Greenhouse Pioneer: Rob Drake-Knight, Rapanui


Brothers Rob and Mart set up the ethical clothing brand Rapanui in 2008 with just £200 worth of savings, inspired by surfing and the changing environment on the Isle of Wight.

Since then they have carved out a worthy place on the sustainability scene, winning awards too numerous to mention and being touted by Richard Branson who said “Rapanui are in my list of the top 50 global eco companies.”

Rob and Matt of RapanuiWe love Rapanui‘s designs and the ethos behind them. Every product is made from organic or recycled materials in an ethically accredited, wind powered factory. They are made using cutting-edge low waste printing technology and ‘incentivised material recovery’, which means every Rapanui product has a value that can be recovered at the end of its life, by freeposting it back, even with your custom print on it.

And, as you’d expect from Fairtrade Pioneers, you can trace the origins of everything they make, from seed to shop. As part of the Fairwear Foundation audit, their main supply chain ensures consistent wage policy and also bans the use of poisonous chemicals that can severely damage the health of farmers and their families.

We originally interviewed Rob and Mart in 2010 and we recently caught up with Rob to find out how Rapanui has moved on in the past five years. Here’s what he said :

What motivates you?

Mostly the excitement and satisfaction of solving problems. As we’ve grown it’s been watching the business, our customers and our staff grow. As a bigger business it’s great to have the resources and people around to solve bigger problems, make better products and create more powerful innovation. If it’s not improving or changing, I wouldn’t find it interesting or worthwhile.

What is your greatest achievement to date?

Probably surviving.

What are the challenges you face?

Mostly it’s finding our way through the maze of growing a bigger firm. We know we have the innovation and solutions, but balancing our growth and the financial side of it is quite tough. One minute you need to up the sales, next minute you need to find some money for a new piece of equipment.

It would be easy if we wanted to just chill and not grow, but Rapanui is about change. We believe the company makes products a better way: positive change is linked to our scale, so we want to see it grow as big as possible. We’ve got a great team so they make it easier for us.

What are you working on that’s getting you fired up and excited?

Ranapui labelWe have loads of cool technology to do with t-shirt manufacturing, the Internet of things, factory automation and a different type of ink printing system that are all coming online right now.

We’ve been developing more technology to reduce waste, speed up product development and make our manufacturing more efficient and modern. It means that we can compete with the fashion market despite our slightly higher unit costs that come with all the organic/ethical commitments we have. We’re also working on some new fabrics that are awesome and help us with our scheme to take back products at the end of life.

Where do you want to take Rapanui next?

The last five years we’ve learned a lot. Now it’s about trying to put it all into practise and not fail at success. If we continue on our current trajectory, we’d be very happy. I would like to see us bring our newer fabrics and products to market and have them perform well against the normal mass-produced stuff out there already. I am most looking forward to the new ideas that we haven’t had yet.

What can we, as individuals, do to make a difference?

Rapanui model on beachI don’t think the consumer has a ‘duty’ or needs to feel guilt about buying their food, fashion and all the rest. You don’t need to do anything different, just take responsibility for yourself. It’s not that people don’t care, it’s just that they don’t know.

If it was easier for people to find out where their stuff comes from, how it’s made and who makes it, I believe people would make different choices.

We tested this over a number of years with our ecolabel. When present, we sold more of the ‘really eco’ stuff than not, even though the prices were a little different. The consumer behaviour isn’t bad, it’s a great thing: a really powerful force. We just need to point it in the right direction.

If you were Prime Minister for a day, what would you do?

Make ecolabelling independent and mandatory. Tax breaks for more sustainable companies (like VAT relief on babywear). Change planning laws for renewable energy. Invest trident money in an offshore renewable energy industry.

What’s the coolest project you’ve come across?

One of our IT apprentices graduated recently and is now full time. As part of his training, he made this little thing called T-shirt please that connects Twitter, a raspberry Pi and our factory. You can tweet any photo to @tshirtplease and we’ll tweet it back on a t-shirt for you to save, share or shop. It’s a little nerdy but I love it.

It’s inspiring that Rapanui isn’t just Mart & I any more, that these guys go home and think about it and come in and try and improve it. It’s humbling and awesome to share that connection with other likeminded people.

Tweet tshirtplease banner

Can you recommend a life-changing book for our readers?

Failure Is Not An Option is good. It’s about NASA in the early days, very similar to a sustainability / values based place. It’s very can-do, and we have the same practical, committed style at Rapanui.

I like reading autobiographies – it helps keep things in perspective. After that I just smash about 10 Wikipedia pages a day. I don’t have a TV and I think wiki is top banana.

What do you listen to when you’re cooking dinner?

I must admit my girlfriend is pretty good at cooking and I normally do a little work in the evenings, so mostly just listen to her pottering about. She makes the best chicken pie in the world. If the tunes are on it’s either the Chillis older albums, or on the factory floor the lads crack out the Rapanui fruitbowl megamix.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?

Rapaniu model by oceanSomeone did say once that we’ll overestimate what you will achieve in one year, but underestimate what you will achieve in five. It came true.

I guess I think advice in general is a bit meh. I find that if you need advice, try getting all the information in front of you first: the decisions are normally obvious when you have. It’s impossible to make a choice without the right data.

Whatever decision, if it doesn’t work, you learn from it and change. And trust your feelings.

Can you leave us with who’d be your Eco Hero?

Attenborough. The guy is a warrior.

Visit Rapanui’s website to see their latest ranges and follow them on Twitter and Facebook for regular updates.