- Isabella Griffiths |
British-made men’s luxury swimwear brand Naeco offers sustainable and stylish beachwear made from recycled ocean plastics, with each pair of Naeco swim shorts made from 15 plastic bottles. The brand was founded by avid kite-surfer and e-commerce and marketing expert Zac Johnson who saw first hand the devastation plastics were causing to the ocean’s ecosystem. Using market leading recycling methods, textile development and research, Naeco has created its own recycled material which is infused with state-of-the-art nano-technology to provide water and stain repellent properties and UV protection. FashionUnited spoke to Johnson about the concept and creation of his brand, the role of the fashion industry in the wider sustainability debate and how his brand is helping to save the oceans, one pair of swim-shorts at a time.
What is the inspiration behind Naeco and the brand’s sustainability efforts?
Four years ago I lived in Bournemouth and was fortunate enough to be self-employed, so when the wind and the weather was good, I could jump on my board and go kitesurfing. I started to realise that there’s tons of plastic washing up on the beach. I’ve got a lot of friends down there, and every time we went out, we were picking up stray plastic and putting it in the recycling bin. But it got to the point where we were filling the recycling bins and we were having to add bags of plastic next to the bins. It was just unbelievable. At the time, the plastics problem wasn’t in the mainstream media and the news so much as it is now, so we thought it was just a problem isolated to Bournemouth. But then we went to the Maldives, and it was the same there. We went to Marrakesh, and it was the same there. We went to different locations kite surfing and realised that this isn’t an isolated issue. This opened my eyes and really got me on the train of trying to reduce plastics. I’m by no means an eco-warrior, but I’ve just got this bugbear about plastics now. We’ve created the problem, but we can tidy it up.
How did you progress from there to launching your own fashion brand?
The product came about because I wanted to create something that went back into the ocean, but in a more positive way. So swim shorts were ideal because we were wearing swim shorts or wetsuits for kitesurfing, and I wasn’t going to make wetsuits, so I thought swim shorts were a good place to start. That’s how I began the manufacturing journey. After experimenting with some shapes and making some adjustments and alterations, I ended up with the product as it is today, and that I was really happy with. There was nothing out there in the market that was doing what Naeco is doing and was sustainable, and very quickly this little passion project of mine became more than a little side line. I put together an e-commerce platform and started to promote them; I was only selling something like 50, 60 units in the beginning. But they all sold really quickly and I ended up getting a waiting list of people who wanted to buy them. The USP behind Naeco is that we create a short that is beach-bar-pool and we are a sustainable alternative within the market sector. There are a few brands doing tailored swim shorts, and they are doing a very good job of it, but we decided to have the sustainability aspect behind it as a point of difference.
Did you have a background in sustainability or manufacturing?
My background is actually e-commerce and marketing; I’ve been in e-commerce for 15 years and worked with brands across fashion and technology. I’ve always been behind the scenes, I’ve always been the guy who got the product, it was finished, and then I put it to market, implement campaigns, increase the awareness. It’s only over the last few years that the journey changed for me, and through starting Naeco I moved into design, manufacturing, production.
Your brand is pitched at the luxury end – is that because the production costs are high(er), or is it because the luxury consumer is more receptive to sustainability issues, with the disposable income to match?
Price point-wise, I never set out to be at a certain level. I just made the product and realised how much it costs to make, and I then outlined a pricing model around that, and that was that. It’s a quality product and it’s guaranteed for five years. So the price point came around purely due to the manufacturing cost. Manufacturing a sustainable product in the UK is expensive, labour is expensive compared to other places where we could manufacture, plus the time requirement - it takes 3 ½ hours to make a pair of shorts because we focus on all the little details, because I’m a bit pedantic like that; every stitch on the product is immaculate. That’s the key to the philosophy behind Naeco – it’s a high-quality product and you’ll buy a pair and want to keep it. It is an antidote to the throw-away mentality of today.
From a consumer point of view, at the luxury end they are experimenting a little bit more with sustainable purchases, and they do have disposable income that allows them to make those types of purchases. It’s a more considered, informed shopper, I suppose. That’s also why we focused on the male market, which, firstly, is seeing growth, and secondly, as a male consumer myself, I understand my market. Typically male consumers are more brand loyal and don’t buy products quickly and chuck them away again, whereas a lot of women wouldn’t wear the same dress twice. That for me is sustainability – it’s not just sustainably made, but also sustainably kept.
Did you develop the fabrics and the recycling methods or are you utilising existing methods?
