Two South African fashion businesses reveal the cost of sustainability

Nuun Concepts Biodegradable mailer | Supplied

Through pollution, water waste, and CO2 emissions, fashion contributes heavily to the urgent global challenge of climate change. While responsibility for getting the industry here is not equally shared, the work it will take to mitigate its effects must be much more widely distributed.

It is a challenging but worthwhile exercise, as illustrated by Best Jewellery's Rebecca Scher and Nuun Concepts' mother-son duo, Zainab & Shaheed Martin. Both based in Cape Town, these brands expect the strides they have made in curbing their impact on the environment to pay off.

Best hollow hoop earrings and scrunchies | Best blog

Founded in July 2019, Best specialises in chunky, hollow hoop earring styles in gold vermeil and recycled sterling silver. Their sustainability efforts are part of 'Responsibly Best,' a set of manufacturing standards and practices meant to ensure that Best's jewellery does the most good and least harm possible. In 2021, quality and standards were raised significantly when the business moved production to a new partner, a member of the Responsible Jewellery Council. A former manufacturer for Pandora, Best's new partner also complies with the EU's REACH guidelines on production safety, allowing the brand to launch in 13 European countries in March.

Shaheed & Zainab Martin, co-founders of Nuun Concepts | Supplied

At Nuun Concepts, what started as a research project following community demand for Zainab Martin's homemade linen abayas is now a small, conceptual, made-to-order product range with a mixed B2B/B2C model. Nuun's foundational staple is a crew neck tee made up of 35% bio/organic cotton and 65% post-consumer rPET — approximately six 500ml water bottles — but their most interesting plastic solution products aren't clothes. They're packaging materials, developed alongside a manufacturer. Nuun's 100% biodegradable mailer is an opaque white flyer bag that's waterproof, reusable, non-toxic, and biodegradable, not just in industrial composting settings but in home gardens as well. Their poly bag goes a step further: developed from pvoh/pva, a biodegradable plastic, the carbon negative poly bag dissolves in water at a temperature of 70°C. Both are for sale to fellow independent brands, along with branding-ready tees.

Rebecca Scher, founder of Best | Best blog

Recycled metals at Best

For Best creative director Rebecca Scher, a former architect, the problem first showed up in sampling. "We got some stock from a manufacturer in India... there was back and forth, and the stock came and there were a lot of defective items, and my heart, like crashed and I thought, maybe this was just a bad idea, we should not do this," says Rebecca. "I was very lucky, the manufacturers were happy to work with me, take back the stock and redo and fix the defective items. But a part of me was like now you've got 200 of each style that has come, is defective, and it's being sent back and now it's just gonna be left and abandoned. That goes against my sustainability values... what else can we do?"

Recycled materials from closed loop systems seemed to be the answer: "There's a new wave of manufacturers who are slowly adapting to have recycled jewellery," Scher explained. As is often the case in manufacturing, a simple idea would turn out to be difficult to execute. "That in itself is a very expensive operation, to change your manufacturing line to all recycled; it's a big job, to find the metals that are pure and perfect and don't have irregularities. So I think it's one of those things where if you had if you found a manufacturer who has that ability, then you hit the money. But getting to that stage has been quite hard."

Rebecca decided the switch was worth the difficulty and the profit margin knock when she found a manufacturer that could execute a high quality finish on her designs and was also a member of the Responsible Jewellery Council. The RJC's stringent stamp of approval looks at manufacturers' ethics, staff wellbeing and responsible management of natural resources. The switch meant a 20-30% price increase on some styles, but Best's full jewellery range is now higher quality, recycled, fully recyclable, traceable from mine to market and made in a family-run factory with staff development and wellness programs.

Nuun Concepts biodegradable mailer, water soluble poly bag | Supplied

Nuun Concepts' packaging solution

At Nuun Concepts, the journey began with the brand's own search for low-to-no-harm packaging. The hemp drawstring bags they'd used up to that point would work well enough at brick & mortar retail channels, but e-commerce stockists require poly bags that can sit flat on warehouse shelves, and last-mile logistics would require the plastic mailers popular with couriers. Months into the search, a local supplier with the right material in the right format for fashion products had not emerged so Zainab & Shaheed decided to do it themselves.

