recycler is often massive and the suitability of recycled PET as a next-to-skin textile is not as soft or breathable as natural fabrics. C2C sustainability is a worthwhile concept and recycled PET must form part of the solution - certainly for details like buttons and zips and for garments that require a hard-wearing finish that natural textiles cannot provide, such as caps, surf shorts and rain jackets.


After his brother Mart studied Renewable Energy Engineering at University, both were keen to build on this foundation. “We initially tried to set up a sustainability consultancy. But our cheap suits and young faces, combined with the big investments needed, worked against us,” he recalls.

The decision was then made to get people to buy into sustainability at a consumer level. While fashion may seem an odd vehicle to promote sustainability issues, Drake-Knight points out that trends can have a strong influence. “Look at Rhianna – when she dyed her hair, you saw girls everywhere with bright red hair. And the New Romantics and David Bowie led to fashions that, looking back, are very unusual.”

Rapanui’s supply chain

A traceability map shows Rapanui’s supply chain of organic cotton jersey and fleece products, which make up around 80% of total sales volume.

Organic cotton Ahmedebad, North-Western India – plucked and transported to a local ginning factory by camel cart which is better for the environment and emissions. Camel carts transport cotton from the fields to the ginning plant, where the organic cotton is separated from seeds in the boll. The seeds make cotton oil and feed cattle. The factory owner is a member of Fairwear Foundation meaning workers get a fair deal and is powered by wind.

Cutting and Sewing, Coimbatore, India – Bails are spun into jersey, which is then cut and sewn into garments. The factory is Fair Wear Foundation audited, which helps give workers a fair deal. Giant Vestas V52 wind turbines generate the energy.

Shipping – Cutting airfrieght helps to lower our CO2.

Finishing, UK –All Rapanui products are hand finished in the UK, creating jobs at home and helps ensure every product is of the highest quality.