For us ethical fashion means choosing lower impact materials like organic cotton, seeking out ethically accredited suppliers, bringing manufacturing back to the UK, investing in low waste printing technology, using renewable energy, and seeking constant improvement.
We started as a business trying to make fashion more sustainable. We also take our duties towards responsbile employment seriously. Whilst the issues are complex and we have by no means solved the all of them, we've got a fair way along the journey to doing things right.
Along the way we've developed and shared technologies to cut out waste, started taking back responsbility for products at the end-of-life-cycle and worked hard to take care of the people in our supply chain making all this happen. The solutions are actually quite logical on paper. In practise the economics have been really challenging. A lack of consumer awareness and the fact that high street prices often don't reflect the cost to environment both disadvantage more sustainable products. The current generation of designers must come up with some clever solutions or workarounds if we are to solve all the major problems in designing fashion supply chains for the future sustainable economy.
Ethical fashion in 10 seconds
Our aim is to try and make more sustainable products and competitive. We also aim to make it easier for people to find out how our products are made. Our hope and our experience suggests that consumers who have more information go ahead and make better choices. We make clothes from organic cotton, in an ethically accredited, wind powered factory and print using low waste print technology. Our traceability maps help people make more conciencious choices at the point of purchase. At the end of life, we pay people store credit to return the products we make back to us. To accelerate change we made some tech that lets people build a brand on our supply chain. What has taken us ten years now takes you 10 minutes at Teemill.com
In 2010 Rapanui won the RSPCA Good Business Award for Fashion Innovation for our work on Ethical Fashion.
Why did we decide to do this?
To answer that, we need to talk about our values and intent. We started the brand because we felt like there were engineering solutions to massively reduce resource use and we thought doing that in fashion could inspire people to think about sustainability in a cool yet pragmatic way. So primarily our focus was on engineering better products, systems, materials and energy use: That was the problem our business set out to solve.
As our business has grown we have invested more time improving our supply chains and visiting our factories personally. As a consequence we've realised how much of a positive effect a business can have on people when it goes right, and equally how what might appear to be a simple business decision could have a negative effect somewhere unexpected if taken without that insight. We use ethically accredited factories and consider social impact part of our duty as an employer and manufacturer in the UK. More recently we became GOTS certified. This audit made sure we met or exceeded a wide range of sustainability criteria, from general things like ensuring people are paid fairly to detailed stuff like the ingredients and waste management of our ink.
Do people care?
From day one we have believed that it's not that people don't care about sustainability, they just don't know: Consumers face two challenges. Firstly, it's really hard to know where stuff is made and what it's made from. And even if we assume consumers can make informed choices, sometimes the products just don't exist. People often feel like they have to compromise a lot on what's cool and functional - and what's sustainable. If designers create the materials and economies to make cool products at competitive prices with clear, easy to understand info on how it's made, we believe that the majority of consumers will transform the world with their own money. Purchasing power is the most powerful transformative force in the world. Our mission is to engineer products, supply chains and solutions that connect the dots.
Show me inside the supply chain
Sure thing. A lot of our other products like shirts, towelling etc. are made in Portugal, and all of our knitwear is made right here in the UK, from shearing through to the finished knitted item. You can find out more on our traceability maps (on every product page), by scanning the QR in our products, or getting a general overview on our traceability page. Or you could just watch this video...
Why doesn't everyone do this?
Like us, there are lots of great companies trying. The reason it's hard is complex, but here's our view simplified: Most businesses compete on price and so buy in bulk. Discounting or seasonal sales to get rid of the stock puts a lot of pressure on costs, that drives down wages and working conditions overseas, or contributes to stuff like zero-hour contracts in the UK. In the high street economy, the cost of making more sustainable products or improving working conditions is set directly against the expectation of constantly lower prices. It's not great but it is understandable. We try and see an opportunity in what looks like a problem. If it's a broken model, change the model, and our stockless, automated systems at our facilities in the UK remove compromises between values and risk. Tech has allowed us to stabilise prices and invest more in sustainability. More recently we've been developing our manufacturing tech in the UK which has created stable hours for our workforce despite the peaks and troughs in production.
Faced with having to compete on price at the cost of the people in our supply chain or else find another way, we developed the technology to streamline lots of our processes and design out risk, then completely rebuilt our company on the principle of real-time, digitised manufacturing. Our tech means we're more efficient, making sustainable fashion more competitive.
