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Kooshoo is one of our favourite brands here at Flora & Fauna. We had the chance to interview founders, Jesse and Rachel and get to know the story behind this incredible brand. Kooshoo makes plastic-free hair ties, headbands and beautiful scrunchies that you'll see most of us wearing in the F&F office on any given day. If you're curious how they came up with the idea to produce plastic-free hair accessories, read on.
When did you start Kooshoo and where did the idea come from?
In 2009 we were living in Vancouver and working great jobs - in design and international business - and it seemed like the next logical step was to save for a house, perhaps even start a family. While that was a linear next step, a part of us felt there were more life experiences still calling. We began saving money and 8 months later gave notice at our jobs and bought one-way tickets to Asia.
We had a strict budget so that we could stretch our money as far as possible - $70 CDN per day for food, accommodation, travel and everything else. The budget allowed us 11 months of overland travel through Asia and the flexibility of a schedule that took us into cities and villages well off the beaten path. It was in a polluted industrial city well off the tourist map where the seeds of what would become KOOSHOO were germinated.
While standing in line for our flight to Banjarmasin on the island of Borneo, a local of the city approached us to ask why we’d ever want to travel there. We were heading to Borneo to visit an orangutan sanctuary and had wrongly assumed that most tourists visited via Banjarmasin (turns out, they fly directly into a village near the sanctuary, but that was much too expensive for our budget so we hadn’t even considered it). It was in chatting with that local that we looked around and realized we were likely the only tourists standing in line to board that particular flight.
That same man ended up taking us under his wing for our visit to his city. He owned a recycling plant and brought us on a tour of his facility, sharing stories about the incredible amounts of waste piling up and deforestation of the jungles around his city. He made clear that much of what was ailing his city was due to industries keeping up with the consumption demands of the West.
We didn’t realize it then but in retrospect that proved to be our ‘aha’ moment. No longer did we view the pollution, garbage and poverty we encountered on our travels as localized issues. Instead, we understood that we, as consumers in the West, were playing a pivotal role in their occurrence and that we needed to become proactive in developing and supporting solutions. We also felt an obligation to dedicate our lives to be a positive force in this world, conscious that if we could create a livelihood doing just, that we would have the biggest impact during our time here.
We spent the next several months ideating on what those solutions could be. KOOSHOO (which means “feeling good”) was what we came up with. It would be proof to the world that beautiful and functional products could be made in a way that uplifts suppliers and cares for our planet.
Was your production always in India or were you hand making them yourselves when you first started? Where does India come in and what role do they play?
When we started KOOSHOO we were living in Vancouver and our goal was to manufacture as close to home as possible. We weren’t makers ourselves so we would design prototypes on paper and work together with local sewers, and later pattern makers, to build prototypes that we would test.
Once we had a series of prototypes we were proud of, we turned our attention to finding materials and the factories necessary to cut, sew and produce those products. To our dismay, we quickly learned that small scale commercial dyeing no longer exists as an industry in Canada and because our products are small, the volume being asked of us by the few dye houses that remain in Canada would have bankrupted us before we even got off the ground.
For this reason, we turned our attention to Los Angeles, a 3-hour flight from Vancouver and the textile capital of North America. It was also a spiritual hub for Rachel as she completed her Kundalini Yoga training there over 8 months during this time. California is also home to more people than Canada so we figured producing in LA would actually create a smaller footprint, making us more local to a larger population.
With prototypes in hand, we spent a full year vetting suppliers - visiting with knitting mills, dye houses, trim producers, packaging printers, cut & sew factories and fulfillment centres. It was tedious and tiring work but as we visited facility after facility, we learned what to watch for in a good partner. Namely: safe and positive working conditions and kind humans we trusted enough to build our dream with.
Seven years later and we’re still working with many of those same suppliers we met in those early days. Some of them have even become like extended family to us.
India entered the KOOSHOO equation in 2019 as a secondary supply chain, with a cut and sew facility that we had dreamt of since the beginning. We had already had an affinity for India as we had spent 3 formative months there on our Asia trip of 2009. During that time, we gained perspective on how we wanted to shape our lives going forward.
