Rapanui

overall rating:

2.3

planets

Jack Byrne
7/30/2021
No items found.

Rapanui was started by two brothers, Mart and Rob, in a bark garden shed on the Isle of Wight in 2009 with the sole purpose of making sustainable clothing. Starting with a humble budget of £200, Rob an Mart developed Rapanui grew into a global brand, and it is now considered a huge player in the eco-fashion space. Wehn speaking to the Financial Times in 2019 about the company's early days with limited resources, Mart Drake-Knight said: “we literally could not afford to waste”. 

Unlike most “sustainable” brands, Rapanui’s clothes are very affordable. Rapanui has received endless praise from online reviewers and routinely features in sustainability clothing lists alongside eco-powerhouses like Patagonia. I was not familiar with Rapanui prior to receiving a t-shirt as a birthday gift last year, so I was intrigued to dive into the company in more detail and learn about their sustainability practices. 

Rapanui was pitched to me as a very eco-friendly and progressive company, so I can’t pretend as though I am overly shocked to learn that is the case. I am, however, somewhat shocked (in a good way) at the lengths Rapanui has gone to both democratise sustainability, through Teemill, and promote progressive environmental practices both at home on the Isle of Wight and also in India. 

I would happily recommend Rapanui to anyone*.

*After initially recommending charity shops or thrift stores. Second-hand should always be your first option. 

Pros: Lots. One of the main benefits of shopping at Rapanui is that you really feel as though you are contributing to a bigger cause. As Rapanui gets bigger, so does Teemill. It’s like a domino effect of sustainability, which slowly weeds out less sustainability companies over time. I quite like the fact each garment of clothing can be traced throughout its entire life-cyce. I’m also confident that Rapanui, through its certificate with the SAI and GOTS, is paying its workers in India a living wage. Overall, I'm really quite impressed with Rapanui.

Cons: Not many negatives to report. I suppose my reluctance to reward a slightly higher scores stems from a lack of transparency in certain areas. For example, Rapanui does not produce a yearly sustainability report (or at least I could not find one). Reports like these are a great way of keeping the consumer informed and up to date with the governance of the company. Additionally, setting yearly goals and reporting on the progress of those goals ensure accountability.  While Rapanui does not claim to be a carbon neutral/negative company, it is not clear to me that Rapanui has a plan to offset its emissions as I could not find any informatin about this on the company's website. All in all, there weren’t many negatives, however, I was disappointed about the lack of transparency and detail in certain areas.

What it's made of:

2

Rapanui’s raison d‘être is to eradicate unnecessary waste from the fashion industry. All of Rapanui’s clothing products are made from 100% organic cotton that is either newly manufactured or derived from a post-consumer product. Mostly free of animal-derived products and animal testing, Rapanui’s clothing is suitable for vegans. I say “mostly free” rather than completely free, because it is not clear to me that Rapanui’s fennel shirts are vegan, as there is no mention of animal testing or animal products in the description of these garments. This omission is revealing. This is sneaky transparency. One couldn’t accuse Rapanui of misleading its consumers, however, a more transparent approach would be to explicitly state in clear terms that animal products have been used, or that animal testing has occurred. 

The majority of Rapanui’s manufacturing occurs in India in a Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS)-certified factory where the spinning, weaving, cutting, and sewing are integrated. The GOTS certification process is considered to be the world’s leading processing authority in organic fibres. Unique to Rapanui is the addition of a traceability map to every garment of clothing they produce. This traceability map is extremely cool and allows the consumer the map the entire life-cycle of the product, from “seed to shop”. Via the addition of an easily scannable QR code, Rapanui provides an unparalleled level of transparency to its entire supply chain. From seeding through to harvest, to processing and transport, and ultimately printing, which occurs on the Isle of Wight, the consumer is kept informed and empowered to make the right decision.

