Building of the week – Rapanui’s t-shirt factory

A few weeks ago I received a email from the clothing company Rapanui, informing me that because they had opened their own factory, they were reducing their t-shirt prices. What’s interesting is that where most people drive down prices by opening factories overseas, Rapanui have done the globalisation thing in reverse and opened a site on the Isle of Wight.

The new facility is in a re-purposed warehouse that used to belong to a ship-building company. They went bust in the 80s and the site has been largely unused since, scheduled for demolition for 15 years. It’s now found a new lease of life as a t-shirt finishing factory. The shirts themselves are still made in India in a wind-powered Fairwear factory, and then they’re finished and screen-printed to order in Cowes.

rapanui factory

The factory is powered by renewable energy and makes good use of natural light. Cleverly, the heat from the print driers is captured and piped into the office areas, reducing the need for heating. (It’s not an environmental feature, but as you might expect, it also has a skate ramp on the factory floor.) Like Hiut Jeans in Cardigan, creating jobs for unemployed local people is part of the plan, and I imagine it’s a fun place to work. There will also be start-up incubation space, and a number of small businesses have already spun out from Rapanui’s free entreprenuial support.

rapanui factory inside

The new factory development is par for the course for Rapanui. They’re one of the few clothing companies that pursues both sustainability and social justice, and one of two I know (the other is Patagonia) that tells customers not to buy things they don’t need. Their full traceability is, as far as I know, entirely unique. So is the fact that they will pay you for your worn-out Rapanui clothing if you return it to them when you’re done, part of their circular economy thinking.

In case you’re wondering, no, I’m not on commission. But I do happen to be wearing one of their shirts today.

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2 Comments on “Building of the week – Rapanui’s t-shirt factory”

  1. Tegan Tallullah July 14, 2014 at 10:45 pm #

    Wow, that’s how it should be done. It’s so relieving to know some companies don’t mind swimming against the tide. I wonder why they still manufacture the unfinished tshirts in India… Because it’s cheaper, or because they want to provide jobs for Indian people. If it’s still cheaper even though it’s a fairtrade factory, then why so? Sounds like a brilliant and ethical company, I’m just curious.

    • Jeremy Williams July 15, 2014 at 10:23 am #

      I’m guessing it’s because it’s at the actual manufacturing level that you need a major operation, a big factory and lots of workers – and if you did that in the UK you’d be paying higher wages and making much more expensive clothes. It’s quite possible to do it in India, pay a decent wage and provide great working conditions, and create something much more affordable.

      Fairtrade doesn’t need to be expensive. It’s the corporate push for ever greater savings without asking where they come from that ends up with sweatshop conditions. The fraction of an item’s cost that goes to the worker is so small that you can increase it substantially without raising the price the customer pays – as long as you’re not obsessed with maximising profit above everything else.

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