Working with a factory in India, do you have any involvement with supporting the community and creating new jobs?
We took 2 years to set up our supply chain in India for the same reason it took so long in Los Angeles: our desire to properly vet every partner we work with. This vetting process included 3 extensive trips, hours and hours of communication and a ton of research.
Number one on our list of priorities when we looked at producing in India was finding facilities that were highly certified. In Los Angeles, we could go door-to-door from our home in Vancouver to our cut and sew facility in Los Angeles in 5 hours. With India, it takes us 24 hours of travel just to get to the same city. For this reason, we knew we would visit less and therefore need 3rd party auditing that would ensure our partners are held accountable to the health and safety standards that are paramount to us.
We looked at all the certifications out there and agreed that fair trade certification was our first priority. Kooshoo means ‘feeling good’ in the Norfolk Island language where we’re from and our mission has always been to uplift and leave every stakeholder - from farmer to sewer to customer - feeling good for working with us. For this reason, finding Fair Trade facilities and farms where employees are paid fairly, work in safe environments and receive health benefits, was critical for us.
To answer your question, we support communities in which our products are made by paying fair trade premiums that are then transferred to employees and their communities. For example, our natural tree rubber is sourced from a fair trade plantation where profits contribute to a free hospital for the community. Another example is with our cut and sew social-good facility where the nuns who own the facility use profits to fund a cancer treatment centre for those without access to care.
How important is it for your products to be made close to home (U.S.A - Canada)?
This is a great question and one we’ve put a lot of thought into.
Way back when KOOSHOO was only just a concept in our minds as we travelled our way across Asia, we made a commitment to stay clear of environments where workers or planet were taken advantage of. After all, it was seeing the consequences of companies doing just that that inspired us into this business.
For the first 6 years of our business, we worked exclusively with our suppliers in Los Angeles. However, as our customer base around the world grew - our production volumes with it - it became clear that to minimize our global shipping footprint, we could do better.
India was already where our organic cotton and natural rubber were grown, harvested and milled into thread, so it made sense that if we wanted to minimize our shipping footprint, we would choose India as our next supply chain hub. This decision was made easier by the fact we had spent 3 months in the country during our year-long travel through Asia, a trip in which we had developed a real affinity with the culture, people and artisanship of the sub-continent.
Our Scrunchies and Hair Ties are now made in a Fairtrade certified cut & sew (the one run by nuns) in the state of Tamil Nadu. Our Fairtrade organic cotton is sourced from a nearby state and milled just down the road from our facility. Our fair trade natural tree rubber is sourced from an FSC certified rubber plantation in the same state of Tamil Nadu. Our GOTS and OEKO-TEX dyes are applied by a dye house 10km from our cut and sew and our recycled paper packaging is also made locally. The net effect is that every single input of our products is grown and sourced from the surrounding regions of our factory and then shipped to hubs around the world where we can distribute the products locally.
Ultimately, moving production of some of our products from North America to India has shrunk our shipping footprint and opened new opportunities for our business. One such opportunity is the margin space that allows us to work with wholesale partners around the world - partners like Flora & Fauna, one of our very first international wholesale partners.
Tell us about the materials used for your products, why are they better than the average scrunchies/hair ties? How is this related to your commitment to the environment and sustainability?
Every other hair tie you’ve ever owned still exists.
Yes, even the ones you had as a child.
This is because every other hair tie in the world is made of either synthetic (AKA plastic) thread, synthetic rubber or both. Synthetic fabrics, such as nylon, acrylic and polyester, are produced entirely from petrochemicals and take hundreds of years to break down and even then, leave micro-plastics in their wake.
Our Organic Hair Ties and Organic Scrunchies, by contrast, are made of just 2 biodegradable materials:
Ultra-soft and smooth organic cotton
Strong and resilient natural tree rubber
We use Fairtrade certified organic cotton in our elastic (70% of the elastic), scrunchie covering, labels and thread. Organic cotton is a material that when left in a composting environment, will biodegrade within a year. Choosing organic is important because conventional cotton is the most chemically sprayed crop on earth; whereas chemical sprays are not allowed on organic crops. Because farmers cannot chemically spray organic crops, techniques like crop rotation, plant diversification and more are needed to create strong yields - all benefits to the environment and the farmer’s community.
