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Making money from plastic

Jun 14 2018 11:17
Glenneis Kriel

The Joinery, founded by Natalie and Kim Ellis in 2012, is pioneering the production of items made from environmentally friendly and recycled plastic. 

In 2017, their recycled plastic products won the PETCO Award for the best product made using polyethylene terephtlalate (PET), as well as Eco-Logic’s Innovation Award. Natalie Ellis told finweek more about the business.   

Why did you start The Joinery?

My dad, Barry Ellis, used to be an entrepreneur who imported and exported clothing. 

He sold his business and later merged with SA Clothing Industries, resulting in him becoming a managing director in a company manufacturing brands developed for big retail outlets. 

The clothing industry was in its heyday back then and Kim and I spent lots of time in the factory as children, witnessing the extraordinary production process in action, from design to the physical making of the clothes. 

Love for the industry and witnessing first-hand from my dad what can be achieved through hard work, made Kim and I dream of one day starting our own clothing brand. 

This dream got more elaborate after we left school and were exposed to the international sustainable fashion movement while working in London. It was no longer enough to merely have our own business. 

We wanted to establish a brand that would uplift local communities and that was made from environmentally friendly material, such as organic hemp, cotton and Tencel, which is a fabric generated from wood cellulose.

The Joinery was launched with this ideal in 2012, with the product range branching out to recycled plastic fibre products, such as luxury slippers, hats and laptop bags. 

Over time the business turned from a fashion into a lifestyle brand, which was something we never foresaw when we started.

Tell us about the company’s name.

We see The Joinery as a place that links or joins creatives who feel passionate about the earth and want to make a difference in other people’s lives and in their communities.

What did you do before starting the company?

I did a BA honours degree in Fashion Promotion at the London College of Fashion and Kim did Media Studies at the University of Cape Town. 

We spent eight years in London, during which time Kim gained valuable fashion experience working with leading brands such as Burberry and Jimmy Choo. 

My work with NGOs and in the media industry exposed me to fashion eco-warriors like Livia Firth of Eco-Age and Charity Durrant, the former editor of British Vogue. 

Livia, one of my biggest role models, made me more aware of the damage being done to the earth through wastefulness and overconsumption in the fashion industry. 

Durrant taught me to question what is behind a label: the how, why and who produced a specific garment.  

Why did it seem like a good idea to start an ethical fashion brand in 2012?

The ethical and sustainable fashion trend was still in its infancy in SA when Kim and I returned from London, so there was little competition in the market. 

There was also a plethora of highly skilled seamstresses looking for work due to the clothing industry crash caused by cheap clothing imports.    

Where did you get start-up funding?

We put a little money away to help us start our own company during our time in London. 

It was enough to pay for decent fashion shoots, develop our website and cover our costs for the first six or so months. We started small and grew with demand.     

How do you market your produce?    

We started by selling our products online and via markets and friends until we became more established and gained access to boutique shops. 

The incorporation of recycled products in our range attracted many financial institutions and corporate companies, such as Coca-Cola, Spier, Investec and Sabi Sabi, to name a few. 

These companies actively seek us out to design and manufacture all kinds of ethical corporate gifts, and we have found a niche in sustainable promotional products and design for them.

What has been your greatest surprise?

The response from corporate companies. Never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined that we’d be getting phone calls from big company CEOs wanting our advice on ways to improve their corporate sustainable and ethical status.  

What was your greatest challenge so far?

Sourcing organic fibres, as neither cotton nor hemp are produced in SA. Importing also does not feel right as the transportation associated with this drives up the carbon footprint of your products. 

We source most of our hemp from Tony Budden from Hemporium, who has been involved in various hemp research and production trials locally and in other parts of Africa. 

The legalisation of hemp production would be a huge breakthrough for us.  

This challenge, however, had positive spin-offs. It led to our search for alternative fibres and was the main reason we started incorporating recycled plastic fibres in our range. 

So isn’t there a market for organic fibres locally?

We are still manufacturing organic clothing. The market is there and growing, but suppliers need to be innovative in their choice of fibres. 

For new entrants it might make more sense to focus on locally available fibres, such as mohair or wool, than to import organic fabrics. It is also better to collaborate with others in the market than to try and do everything alone.

How are the recycled plastic fibres made?

The fibre is made from recycled plastic bottles. In a nutshell, the bottles are compressed, chipped and then processed into thin fleece-like threads that we send off and spin into the material we want. 

We conceptualised our recycled plastic bottle fibre material into a felt and we use this fabric to make our signature recycled plastic bottle Tote or Shopper bags, stationery, laptop sleeves and a variety of corporate gifts and designs. 

We recycle about 10 000 plastic bottles with every 2 000 shopping bags we produce, which is basically what we do weekly.    

According to the latest statistics of the PET Plastic Recycling Company, PETCO, the local plastic industry recycled a record 2.15bn PET plastic bottles in 2017, creating 64 000 income-generating opportunities for waste pickers, collectors, and recyclers and saving 588 000m3 of landfill space and 139?000 tonnes of carbon in the process. It feels good to be part of this solution. 

How has the business grown since starting out?

The business started as a passion fostered by the hype over ethical and organic products; the idea that we could make a difference in other people’s lives and that consumers through their purchases could steer the clothing manufacturing industry into becoming more environmentally and socially responsible. 

The incorporation of responsible fabrics into our product range has turned this passion into a serious lucrative business. 

When we started out, we sourced our products from one sewing cooperative in the Cape, consisting of seven ladies. The number of people we employ depends on the number of jobs we have, but we now generally employ about 40 people at any given time, including seamstresses, leather artisans and office staff.

Tell us more about these sewing cooperatives.

We outsource production to sewing cooperatives in various townships around Cape Town.

The beauty of the arrangement is that the seamstresses can work from within their own environment, close to home, which means they are there for their children when needed. 

This is extremely important, as many of these women live in gang-ridden areas, such as Manenberg, where their children are at high risk of being exposed to gangsterism. 

These women have established safe sewing cooperatives from where they can work. We’ve also found ways of getting material in and out of these areas when there are high levels of gang activity. 

How do you and your sister resolve conflict?

We are quite similar. But Kim is very good with the business side of things, while I am skilled on the marketing and creative side. In the end, the combination is on the money. When we do have conflict, we usually take it out of the office. 

We’ll go for tea at our favourite places and just use the time to regain perspective.

This article originally appeared in the 21 June edition of finweek. Buy and download the magazine here or subscribe to our newsletter here.

recycling  |  retail  |  entrepreneur
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