When I developed the concept, I started to investigating manufacturing and recycling methods and found that there were procedures in place, but they were very primitive; the fabric wasn’t very soft at all and I hadn’t seen any recycled material that was luxurious and what I would consider to have a high-end finish. Most swimwear is made from polyester, which is made from virgin plastic, whereas our material is made from recycled polyester, RPET, which is made from recycled bottles and plastics. I took the existing technology of recycled RPET, and then I ran that through a few processes internally to soften the fabric and gave it a better feel. One of the key characteristics of our product is just how soft it is, you don’t realise it’s polyester, you’ll think it’s some form of luxury cotton. We are really proud of that and we own that patent for that. In a way we are completing the circle because we have the ability to take plastics from beaches, recycle them, clean them and turn them into fabrics. This year we are actually building a manufacturing plant to do that, we are just deciding on the right location where there is the bulk of the pollution and where we can keep our carbon footprint to a minimum.
What are your main routes to market?
At the moment it’s e-commerce and wholesale, with Amazon and Wolf & Badger currently our main online stockists, in addition to some men’s boutiques in Marlow, Henley, Beaconsfield, those areas. We’re also just in the final stages of conversation with three major luxury UK department stores. It’s difficult for sustainable brands to break into the wholesale sector; you see a lot of sustainable brands selling on an e-commerce platform because cost of manufacturing is high, everything in a sustainable brand is high because you’re paying decent wages, you’re looking after your staff, and the wholesale margins that a lot of department stores and stores generally demand are quite frankly tough for a sustainable brand. I think they are tough for a non-sustainable brand, let alone for a sustainable brand. So we’ve done everything we can to achieve that price point and get us as close as we can to it, so the negotiation part has taken a bit longer. However, this year we will be in some of those department stores, and this will allow our consumers to really feel and touch the product. We’re looking at it as marketing and brand awareness exercise, rather than a sales channel per se.
How do you see the brand evolving?
We’re focused on the swimwear market for the next 18 months or so – we want to really establish that we’re doing this and want to be known for one thing. I’ve seen a number of brands who have diversified too early. We’ve developed other products such as polo shirts, jackets, a whole clothing line; we have a lot of other products within our range that we can produce from our fabric, so within the next 18 months we will see some more products coming through. But for the next few months we will be focusing on the swimwear category with a few more product additions, such as different lengths, colourways and patterns. And one of the most exciting developments for this year is that we have the opportunity to collaborate with some really great brands – which I can’t reveal just yet. That will be great because they create product ranges that we don’t do and that they are good at, but they will be using our fabrics. I get a lot of enquiries from brands about where they can buy our fabrics, and I have to explain that actually, you can’t buy our fabric, we make it. That led us to doing the collaborations. It’s a positive step. The more the fashion industry as a whole wakes to using sustainable textiles, the better, so even if we can just play a small part in that, it’s great.
What’s your view on sustainability and the role the fashion industry plays?
Fashion is a great platform to highlight many issues. We’ve seen the fashion industry highlight racism, bullying, equality - fashion seems to lead the way with that. Maybe it’s because people are more receptive to fashion actually talking about something and putting those campaigns into the mainstream. I think sustainability and fashion are perfectly aligned, because it’s the right platform to speak about it. Not to mention that the fashion industry is one of the most polluting industries in the world, so part of the problem. But if we can start to use sustainable fabrics within the fashion industry, we’re not just talking about it, we’re actually doing something about it. Thankfully we’re starting to see a lot of brands creating sustainable collections, and that’s a step in the right direction. It’s not going to be overnight, but as time progresses and costs of sustainable production and fabrics is coming down, we will see more and more of it. Personally, I think we will see potentially a form of sugar tax on sustainable textiles; so if you’re a non-sustainable brand who wants to use non-sustainable fabrics, you’ll pay higher taxes, and if you use sustainable textiles, you will pay less. That just seems a logical way for the industry to start changing. It has to be a combined effort from government, manufacturers and consumers to challenge the narrative and drive change.
What’s your future outlook for the industry – do you feel optimistic that lasting sustainability can be achieved?
Looking at the new generation of consumers that is coming through – I hate the word, but the millennial customer in particular – they are becoming extremely conscious of where they are buying products from, they are looking at origin, carbon footprint and the consequences of what their purchases mean. I believe the statistics are that something like 75 percent of consumers under 35 are now looking for sustainable purchases, so it plays a massive role. Yes, it’s an uphill battle at times, but at the same time, within the next five to ten years, those consumers will be having the financial backing, with jobs and the disposable income, and they will be taking over from the current consumers, and that’s when we’ll see a massive shift. It’s not going to happen overnight, but if you look back at the last five years and how far the debate and consciousness around sustainability has come, especially in the fashion industry, it’s encouraging. So hopefully in the next five years we will be in an even better position. As consumers demand sustainability, more and more brands will deliver and create sustainable ranges.
Photo credit: Naeco