We use Fair Rubber Association certified natural tree rubber in our elastics (30% of the elastic) to provide the stretch necessary of a hair accessory. Choosing Fair Rubber is important because the rubber tree plantation is FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certified rubber trees, workers are paid fair wages and prosperity is created in the growing community. The rubber is tapped from a tree, much like maple syrup, and then processed to create rubber thread. The processing requires high heat which effectively lengthens the life of natural rubber so that it can be used commercially. Without this heat, the natural rubber wouldn’t have the strength to be used as an elastic. The flip side of this is the heating process extends the time to biodegradation of natural rubber.
By our estimates, our natural rubber thread will biodegrade in 3-10 years, as compared to hundreds of years for a synthetic rubber thread. It means that while other hair ties will outlive your great-great-great-great-grandchildren, your KOOSHOO hair ties and scrunchies, once disposed of, will be back to earth matter long before you!
Every business has its ups and downs, for those aspiring business owners or those dreaming of launching a business in the near future, can you share some of your wins and some of your struggles?
Our biggest win is that we’re still here, living our dream, getting to connect with incredible human beings around the world 10 years after we first had the idea of going into business together.
Of course, we’ve had our share of struggles along the way. A couple of notable ones that come to mind:
In an email response to our biggest order ever at the time, our cut & sew in LA replied to say they wouldn’t accept the order and would no longer be working with us as they had decided to significantly up their minimums. We had invested so much to find this partner and were completely blindsided by the decision. In the end, we got on a plane and spent an exhausting week in LA meeting with every cut & sew partner we could find, in an effort to find a partner that understood our vision and would grow with us. The search led us to the partner we’re still working with today and taught us a valuable lesson: always have a Plan B.
In 2015 we ran our second crowdfunding campaign, this time to launch our Kids Pants, a product we personally believed was the best product we’d ever designed (they really are!). We had previously run a very successful crowdfunding campaign and fully expected the same result. We had invested all our time, energy and money over the previous months prepping for this launch and expected it to be a hit. For reasons we’re still not sure of today, it wasn’t. We ended up only raising a fraction of our goal and the result made us stop to question everything. The lesson here was to never put all our eggs into one basket.
We have dozens of stories like the ones above but the truth is, every time a major setback occurs, it gets easier to overcome. Our tool bag gets deeper, our skin thicker and our perspective grander. Being an entrepreneur takes an incredible amount of patience, resilience, dedication and energy to get a business off the ground, operating and persevering. If you can do that, you know in your heart that any challenge is really just an opportunity in waiting.
Are there any charities or social movements that Kooshoo supports?
We try to constantly give back however we can.
As we’re a self-funded organization, cash has always been tight so although we’ve given larger amounts to charities that uplift, such as Karma Yoga in Vancouver and Black Health Alliance of Canada, we generally give back the most through product donations.
These product donations are for anything from healthcare workers (we’ve been doing a lot of this recently), community outreach programs, fundraisers and more.
What lessons do you think you can teach your children by owning a sustainable and ethical business?
Our children are 5 and 2 and we talk a lot to them about treating others with the kindness and respect with which they would like to be treated themselves. In a microcosm, this is what our business is all about: treating other humans and our planet with the respect and love they deserve.
Some other lessons that come to mind:
Demonstrating through our actions what it means to be a conscious consumer.
Talking to them about the ripple effects a simple decision can have on the lives of many.
Surrounding them with a community of innovative, caring entrepreneurs and humans that want to contribute positively to this world.
Our eldest is currently in kindergarten here on Norfolk Island with an amazing teacher who happens to also live a plastic-free lifestyle. That our daughter gets to reconcile what she knows about our business with the lessons she’s learning in kindy is an eye-opening and heart-warming experience for us all.