L-R Gosia Piatek, Jas and Simren Kohli
The world has changed a lot in 20 years. There are new expectations on businesses – it’s not just about profit margins, but how companies react to the world around them. As rainforests are cut down and the effects of climate change become ever more apparent, businesses now have a responsibility to consider the ethical and sustainable implications of how they operate.
Yet some businesses were promoting the message of sustainability well before it became a boardroom talking point. Fast 50 alumni Kowtow and Ecobags have walked challenging journeys to build sustainable businesses that remain profitable. How did they do it?
From seed to shop
Kowtow, an ethical fashion brand, was started in 2006 by founder Gosia Piatek. After receiving a government grant designed to support entrepreneurs, Piatek wanted to start a business with a really strong foundation that matched her personal values. The concept was simple – create a sustainable clothing line with minimal components, formed by a supply chain that benefits everyone involved.
Piatek says, ‘I felt like Fairtrade organic cotton really ticked all those boxes because I can see all the way from the time the seed is planted, through the production chain, to the final garment.’
As she also points out, fashion production lines can involve a lot of injustice – underpaid workers and poor working conditions are often ignored to reach strong profit margins. Piatek’s decision to focus on creating a sustainable supply chain wasn’t necessarily going to see the same amount of profit, but it would meet her personal goals.
Ethical purchasing hasn’t always been top of the agenda for consumers, although it’s had more attention in recent years. Piatek sees this type of purchasing as irrevocably tied to sustainability. ‘The issue is people don’t even think, “who made my clothes? What conditions were they made under? Were those people treated and paid fairly?’”
When Kowtow launched online in 2006, it performed well among those with an existing interest in sustainable fashion, but it took a while to reach a broader customer base – especially those used to fast fashion. Originally placing ‘Fairtrade and organic’ prominently underneath the brand name, Piatek found that at the time people couldn’t quite grasp what this meant, and so removed the additional text. As she says, ‘it’s only in the last couple of years that everyone’s been talking about it – now we can shout about what we’ve been doing.’
One bag at a time
Jas Kohli has seen a similar development in the growth of his company, Ecobags. Started by Kohli and his wife Simren in 2005, Ecobags focuses on creating reusable and compostable packaging for both businesses and consumers. As Kohli says, ‘we started talking about sustainability when nobody else was.’
Ecobags’ first customer was also the reason for the business’ inception. One day, the Kohlis were at Wellington City Library and noticed that the library was handing out books in plastic bags. Already aware of the impact that waste was having at their previous home in India, the Kohlis suggested introducing woven bags instead. The library took them up on the offer – and the Kohlis got to work.
Like Piatek, Kohli had some initial trouble convincing businesses to make the move. ‘Initially people would see the choice in terms of cost. A 50 cent reusable bag or a 5 cent plastic bag – why would they spend ten times the price? That was when we had to break out literature on sustainability and use different types of information to convince them. Our philosophy was “make it manageable” – to change the world one bag at a time.’
Now Ecobags supplies supermarkets and large brands with Fairtrade cotton bags and compostable eco-packaging, both in New Zealand and overseas.
For both Kohli and Piatek, ensuring that their work was truly sustainable wasn’t an easy task. It meant researching each element of every new product, visiting factories and spending money on certifications. Both businesses conduct regular visual inspections of the factories that supply their products to ensure everything they’re told is really happening.
Taking those extra steps to ensure an ethical supply chain was important to Kohli, who says ‘New Zealand companies do not require any certification to start a business, but we used European certifications to shape the business from the very beginning.’ Ecobags also uses SEDEX certified factories, and all their products meet the Global Organic Textile Standard.
For Piatek, learning more about sustainability and developing their approach is important for Kowtow as well. As she says, ‘I really love how my team are a bunch of geeks about sustainability. We have quite philosophical discussions every day to work out how we can progress and be leaders in this field.’
The challenges behind innovation
Creating new products takes work – Kowtow now uses a range of materials in their lines, but all have been meticulously checked to ensure they don’t contribute to any permanent waste or problematic operations. For example, none of their products use zips after employment standards at the manufacturers couldn’t be verified. Instead, the company uses natural shell buttons, reused from the fisheries industry. It also offers free repairs to encourage people to keep their clothing for a long time, rather than just for a season.
Kohli also finds this element of the business one of the most challenging parts. For him, creating new Ecobags products involves a lot of meticulous trial and error in the testing process. As he says however, ‘those challenges actually became our guiding force to put a process together for the next product development areas.’
All of this work costs money and time but both Kowtow and Ecobags run a profit – and have continued to show resilience over the current pandemic. For Kowtow, the brand saw support from their community as Kiwis showed their appreciation for local brands, while Kohli attributes Ecobags’ resilience to strong relationships with their suppliers overseas, even as the wider world slows down.
As these brands demonstrate, sustainability can be done both profitably and with care. Piatek says ‘I’m not in it for the money. While you’ve got to run a profitable business, and I’m an entrepreneur more than I am anything, my heart believes in this purpose.’
Kowtow Clothing ranked 42nd in the 2014 Deloitte Fast 50, 22nd in 2015 and 30th in 2016.
Ecobags ranked 32nd in the 2019 Deloitte Fast 50.