Changing the world one tee at a time: Rob (left) and Martin (right) Drake-Knight. Picture: Rapanui.

Rapanui launched in 2010 on the Isle of Wight with two free diving brothers, £200 and a single goal: to make a range of clothing from organic cotton in an ethically accredited, wind powered factory that was not uncool. Against the odds, it worked and today, Martin and Rob Drake-Knight’s Rapanui – with its stable of clean-lined, organic cotton shirts and sweats and absolutely blasting graphics – is both a pioneer and a stalwart in sustainable fashion. It’s also the go-to brand for awareness-raising t-shirts – from its earliest collaborations with Marine Conservation Society and Katharine Hamnett to the latest, with War Child. Now, Rapanui’s teemill.com tech means that anybody can start their own t-shirt brand … using recirculated water, sea freight, renewable energy, GOTS-certified cotton, low impact packaging and clothing recycling. Still literally one of my favourite t-shirt brands ever ….. I talk to Rob Drake-Knight about Rapanui then and now.

What’s seen Rapanui grow when so many other ethical t-shirt labels have fallen by the wayside?
The real reason is the investment in technology behind the business. Our mission has always been to make clothing more sustainable. That’s a conflict as sustainability costs more on paper. By developing better technology to run the business, we reduce cost and waste. With the savings, we can afford to use better materials and renewable energy and still be accessible. Seeing other values-based startups fail is actually something that we don’t want to happen. That’s why we share our factory tech – so more brands make it and change happens faster.

The brand is ethical is so many ways, from ideas of provenance to the projects you team up with. What was the most challenging area to tackle?
I think the finances and sort of, business  generally. It’s an uphill battle because the way the economy is designed, it’s actually cheaper and easier to create waste and not care. Plus, we started in a garden shed with £200 and we were 19 and 21 so we had a lot to learn(!!!). But looking back, a hard start was good for us, because we almost needed to defy gravity from day one. It makes you think differently and find solutions where, at first glance, there are none. The mindset is the same, but now we’re bigger, it means we can solve lots of those bigger problems.

What aspect are you proudest of?
Probably our team. Seeing young people from the Isle of Wight come through vocational training programmes and  take the lead is so inspiring. It keeps us going. Plus the Teemill.com tech, because it takes everything that took us 10 years to build – the supply chain, quality organic products, low waste printing tech and our renewables-powered factory in the UK – and wraps it up in a package for the next generation of startups. When we see cool new brands or charities take our tech and make it their own and start getting traction, that makes us proud.

Rapanui visiting organic cotton farmers in India. Picture: Rapanui.

What was your first charity t-shirt?
We live by the sea so we’ve been around the issues like ocean plastic and overfishing since we were kids. When we were teenagers, we were really into freediving and, around the time, fishing boats regularly started set-netting close to shore. At one point, I think there was around 12 miles of nets in a 3 mile bay; you could almost see the fish disappear each week that passed. In 2011, The Marine Conservation Society were the first charity we worked with on a fundraising and awareness t-shirt design – which continues to be one of our most popular designs to this day. They placed a big order with us when we were very small; that belief in us still means a lot. The charity world is full of amazing people and we  like working in this area. It’s fun to take a charity and make cool prints – and creating products that are aligned with improving the world just leaves you feeling better at the end of a big week.

How have your lives changed since setting up Rapanui?
We’ve grown up with it and everything has gotten bigger – from the power we have to create new materials or build factories through to the responsibilities we have to make sure we don’t miss something. But, really, things feel remarkably the same: We still come to work every day with the same passion to fix stuff. We still go surfing at lunch break if we can get away with it. The difference  is that now it’s accelerating and we can get more done faster. So far this year, we’ve built a remanufacturing supply chain that takes our old products back from our customers and remakes them into new products – and we’ve got robots that our team designed and installed that automate the super boring parts of the factory. It’s nice to have the resources and see results on a bigger scale.

How has the ethical landscape changed? I sense great movement …
100% agree. This thing is really happening – and it’s speeding up! When we started, we had trace maps that let people see where our stuff comes from and how it’s made. Now that’s basically the minimum. People like Elon Musk seem to have nailed it: sustainability is not about guilt or using less toilet paper to save trees. It’s an engineering challenge – and a massive business opportunity. Perhaps now that businesses are looking for it, they’re finding solutions faster. We think people are learning that this stuff is solvable. It’s not a compromise or about “doing less” – and it feels like there’s some momentum.

What keeps you up at night?
A constant dissatisfaction – it’s in our characters – drives our search for improvement in every area of our business. It’s a bit of a paradox because it means we don’t really take time to celebrate achievements and instead are always annoyed at not being able to do bigger, better improvements! I think that’s a pretty normal curse of doing something like this.

Vivienne Westwood for War Child; t-shirt by Rapanui.

What’s coming up for Rapanui?
This year we’re focusing on our tech, and we’ve got tens of thousands of startups using Teemill.com now that it’s open to the public for free. We are serious about redesigning the clothing industry, and it feels this is a real accellerator. It’s still fun to design products for Rapanui. It helps us push what kind of product we can make more sustainable – so we’ve also got some lush new flannel shirts and crew neck tees for women and radical organic pants for men coming. Perhaps the coolest stuff for us is when our tech is used to raise money or awareness for good causes. The amazing people at War Child just launched a limited edition range designed by Vivienne Westwood, Henry Holland, Pam Hogg and Bella Freud, and we’re looking forward to seeing what some of the other charities have in the pipeline.

What gives you hope?
Young people. We had a 16 year old kid come in called Danny who is starting his own eco-fashion business, Danny Direct, that makes more environmentally conscious footy kit for people who play 5-a-side. His enthusiasm and values were energising. It almost feels like younger people value purpose more than status. I can’t remember the last time someone reached out about a partnership that was primarily about money. It seems people want to be part of the solution, not part of the problems around sustainable fashion – and that attitude gives us a lot of hope for the future.

What is the one thing people should do if they’re worried about people, planet and animals?
This stuff is solvable, and humans are amazing at coming up with solutions. So really it’s about adding a question mark: all of the answers can be found with the right questions. If people start to think more about stuff, it unlocks solutions. We did a collaboration on a surfboard, and questioned the materials. We ended up making one from recycled polystyrene with plant-based resin. These more sustainable materials were available all along; just a question mark and a curious mind is a fork in the road between a better world and business as usual.


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