NZ Herald - Zerobag

Aaron Jones, founder of Christchurch reusable bag company Zerobag, talks about increased sales following the plastic bag ban and donating to Pacific Island communities for the four-yearly Pacific Island games.

What does your business do?

Zerobag is a local Christchurch-based company that makes reusable bags, not just shopping bags but all purpose bags. We make two ranges of bags - one is made from upcycled parachutes; we take out-of-service parachutes from commercial skydiving operations and make the bags out of material locally in New Zealand, and then we have the version 2.0 which is made offshore for mass production from recycled plastic bottles.

We distribute throughout New Zealand and are starting to roll out to parts of Australia and globally, slowly. We launched the original version of bags 10 years ago, I came up with the idea when I was living in London.

What was the motivation for starting? 

I was on the hunt for a reusable bag I could have in my pocket or satchel and the concept was born about from seeing plastic waste throughout Europe 10 years ago, especially around the streets of London.

I couldn't find a bag that was suitable to my requirements - one that didn't have floral designs or wasn't tailored directly to the feminine market - so I set about to design my own instead. Zerobag was born out of a personal need, really.

I designed it when I was in London and then came back for a friend's wedding and during that time I refined it with a local fashion design company. I just intended to come back to New Zealand for the wedding, I had a Dutch visa to use and a Canadian visa, my background is architecture, so I was working for architects firms in Europe, but the friends' wedding I came back for, they asked me to design their house for them and then one of their neighbours did, then the brother did all within a couple of months so I ended up staying organically and launching both my architecture studio and Zerobag during that year.

Architecture is my main gig, same with my business partner who was actually the friend whose wedding I came back for, he's a wholesale jeweller, he came on board with the business three years ago when we started working on launching the second range.

Recently we consolidated all of our businesses together so now Zerobag, my architecture studio and his studio, so all the people involved in the business are all within a minute walk of each other.

How many people make up the team? 

Two directors, my business partner's wife; she does administration, communications and legal stuff, she's an ex-solicitor. We also have part-timers - a social and digital media manger who works offsite and a couple of communications/graphic design/jack-of-all-trades girls that come in a day a week each and do a mixture of sales, graphic design, social and general bits and pieces.

What is the business focused on achieving this year? 

Currently we're focused on continued growth of the brand and we're working on rolling out into Australia. We've established where both of our products sit in the New Zealand market so we'll get them out to more of those types of stores throughout the country but parallel to that we're working on increasing online sales globally and in physical stores in Australia - we've just finished all of our copyrighting and trade marking there. We hope to be there by the end of the year.

Do you export product to any other markets? 

With online we generally send product anywhere but we currently looking into North America and dealing directly through Amazon, which would be a more stripped-back approach - it's a simple way of entering that market.

New Zealanders are buying the most bags at the moment, followed by Australia and then Mexico, which we're quite surprised about. There's always been quiet a large following in Europe, especially in France, and in Japan.

How many bags is Zerobag selling each week? 

We are on our fourth mass production run for the version two bags. The original Zerobags are still handmade locally in Christchurch but parachute supply is limited which is why we launched version two. Demand for the parachute bags outstrips supply. We get version two bags made in China from a factory we handed picked, the factory also makes a lot of product for Addidas and L'Oreal. Because the business is growing and scaling slowly we started out with an initial run of 10,000 bags and that's doubled, and by the end of the year that is looking to double again.

How has the plastic bag ban effected Zerobags sales? 

Definitely. Retailers have increasingly been buying from us, wanting to make sure they have a range of options, especially the higher-end boutique supermarkets. Initially, when supermarkets announced the ban there was a bit of scramble from a large number of retailers and then again when the ban came into place at the beginning of the month. That and the awareness of plastic pollution, generally interest and demand has been growing in the last three years.

Zerobags recently sent a batch of bags to the South Pacific for the local Olympics games - what was your thinking behind that? 

We just donated 6000 bags to the South Pacific Island Games. One of our last mass productions had a number of bags that had a minor construction flaw - the length of the pocket was 10mm too long, which made it slightly more difficult to open but other than that the bags were perfect, but we couldn't sell them under our strict quality standards so we spent 3-4 months trying to find a Pacific Island community that we could donate them to help with their local plastic waste problems.

After discussing with officials in Rarotonga, we ended up going through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade here and we got in touch with an organisation charged with environmental protection in the South Pacific and they were tasked with helping Samoa produce the first ever plastic-free SPIG so we offered to donate that entire run of rejected stock and our logistics company offered to ship them for free. Because it was a sporting event, the Government was able to waive duties, taxes, everything, so we could get these across for free not costing anyone anything. The bags arrived two weeks ago and the games are underway now.

What advice do you give to others thinking about starting their own business? 

It's really hard to push through a business if you're not massively passionate about it. Make sure whatever you are starting that you are 100 per cent passionate about as when it gets tricky you'll need that, and believe in why you are doing it.

Aaron Jones