It seemed kind of silly to do all this work and then restrict it to only people who like Rapanui. So we made this technology open access, letting anyone build a business using our supply chain. We packaged it up and it's available free. What took us 10 years now takes a startup 10 minutes at Teemill.com
What's it like in the factories?
As a company we are GOTS certified which means audits ensure we meet or exceeded a wide range of sustainability and social criteria. Our supplier in India that makes most of our jerseywear and products shipped via Teemill is a GOTS certified company too. We found the GOTS audit process tougest on sustainability, inks, dyes and inputs (you can the full standard here). The GOTS does cover pay and working conditions, but this supplier also has the SA8000 certificate which is more detailed and designed specifically for the job. Audits show workers in this factory are paid more than the minimum wage. Additional bonuses are added on top at the end of the year too, depending on days worked. (Go full nerd on this by reading the SA8000 standard and SA8000 audit guide)
In summary, as well as the audits and certifications (Fairtrade FLO-Cert, Global Organic Textile Standard Compliance, WRAP gold certificate of compliance, Social Accountability International SA8000) that verify independently what we have seen ourselves: Workers in our overseas supplier are paid enough for their house, weekly shop, to send their kids to school looking smart plus some discretionary income.
It sounds a bit unscientific but apart from auditing paperwork and validating certification, visiting factories personally makes a huge difference. One of the worst factories we ever visited was in the UK (and sounded great on paper) - Whilst probably the best we've ever visited is in what's considered to be a developing country. Investigating from a desk fails.
Kingfisher T-shirtOur bestselling #lowpoly design is printed in full colour on our famously soft organic cotton tees. It's not just a cool look, the Kingfisher is an iconic British bird that doesn’t like pollution: If you see one, you’re probably near clean water. Or clean cotton in this case, made in a renewable energy powered factory.
Our tech enables us to pay a little more to buy certified organic cotton. Without the risk and cost of pesticides, it is better for the environment, health and means farmers can earn more. That money makes education and healthcare for families more accessible, for example.
In the UK we choose to make long-term investments in training young people for higher skilled jobs through graduate trainee programmes and apprenticeships.
Doing the right thing when designing products is not the end of the project. It's important that the products are cool, competitive on price and clearly communicated. Our traceability tools help enable and empower ethical consumerism. We don't believe sustainability is compatible with exclusivity, so we've made it possible for anyone to use our tech and supply chain to build a brand at Teemill.com.
At the end of a product's life, we'll take it back and sort out the waste. Anyone can return a product to us at Backtorapanui.com.
Doing all this work took ages, and we want to see an acceleration towards more sustainable fashion. We made some tech and now people can do what took us 10 years in 10 minutes at Teemill.com.
The Future of Living Wages
Living wage is a big issue in the future of fashion supply chains overseas. We were asked about this so we thought we'd update the page with a little insight to where we've got to and where we're going with it.
As a GOTS certified company, we have to meet a wide range of sustainability and social criteria, so we're already audited to ensure fair pay and working conditions in the suppliers that we use. More specific audits go even further on the issue of living wage: The SA8000 from this supplier is awarded only after they have calculated a local living wage and ensure workers are paid at least this, as per the SA8000 audit guide. Whilst this is a great start, the truth is there's still not really consensus anywhere on what a living wage is and the best methodology to calculate it. We think that as more work is done by experts to agree on the definition and method, it will validate what we already hold as our view: That more can be done.
So whilst it is nice to know that the supplier in this case is paying staff more than the minimum wage, we asked ourselves what would have to happen to enable us to do even more for people at this end of the supply chain. As a small business, we only represent a fraction of the work at the supplier and most customers want costs down not up, so we don't yet have the power to demand business-wide wage whilst they are already doing far more than any overseas factory that we can find. Our objective is to partner in a dedicated production line within the factory, which will give us more power to set the terms of work. We recently discussed this with our supplier to work out a deal, and if we grow about 40% by volume we can make it happen.
We have not yet found another supplier that pays more, has better working conditions, is GOTS certified, and uses renewable energy, so until then all our efforts are now focused on that next milestone.
Making better things.Our organic cotton clothing is made in an ethically accredited, wind powered factory and printed in the UK using renewable energy.