In giving Rapanui, the clothing brand they launched in 2008, the slogan 'making eco-fashion cool', brothers Rob and Martin Drake-Knight have set themselves a daunting task, writes Rob Bell
Rapanui’s genesis seems an unlikely one. The label was born when Martin Drake-Knight was studying renewable energy engineering at university, and through the course’s content both brothers became interested and then passionate about sustainability.
“We started with the idea of launching a renewables installation firm, but didn’t have enough money to get it off the ground,” Rob says. “We then considered becoming sustainability consultants, but with our wispy beards and cheap suits we didn’t think anyone would take us seriously.”
The duo had a little experience working with clothing brands, so having carefully weighed up the capital required to buy wind turbines or a box of tshirts, Rapanui was born.
The plan was to make money – and get their sustainability message across. Rob says: “We wanted to use the power of our brand to influence our customers; to use brand power to get them thinking about issues like where the clothes they wear come from. Hence the focus on traceability.”
Rob concedes there’s a risk the label is preaching to the choir – that Rapanui’s customer base of fashion-conscious young people are likely to be among the most environmentally-aware.
However, he believes that even when consumers are already engaged with the sustainability agenda, little access to relevant product information frustrates any desire to vote green with their wallets.
“Yes, a lot of the kind of people who buy our products are quite environmentally-aware already,” Rob says. “But it’s about giving them an option to exercise that knowledge.
“It’s not that people don’t care about sustainability or the environmental impacts of the products they buy. Often it’s simply that they cannot find the facts that would allow them to make informed decisions about the products available.”
The increasing use of ‘green’ claims in marketing is also muddying the waters, Rob believes – and he fears the most environmentally aware consumers are already becoming disillusioned by how products are presented.
“Companies and brands should be more open and honest about their environmental impacts,” Rob says.
“Young people are interested in sustainability, and want to be able to make informed decisions rather than be deluged with greenwashy marketing. It’s unfortunate – before sustainability has really hit mainstream awareness, the people who were already interested in the issues have become a bit cynical.”
Both brothers are conscious that as Rapanui grows, maintaining the standards of sustainability underpinning the business will become more challenging. However, trailblazers such as Marks & Spencer and fellow clothing manufacturer Patagonia prove it can be done.
“Marks & Spencer are addressing these issues on a much bigger scale through their Plan A strategy,” he says. “Where we’re working with one factory, they’re working with something like 1,000, which means one or two are changing every week.
“That very different scale of production increases the challenge of monitoring supplier performance.
"However, other massive businesses such as Patagonia have demonstrated it is possible to be sustainable on a large scale.”
And as companies ranging in size and buying power from tiny newcomers like Rapanui to giant international supermarket chains buying thousands of different products such as Tesco demand sustainability from their supply chains, the number of suppliers able to meet their demands keeps pace.
'Not too worried'
Rob says: “Until we exceed 500,000 garments a week we don’t have to look beyond the factory we currently use. However, the number of facilities able to produce garments to the standard we require is increasing year after year.
“We’re not too worried about maintaining our current levels of sustainability becoming more of a challenge as we grow, because we can see the number of facilities that meet our requirements going up.”
The company’s website is unequivocal, stating: “It took literally days to gather all the information about everything in our supply chain. And, to be honest, traceability is as simple as that. There is absolutely no reason all clothing brands could not do exactly what we have done and continue to do today.”
Rob does admit that for enormous multinationals, collating accurate data from thousands of suppliers around the world might be a little more challenging. However, he says: “Suppliers will do anything to please the customer – be it us or Primark. So it’s just a question of keeping on asking – eventually you will get the information you require. It might mean a bit of chasing around, but you’ll get there in the end.”
That Rapanui is already looking to compete directly with large retailers such as Topshop and H&M that offer very cheap clothing manufactured in countries where labour costs are low is proof of the Drake-Knight brother’s belief in their brand and the attractiveness of its sustainability message.
Rob says: “We’re aiming to compete with the budget retailers this year, specifically within our women’s range with the launch of a new collection in May. It will be a ‘fashion essentials’ range – plain versions of our products without prints, which means we can deliver them at a much lower unit price.
“This will allow us to extend our market reach into their territory by introducing lower priced items.” Alongside the launch of the new line, Rapanui plans to use technology to improve how information on traceability is presented to the customer, with videos on the company’s website showing the production process and how sustainable raw materials are grown, harvested and processed.
“And we’ll have QR [quick response] codes on products’ swing tickets in retailers, which customers will be able scan with their mobile phones to access information on the product’s supply chain,” Rob says. It is clear Rapanui’s sustainability message will remain central to the brand as the company continues to grow. Whether the customer is Marks & Spencer or Rapanui, a demand for high environmental standards from suppliers – no matter their size or location – builds awareness and makes sustainability a commercial imperative for companies from Africa to China and everywhere in between.
And communicating the sustainability message to retail customers has a valuable role to play in increasing consumer awareness of how their purchasing decisions can help drive improved environmental and ethical performance.
However successful businesses are built on more than lofty ideals, and the Drake-Knight brothers’ ambition to use brand power to focus minds on sustainability is doomed to fail if the brand in question fades into obscurity.
Luckily it seems Rapanui’s blend of cool clothes and green principles is in growing demand. Rob says: “We’re still relatively small – we’re on target to turnover £500,000 this year and should hit £1 million in 18 months – it’s clear people want to buy our products.
“We’ve sold a lot of products and the business is growing incredibly fast.“