We recently caught up with Old Viking and Ecopreneur Ralph Burrows (OV 19O) about his successful eco-clothing business Eco Kaila and how he got started.
Hi Ralph, can you tell us a bit about your time at Shiplake?
I joined Shiplake in Year 7 and stayed until Sixth Form, where I then moved to Henley College as I specifically wanted to study creative media production, which wasn’t something Shiplake offered at the time. Whilst studying at Shiplake I also enjoyed rowing in various countries around Europe, playing rugby, and the numerous school trip opportunities, like Flaine, where I learned to ski for the first time with my friends. Shiplake provided a great atmosphere to grow my skill set which I use to build brands.
What's your favourite memory/who was your favourite teacher from Shiplake College?
I couldn’t pick a favourite, but the most inspiring teacher to me was Mr Sharkey [former Head of English].
Tell us more about Eco Kaila and what your business does?
Eco Kaila is a sustainable clothing brand I started during the first lockdown, based in Henley-on-Thames. It is now a multi-award-winning business which has delivered eco-friendly and ethically produced products to thousands of people across 45 different countries in six continents. Our factory is certified carbon neutral by the Carbon Trust, runs exclusively on renewable energy, and makes everything to order, ensuring there is zero wastage. We only use 100% organic cotton that is ethically farmed by fairly paid workers, guaranteed by a GOTS certification, and SA8000 certification. We are audited for a wide range of social and sustainability criteria.
Where did you get the idea for Eco Kaila and how did you go about founding the business?
Whilst I was fortunate enough to still be working during the first lockdown in March, designing websites for small businesses, I did have considerably more time, especially after leaving Henley College to pursue business indefinitely. I’d always wanted to start a product-focused company and although starting a clothing brand is a fairly oversaturated and cliché teenager side-hustle, I thought about building strong foundations, sacrificing early profits, and working with charities and truly ethical suppliers to create a sustainable business as a fun challenge.
Where did the name Eco Kaila come from?
The name Eco Kaila comes from the Hawaiian word ‘Ka(i)-la’, meaning ‘Style’. Eco Kaila is sustainable style that doesn’t cost the earth.
What's your favourite product that you sell and why?
My favourite piece of clothing would be the ‘Ordinary People will Save the World’ hoodie, which seems to resonate with a lot of people. I came up with the phrase and had the design ready quite quickly, so it was a very spur-of-the-moment addition to a new slogan collection I had been working on. Outside of clothing, my favourite product would be the 1000-piece organic jigsaw puzzles, which are really fun to make. Customers love designing their own puzzles as gifts, which is an option I added recently.
Why do you feel so passionate about sustainability and ensuring the business is carbon neutral?
With the data we have available now, brands need to be aware of their environmental impact. Initially, I added sustainability to the criteria of the brand as a general challenge. Whilst I was interested in climate change, it wasn’t something I had deeply researched previously. Having now witnessed the positive impact a small brand can have, it has really encouraged me to build a community around sustainable practices. The BBC reached out to me to talk on the topic of bigger businesses switching to ethical practices, and this was a huge eye-opener for many listeners learning about the detrimental effects the fashion industry has on our planet. It produces more CO2 than shipping and aviation combined, and 99% of it ends up in landfill. Eco Kaila is the 1% that doesn’t. All our clothes are designed to be returned once worn out, allowing us to recycle the materials into something new. This is done via a QR code on the inside of each product. Returning is free for the consumer, and they receive store credit to buy something new. This creates the perfect circular economy. If all fashion companies implemented Eco Kaila’s model, 10% of the globe's carbon emissions would be eliminated.
What are your thoughts on 'fast fashion'?
