On the eve of Fairtrade Fortnight, we talk to Josie from Thunderpants about sustainable business, fairtrade, and why the business hasn’t always taken the easy road.
Firstly, tell us a little bit about yourself and Thunderpants?
I started Thunderpants while I was studying fashion and textiles at Nelson Polytech in 1995. I had a desire to produce underwear that was comfortable and long-lasting, but also a bit of fun. Cheeky use of colour and unique prints make our undies a bit more than your average pair of pants! I was also very keen to produce them here and help retain some of our industry knowledge, skills and manufacturing in New Zealand. I started working with my sister Sophie early on. For us, the Thunderpants culture has always been ‘people over profits ‘- but, of course, we still have to run a profitable business to ensure we are here for the long-term.
Sadly, clothing manufacture is pretty rare in New Zealand these days. How have you survived this long?
We’ve been manufacturing our underwear locally for over 20 years. Sadly, we’ve seen the demise of many small operators over the years. We used a different manufacturing plant initially, but very early on we wanted to provide jobs in our town and in the region. We eventually found an outfit in Carterton that was able to meet our quality standards. This business was willing to work with us to develop new ideas and also to accommodate our small runs with a complete cutting and manufacture service. We’ve always considered our manufacturers to be a very integral part of our operation. They have grown with us, taken their requirements into account alongside our own, and have seen us reinvent our business model many times to accommodate change.
What does operating sustainably look like for Thunderpants?
It always comes down to being prepared to move with the times. When we started Thunderpants we didn’t use email, but now we run a solely online business! The move to operating online has made it possible for us to retain the core products being made in New Zealand – with Thunderpants absorbing the costs involved with the supply chain moving to the Fairtrade model, and the manufacturers and our immediate staff earning a living wage or above.
Sometimes, being sustainable means compromise. Considering our supply chain – there might be another option in the wider world, but our first commitment is to New Zealand, and if we can support a New Zealand-based supplier we will. In the case of our fabric, we don’t have a New Zealand option for fabric supply anymore, so we looked to the nearest source – our Australian neighbours. As a result, we get a great product from a supplier committed to ethical and sustainable practices.
In terms of adding new items to our product range, for example, our new bedding range – sometimes there simply is not a New Zealand-made option. This is where we look for an ethically sourced option to provide the New Zealand market with something previously unavailable, which in turn helps us continue manufacturing the bulk of our products in New Zealand.
Sustainability is all about balance and doing the best we can, without going bonkers in the meantime! It is also about the people: we try to keep everyone happy in their Thunderpants. This often involves supporting community-based projects and charities, and being vocal about the issues of inequality that bother our Thunderpants family.
Tell us a little bit about Fairtrade and why this is important to you and as a small business in Martinborough?
Our culture at Thunderpants is based on the education of consumers. We take every opportunity we can to raise the issues around cheap imported clothing. This includes manufacturers that do not have any international certifications and those using sweatshop labour in factories with appalling working conditions.
The issues don’t just apply to clothes manufacture though – it goes right along the supply chain – from the cotton growers right through to the people sewing the clothes. With super-cheap clothes someone will be paying for it in terms of ‘fairness’, and usually in a way that we in New Zealand would find abhorrent.
Over the years, our customer base has grown to appreciate the quality and longevity of our products and it’s enormously satisfying to get the positive feedback from customers, and hear them affirm their decision to buy New Zealand-made quality over cheap imports of dubious origin.
You’ve got Fairtrade certification on the fabric Thunderpants uses. What did that involve?
Applying for Fairtrade certification mainly involves a lot of paperwork, making sure that the audit trail is transparent, and having a supply chain that is willing to be audited on a regular basis. Everyone along the way has to be prepared to follow the rules. Thankfully all that paperwork has paid off as, just last week, we received Fairtrade certification on the fabric Thunderpants uses and we’re really proud and happy about that!
Do you think you would be where you are now without the Martinborough and wider Wairarapa community?
The Martinborough and Wairarapa communities have been very supportive of Thunderpants and, in turn, Thunderpants is happy to support a variety of causes within the community both large and small. In the early stages of the business, it was a huge asset basing ourselves back in our hood, where we grew up as part of the farming community.
The cost of running a business in Martinborough 20 years ago was certainly a lot less than it would have been in the city. I rate these low overheads in the initial stages as part of our success story. We were able to grow our relationships with our suppliers without so much stress on our cash flow.
Another great thing about our small community is the feeling of ownership of our successes. The community takes pride in the things being done well, and everyone truly enjoys seeing local endeavours succeed.
What is your advice to people, companies, and communities looking to become more sustainable?
Being sustainable means being honest about what you do. Keep everything transparent, and be prepared to acknowledge when you didn’t get something quite right. People like to know what’s going on – so whether it’s communicating with your suppliers about when you’re going to pay for something, or keeping your customers updated with new ideas, good communication is essential and an apology can go a long way.
Don’t give up asking for what you need to achieve your goals. We nagged our fabric suppliers for many years before we could persuade them to supply us organic cotton, and then we moved onto the Fairtrade issue. Be prepared to move with the times, and don’t be sucked into needing a whole lot of bells and whistles. Last but certainly not least – keep it simple.
Fairtrade Fortnight is a chance to support farmers and workers, and encourage others to do the same. Find out more at Fairtrade.