As I mentioned above, the final stage of manufacturing occurs at the Isle of Wight, where the real-time printing of t-shirts and hoodies occurs. Rapanui uses low-impact, water-based inks for printing. Water-based inks are great for the environment as they do not contain a range of ozone-depleting chemicals such as chlorofluorocarbons or hydrofluorocarbons. Additionally, water-based inks do not contain any of the toxic chemicals found in plastisol-based inks, such as polyvinyl chloride (PVC), a hydrocarbon-derived substance that is also a known carcinogen, and phthalates, a chemical used to make plastics more flexible that has been linked to a wide range of diseases, including neurodevelopment disorders, breast cancer, obesity and reproductive development, among others. The production of PVC results in the release of toxic polychlorinated biphenyl and dioxin, the latter of which is carcinogenic, according to the World Heath Organization. There should be a concerted effort on the side of companies to cease (or at least reduce) the use of these ink types. They are bad, and better and more environmentally sound alternatives now exist. There’s no excuse. I’m happy to see Rapanui adopt such changes. 

How it's made:

2.4

Rapanui uses progressive farming practices to create its final products. Cotton is a difficult crop to cultivate and requires large amounts of water, in the range of 7000-29000 litres of water per kilogram of crop. According to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), an international non-governmental organization promoting wildlife preservation, cotton accounts for approximately 2.4% of the world’s arable land yet it is responsible for almost 24% and 11% of the world’s insecticide an pesticide markets, respectively. Thankfully, Rapanui does not contribute to these already staggering numbers. On its factories in India, a range of organic farming practices are used, such as companion planing (or co-planting). This form of farming is believed to be around 8000 years old, dating back to the farming practices of the indigenous people of the Americas. The clue is in the title: different species of crops are planted in close proximity with one another, serving as "companions". The result is that neighbouring crops are protect eachother, from boh harsh enviornmental conditons and garmful insect species. This is possible because some species of plants naturally repel certain insect species. This form of natural pest management is more enviornmentally friendly. All in all, this method of organic farming is fantastic! 

Rapanui understands that cotton is extremely water-intensive to cultivate, and has taken a number of steps to reduce, or reuse, water where possible. For example, most of Rapanui’s manufacturing plants are in the North of India, where monsoons frequently occur. These monsoons fill reservoirs that supply most of the water needed to crow this thirsty crop. According to the WWF, one kilogram of cotton requires between 7000 and 29000 litres of water. These numbers are truly astronomical. For reference, potato crops and soya crops typically require about 500 litres of water and 2000 litres of water per kilogram, respectively. It should be abundantly clear to everyone that we are in a severe water crisis. Droughts are common in many parts of the world. According to the UN Water, an interagency of the United Nations that coordinates efforts focused on issues of water and sanitation, approximately 2 billion live in countries facing severe water shortages, and over 4 billion people face water shortages at least one month of the year. Demand for water has been increasing at a rate of 1% per year since the 1980s, and global water demand is expected to continue to increase at a similar rate until 2050, which means an increase of around 30% above today’s usage levels. It goes without saying that this is completely unsustainable. Agriculture is the biggest culprit. Companies must take steps to limit their water usage. 

In addition to establishing manufacturing plants in the Northern India, Rapanui has begun rescuing water from various sources. For example, at its printing headquarters on the Isle of Wight, wastewater from dyehouse effluent is recovered, cleaned and recirculated. Using filtration and reverse osmosis, Rapanui manages to recover and reuses approximately 95% of of its dyehouse wastewater. 

Waste reduction is central to Rapanui’s aims. On this point, after cotton has been spun, the waste seeds are compressed and sold as organic cow feed. Even vegetable oil is also squeezed out and sold. Nothing goes to waste. The old maxim of “waste not, want not” is well and alive here. Key to waste minimization is Rapanuis circular design. Every garment produced is made to be sent back when it is worn out. Free postage and store credit serve as incentives to return worn-out clothing. Fast-fashion is everywhere. A truck full of clothing is burned or buried in landfill every second, and hundreds of billions of garments are produced ever year - far more than what is needed to sustain the global population. And this is increasing. Circuclar fashion is key to sustainable fashion. Rapanui makes circular fashion a reality as its garments are made from 100% organic material, not plastic. Remanufacturing is therefore possible, and it’s easy.