Everyone on the planet wears some form of clothing, but unfortunately the majority of it is produced in unsafe, unethical, and unmonitored environments. Fast fashion is the model of rapidly manufacturing inexpensive items to meet the latest trends, often at the cost of quality and sustainability. This will typically be at the expense of underpaid overseas workers. Often brands may use deceptive ‘greenwashing’ tactics to falsely appear as eco-friendly, but lack transparency on their supply chains and will have no actual ethical certifications. Whilst it is harder for large and established fashion brands to transition to ethical practices compared to a new company starting with sustainable foundations, it is important to acknowledge when they are going in the right direction.
How did the link up with Alice Oseman and the Heartstopper Loveless clothing come about?
The idea came after one of my best friends, who also went to Shiplake, told me he had read her books, and at the time I was looking to do something for charity. Seeing an opportunity to create something beneficial for all parties, I contacted her team to see if she would be interested in collaborating to raise money for a good cause. She suggested the charity Not a Phase, and we proceeded with negotiations on licensing agreements for her illustrations. She has an instantly recognisable design style and a strong fan base, so when we announced the limited release of 1,000 t-shirts, we sold out in under an hour. The Instagram post received over 450,000 likes, and so we decided to release more t-shirts raising almost £30,000 for the charity.
Tell us more about the charity Not a Phase, that proceeds from the Heartstopper t-shirts went to?
Not a Phase is a trans-led, grassroots charity committed to uplifting and improving the lives of trans+ adults, through awareness campaigning, social projects and funding trans+ lead initiatives. Alice’s books focus on the many adversities young people face in the modern world, and so this was a charity that her team suggested would resonate with some of her audience. 100% of profits from the collaboration went to the charity, which they used to create free fitness, wellbeing and self-defence programmes designed specifically for trans+ people, as well as providing social events to help combat the statistically proven increased isolation and loneliness felt by those in the community. The charity also uses the funds to provide financial support and mentorship to trans+ lead initiatives in the UK, helping to boost the economy.
What advice would you give to someone thinking about setting up their own business?
Doing something you love is the most important thing when considering starting a business. People can tell when you’re passionate about what you do, and it can make the journey much more enjoyable. There will be a million inevitable setbacks and mistakes, so having a genuine interest will help propel your progress through those challenging times. I was tentative about sharing the brand with my friends at the start in case it failed, but the encouragement and local promotion led to early opportunities which I’m very thankful for.
Where do you see Eco Kaila going in the short- and long-term?
In the short term, Eco Kaila’s online studio platform now enables businesses of any size to create their own affordable custom sustainable clothing, with no minimum order quantities. This open-access approach will hopefully make a difference in reducing the carbon impact of corporations across the UK, Europe, and the US. Longer-term we have several charity partnerships in the works, which will hopefully drive further change for various causes. In the future, the brand will hopefully expand into a sustainability hub where eco-content is accessible to everyone.
We hear you're also an On-Call Firefighter at Henley Fire Station - what attracted you to do this and what does it entail?
Yes, I started as an on-call firefighter for Henley in June. My friend actually convinced me to visit the station, and after giving the initial tests a go I realised I’d really enjoyed it. Getting out of my comfort zone every week is exciting, and it breaks up a long day when there are a few callouts. If you love learning useful skills and want a group of lifetime friends after leaving school, I’d definitely recommend it. As well as fighting fires we’re also involved in community engagement, provide medical assistance at various incidents, and are the rescue component at Road Traffic Collisions amongst many other things. Being in the fire service has also allowed me to gain valuable certifications across a diverse range of subjects.
What does the future hold for you?
A lot of exciting things are coming to fruition with Eco Kaila, and outside of that I’ve been very lucky with the investment opportunities presented to me. I decided to continue with independent learning and have completed various marketing, accounting, and software courses, and if things go well, I’d like to explore sustainability-focused micro-private equity in the future. I currently own a stake in clothing brands such as Aéropostale Europe and A Better Life Exists, which I am looking forward to help grow over the coming years.
We'd like to thank Ralph for his wonderful contribution and wish him all the very best in his future business endeavours.
To find out more about Eco Kaila visit the website - Eco Kaila