"The material existed but the material used in this context wasn’t something that one could easily find," Shaheed explains. "We decided to partner with a company who produces the base material. They reworked the formulae to suit our specific design needs and this is how we became the first in Africa to produce water-soluble packaging [for fashion]. Creating the ‘no plastic’ poly bag and 100% biodegradable mailer ensured that we consider our carbon footprint even when our product leaves our space."

While their initial focus was a fashion packaging solution, the choice to simplify and white-label Nuun's packaging products, now offered with custom printed branding for large orders, opens up the door for a wide range of users. "Once we had the final product we then reworked the concept and reduced it to its simplest form so that it would be flexible enough to be used by different individuals and brands in different manufacturing sectors," says Shaheed. This diversifies Nuun's revenue and increases their solution's accessibility by offering a manageable minimal order quantity of 100 units. "We have kept the price of the product lower than any other product in the same category as accessibility is at the core of what we do. We have worked tirelessly to ensure that smaller brand spaces can afford to be a part of the sustainable conversation."

Both Best & Nuun Concepts' sustainability journeys offer key lessons:

Be prepared for change to take time, and for that time to have a cost.

While the packaging development process at Nuun Concepts required resources, working on it while in research phase allowed the brand to avoid some of the cost that would have been incurred by developing and switching products while operational. At Best, the cost was a three-month search, followed by doubled lead times and waitlists after the pandemic and lockdowns diminished manufacturing capacity. When Rebecca chose not to let delays push her into reordering with the old partner, 2 popular styles stayed out of stock for at least four months. An alternative cashflow solution was found: scrunchies, made in Best's brand colours and to its exacting standards in environmentally responsible silk. At a much lower price point, it didn't replace all lost revenue, but it kept the business moving. "If we can bring scrunchies in, in the next month, and start selling in the next month, that means that we have like three months of an alternative revenue source. I mean, it's not going to be huge, but I didn't employ anyone at the time*, my costs are low. And so we'll hustle it out for the next four months and just sell scrunchies, which was actually quite successful, because it allowed people to start interacting with the brand, and still purchase from Best." Several new customers who bought scrunchie sets at R360 at came back for earrings at over R1000, responding to the brand's colourful, scented packaging, handwritten thank you notes and an online community enamoured with both. In time, Scher's persistence payed off when the new manufacturer took the brand on earlier than scheduled and fast tracked its first order.

Stick to your guns

There were alternative local options for Nuun Concepts, like the biodegradable & home compostable Mielie Mailer (now defunct), but investing in their own solution to meet their standards and then sharing it appears to be the decision with the better potential return. Placing a new order with their old manufacturing partner could have compromised Best, potentially delaying the European launch, pushing them into discounting to move surplus stock, or eroding trust if they were forced to sell product at two different quality standards (the old in South Africa and the new in Europe). Choosing an action and seeing it through, even when faced with challenges, can put less strain on time and resources than several attempts.

Exhaust the solution

Whatever route is chosen, fashion businesses need to push their solutions as far as resources will allow to maximise impact. At Best that meant earrings that were not just recycled, but also fully recyclable. At Nuun, products that biodegrade at home and dissolve without harmful chemical leeching. Options outside product development include repair and return services: In Nigeria, This is Us makes repair, redyeing and end-of-life upcycling returns available for its full range of locally sourced and manufactured indigo-dyed funtua cotton styles.

Treat sustainability efforts like an investment

New fashion brands are entering a market that increasingly sees low-or-no-harm production and distribution as the new standard. Any business being built to sustain itself in the long term needs to build in this direction to avoid a difficult, expensive overhaul as a low-impact approach becomes non-negotiable with consumers. Even while survival is the top priority, having a smaller ship to turn around and much more agility with which to make changes are real advantages. The sooner these advantages are acted on the better, to prevent growth from becoming anchored to an expiring status quo.

*Amended: Best did not have staff at the time of the interview but has since begun hiring.

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