Rapanui is committed to manufacturing products using renewable energy sources. Rapanui has factories in both the UK and India. It’s India-based factories are powered by wind and solar renewables. By owning a 150 kw solar farm in India, Rapanui can sustain its operations in an environmentally friendly way. Its UK-based factory is also powered by a solar farm, however, this factory is additionally supported up by Good Energy, one of Britain’s primary suppliers of green energy, to ensure sustainable production is possible when the sun is not shining (and it frequently is not shining, but that’s a separate issue...). 

Incredibly, Rapanui decided to open their supply chain, manufacturing technologies and renewably powered factory to others, for free. They’ve done this by launching Teemill, an easy-to-use online platform open to everyone, including brands, campaigns, charities, artists and students, among others. By launching Teemill, they’ve managed to democratise sustainability to a wider audience. Teemill is a real thorn in the side of mainstream “legacy” brands. Instead of viewing rising brands as competition, Rapanui, through Teemill, works with them, and empowers them. In my opinion, this is the most impressive part of Rapanui's incredible story.

Since the initial manufacturing occurs in India in GOTS-certified factories, there are a number of guarantees afforded to consumers. For example, GOTS prohibits the use of a number chemical compounds found in conventional textile plants and manufacturing processes, including flame retardants of the brominated (eg., polybrominated biphenyl ethers) and chlorinated ( eg., chlorendic acid) type, endocrine disruptors (eg., bisphenol A or perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances), formaldehyde and heavy metals, among others. The impact of these substances is well documented. For example, chemical flame retardants are known to cause reproductive toxicity, neurological dysfunction and cancer, among others, due to their ability to bioaccumulate in living species. Under the GOTS certification, any machine oil coming into contact with organic fibres must be completely free of heavy metals. Seen as the gold standard in textile auditing, GOTS assures the highest level of enviornmental and social responsability. 

Who makes it:

2.3

Essential to any business are the workers. In Rapanui’s case, much of the hard work is done not on the Isle of Wight, but rather in India on the cotton fields and in the manufacturing plants. GOTS, in addition to serving as a litmus test for environmental sustainability, also serves as a readout for human and social responsibility. At all stages of the manufacturing process, workers rights are guaranteed. The GOTS social criteria are based on internationally recognised standards of labour rights, including norms of the International Labour Organization (ILO), the United Nation’s Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs), and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Elements covered under GOTS include the freedom of association and collective bargaining, child labour, working conditions, working hours, remuneration, and discrimination and harassment, among others. 

Furthermore, Rapanui is additionally certified to the SA8000 standard, developed by Social Accountability International (SAI), which is similar in nature to GOTS but focuses specifically on worker-related issues. It is viewed as the most globally accepted independent workplace standard. Moreover, SA8000 certification is carried out by independent certification bodies in different regions, not by SAI, meaning the process requires third-party authentication. Examples of such accrediting bodies whose scope of accreditation covers India includes the Accord Global Compliance Group and Ozone Sustainability Management Systems. I suppose the one drawback of this approach is that you are are only as good as your accreditor, which is frequently raised as a point of concern. Also, debate has long raged about whether certification scores and corporate codes of conduct like the SA8000 truly do anything to improve worker conditions. According to a 2008 report from Harvard Business School, little empirical evidence exists that such standards contribute to improved labour conditions. I will not engage much in this debate, and I have not factored it much into my score. How credible this claim is, I don't know. Having said that, I feel it is an important point that is worth acknowledging. 

Notable differences exist between GOTS and SA8000, however, together they cover a plethora of worker-related issues. Importantly, both standards stress the need for a living wage. SAI serves as the institutional host of the Anker Living Wage and Income Research Network, the dedicated research arm of the Global Living Wage Coalition.

All in all, I feel as though Rapanui is respectful of its workers, and affords them a host of rights that are likely not found in other clothing factories in India.