Rapanui: Making Eco and Ethical Fashionable

Maddy Harland
Friday, 12th December 2014

Tim and Maddy visit award winning eco and ethical fashion label, Rapanui, and find out how they put the circular economy into practice.

Visiting Rapanui requires crossing the water twice. First, we catch a ferry from Southampton docks to Cowes on the Isle of Wight, famous for building boats and yachting. Then from Cowes, Tim and I walk on to a little chain ferry, a remnant of another age with its wooden benches and charming glass framed advertisements now populated by artwork from local schools. The little ferry clink clinks over the River Medina to East Cowes, once a centre of industry where old Navy ships used to be repaired and Vesta, the wind turbine blades, were made. Now it is a little sleepy.

Tucked up a side street, near where the Ellen MacArther Trust operates, is Rapanui, an innovative and ethical label run by Mart and Rob Drake-Knight. We walk into a cheerful old industrial building, formerly JS Whites Shipyard. The reception is packed with awards and beyond there's a small retail shop with a neat factory behind and offices over the top.

Mart studied engineering, specifically renewable energy, and Rob switched from Classics to Business. The story goes that after university they came home to the Island with a passion for sustainability but, like many graduates in 2008, they couldn't get jobs. Instead of treading water they decided to invest their last £200 and set up an organic T-shirt business in their parents' garden shed.

Mart and Rob in 'Save our Seas' tees

By 2010, they had graduated to a garage in Bembridge on the Island and launched a collection of "Organic, Ethical and Wind-powered clothing that was not uncool". I asked them how they found their textile manufacturer, how they found the machines that print their T-shirts and hoodies... in fact whenever I asked them how they sourced resources, people, and technology their answer was invariably, "Months and months of research on the internet." These guys are dedicated.

But there is so much more to their business. They are both very smart and they love a challenge. So the first step was to find a manufacturer in India who runs his factory with renewable energy (wind power generated by Vesta turbines that were made on the Isle of Wight) and who had also signed a Fairtrade agreement. They are committed to traceability - ensuring that their customers can see for themselves that they are buying a product that is genuinely ecologically produced by people in safe and properly paid conditions.

Rob and Mart live by the sea and love to freedive so it was natural that they would want to support a charity dedicated to all things aquatic, The Marine Conservation Society. They gift them half the profits from sales of their limited edition designs.

Having been young and unemployed just a few years ago, they are also keen to offer work experience and apprenticeships to 'yoof'. In a year they can take someone who has never written code and train them up to help run their automated factory.

"Code?" you might ask? Mart has designed a factory that links every print design and product to a barcode system. A scanner confirms a customer order for a hoody with a specific design. Each piece of clothing is stacked in a tote which is then called out to receive a specific print design. Both the item and the print design are barcoded to eliminate mistakes. The order is then printed on the spot. "We only make what we have sold," Rob tells us. No wastage.

Rapanui is Rob and Mart's fashion line. They also make branded clothing for larger organisations and companies. One of their customers is the Met Office. They also have a facility called Teemill that makes T-shirts with bespoke designs for customers like Permaculture magazine. This means you can design yourself a permaculture T-shirt or chose one of our special designs knowing that your purchase is supporting a Fairtrade factory run with renewables in India, that your T-shirt is made from organic cotton, and that the inks are water-based and biodegradable. Mart has worked out a way of using industrial scale inkjet printers with water based inks. There is no smell of VOC or other nasty chemicals at Rapanui. And the warm air from one of the print shop machines is vented into the office above in a charming Heath Robinson way.

When you have had enough of your fashion choice you can either give it back to Rapanui or stick it in the compost and feed the worms. Anyone can send back any Rapanui product - reciept or no, in any condition - and get store credit back whilst the company reuse, repurpose or recycle the waste. "It's made our clothing more affordable and allowed us to take control of the end-of-life part of our product life cycle."

That's the circular economy for you, supporting an eco and ethical supply chain from India and employing local people on a small island with high youth unemployment back home. Plus having 100% traceability and only making what you sell. Tim and I certainly came away inspired and energised by our visit.

Check out our inspired collection of T-shirts, designed especially for Permaculture magazine readers especially by the guys at Rapanui. See https://permaculture.teemill.co.uk

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Also read Sustainable Fashion: Organic Cotton

Maddy Harland is the editor and co-founder of Permaculture magazine and Permanent Publications.

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