First of all, give us your elevator pitch for Zerobag.
Zerobag is a New Zealand-owned company started 10 years ago that specialises in locally designed, high-quality, long-life reusable bags. We’ve got two ranges: one made in New Zealand from upcycled parachutes, and one launched last year made offshore from certified recycled plastic bottle material.
What were you doing in 2009 prior to starting Zerobag?
Kind of still what I’m doing now! My background’s in architecture and in 2009 I was in London working for quite a large architecture company.
We’ve fitted out a new space now so that my architecture studio is out the front and Zerobag is located out the back. Perrin [Jones], my business partner, his day-to-day business is next door, so we’ve consolidated everyone into one space.
So what was it that sparked the idea for Zerobag? What was your lightbulb moment?
The idea first sparked when I was living in Melbourne and our flat had a cupboard just filled with 30 or 40 of those polypropylene bags, like the ones you get at Countdown. Then when I was living in London the same thing started to happen. So I tried to find an alternative and went on the hunt for a reusable bag I could carry around while commuting on the Tube. But I couldn’t find anything that suited my requirements: something that was small, compact, strong, and not necessarily targeted to the feminine market (ie: floral designs all over it). Then, after a chance conversation with a friend in France about reusable bags and skydiving, the idea that we could fashion bags out of parachutes sort of grew from there.
And how did you go about making that idea into a reality?
I came back to New Zealand for a friend’s wedding with the intention of going back to Europe. But when I was here, the couple whose wedding it was actually asked me to design a house for them. [From that point on] I started having all this architecture work just land on my lap within a short space of time. So I started my architecture practice organically as I started working on prototypes for Zerobag, which was really just a side hustle at the time.
We started going around New Zealand sourcing parachutes from skydive centres. Parachutes have about 300-400 commercial jumps in them before they fail their safety rating. So to save them going to landfill we take them and repurpose them into original Zerobags.
Why did you decide to launch Zerobag 2.0, which is made from recycled plastic bottles?
As the years went by, demand for the product started to outstrip the available supply of parachutes. [So about two years ago] we embarked on upscaling and moving into mass production of Zerobag 2.0. We were very adamant it would maintain the same ethics and quality as the original even though it would be produced at a mass scale.
We spent a lot of time refining the design to get really high yields and produce as little waste as possible. We also spent a lot of time visiting manufacturers in China to make sure we were dealing with the right type of people, as well as background checking the certifications they had in place. So even though we had eight years of knowledge and experience to draw on with the original Zerobag, it still took us 10-11 months to finalise production. Then when we were about halfway there, the supermarkets started talking about a plastic bag ban, so we thought ‘right, we better get a hurry on’. We finally launched Zerobag 2.0 at the end of July last year.
I can imagine the plastic bag ban served as a huge push for you guys.
In the last 12 months, we’ve seen quite rapid growth and we’re slowly scaling towards launching into Australia, hopefully, later in the year. Foodstuffs caught wind of us and [our products are now available in] New World supermarkets and boutique Fresh Collectives and Four Squares. [We’ve also had] growth with online sales and corporate branding.
I understand the original Zerobag is still handmade in Canterbury?
Yep, we have a seamstress who’s got her own set-up out on a farm in Kaiapoi. She’s worked for some pretty well-known labels like NOM*d and a few other high-end fashion brands, so she’s pretty clever at what she does.
Last week, we grabbed some parachutes from Wanaka so those will be stripped and sent to her to be hand-cut and assembled.
What about Zerobag 2.0?
The material we use for Zerobag 2.0 is made from 100% certified recycled plastic bottles (rPET). Basically, 1.5-litre clear plastic water or soda bottles are sent to a large recycling outfit in China where they’re crushed into a flake. That goes through a process to be made into a yarn [which is then] turned into a series of materials. That textile is then sent to our manufacturers who cut the bag patterns, which are designed to create about 87% yield now [in an effort to be] minimum waste. Those are then sewed into bags and sent to us here.
We tried looking at manufacturing in New Zealand, but manufacturing at scale here is too difficult. We tried looking everywhere but China – I really wanted to avoid it – but by the time we got to China, we realised they were the most efficient and easy to deal with.
What makes Zerobag different from other shopping bags? What’s the incentive for consumers to use one of your bags instead of regular fabric tote bags or polypropylene bags you get at supermarkets?
They’re not just a bag you use to go to the supermarket with. They’re a bag you can use to travel with to the beach, to kids’ sports game etc. It’s just a general bag that’s relatively large in volume, easily washable, super lightweight, but also massively strong. They also fold into themselves so they don’t have any other pouches. You basically just have to tuck it in like a sleeping bag with a ‘pillowcase’ that you chuck over the top so you can put it in your pocket or your bag.
We want to make sure that [what we make] is a quality product, not just some cheap piece of crap that’s only going to last a year… A lot of people who bought the original Zerobag 10 years ago are still using them, and depending on how you use them, you should get anywhere between six to 10 years of use.
What’s been your biggest challenge so far?
Because we’re a growing small business that started as a side hustle there are challenges every week, from finding your position in the market to maintaining quality control when you’re dealing with offshore manufacturing at scale. It’s hard to nail down one challenge in particular, but I guess the biggest one is adapting to scaling into a legitimate business maintaining breakeven.
Finally, what plans do you have for the next year?
We’d like to increase our online presence globally. We’re talking to logistics companies about how we can manage that alongside how we can deal with moving into Australia.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.