Dubai entrepreneurs find bamboo t-shirts a good fit in the UAE

For an ethically and environmentally conscious clothing company, launching a philanthropic campaign is a way to kill two birds with one stone: increasing brand recognition and putting core values into practice.

That’s what happened this Ramadan when long-time Dubai residents Matthew King and Aimee Changco organised a gift scheme for low-waged labourers living in a worker’s village in Muhaisnah, in the north of the city.

The entrepreneurs launched their bamboo-fibre T-shirt company Baembu in the summer of 2014, and are careful to ensure every step of the sourcing and manufacturing process takes place in a socially conscious way. Their website contains a blog that keeps customers up to date on various issues to do with ethical consumption, and this July, they used it to launch a call to arms.

They posted instructions on how to turn a shoebox inside out and reconstruct it, and then fill it with presents that could be of use to low-waged migrant workers, who often send the bulk of their earnings to family living abroad. Suggested items were international phone cards, toothbrushes, sachets of electrolyte powder, coffee and tins of tuna.

After sharing the page on social media with the hashtag #ShoeboxLove, the campaign went viral within hours. Just over 600 filled shoeboxes were left at Baembu’s designated drop-off points, and the business duo personally drove them to a mosque, where they watched workers queue up to receive them.

“We want to be able to say that we’re influencers, that we have a positive impact environmentally, sustainably, socially,” Mr King says. The next event the pair are organising is an invite-only screening of the disposable-fashion documentary True Cost, which will happen in late August or September.

Baembu was self-funded by the two partners, and Mr King still works a day job at a digital printing company while Ms Changco advises companies on creative and social media strategy. Its offering at the moment is limited to just plain black and white T-shirts for men and women, sold online at for Dh250 apiece as well as in stores. What sets them apart, Mr King says, is the fabric, which is 70 per cent bamboo fibre and 30 per cent organic cotton, and the fact that the company conforms to high ethical and ecological standards.

Bamboo is a very renewable resource: it’s naturally pest resistant and grows fast, so it doesn’t require fertilisers or pesticides to grow, and to ensure this is the case, the company has chosen a supplier that is accredited by the Soil Association. To turn the bamboo into fibres, the plant is pulped using chemicals: ten years ago, this process generated harmful waste, but now, Mr King says, the production is a “closed loop”. The same chemicals are reused over and over, and very little is released into natural ecosystems.

To turn the fabric into clothing, Baembu use one of a few factories in Turkey, they say, that holds up to the Fairway Foundation and Confidence in Textiles benchmarks, and then appropriate retailers are chosen to sell the finished T-shirts, which are also available online. Their first batch of stock was sold at the Dubai pop-up market Outside The Box in January where they sold out the day before the event ended — much of it to Emirati women looking for a base layer to wear under their abayas. Currently, the T-shirts are stocked at the fitness studio Urban Yoga, and The Change Initiative, the sustainable store in Al Quoz.

The entrepreneurs declined to share investment and profit figures, saying that they didn’t think it would reflect where they would be by the end of the year.

The T-shirts are simple, but they have a few USPs. Firstly, the bamboo-fibre fabric is softer than cotton, it wicks sweat away from the body and it has a “four-way stretch” property that makes it gently follow the wearer’s form without clinging. Then, of course, there’s the story behind the brand. Responsible consumption represents a growing market share, many reports show, including a Boston Consulting Group study last July that showed that ethical products grew about 9 per cent annually in the US during the previous three years.

Tena Pick, a Dubai-based social-impact consultant, says the city is a relatively new market when it comes to truly ethical and sustainable brands. “But both the expat and local communities are looking for ways to vote with their wallet and support brands that are aligned with their personal value systems,” she says, adding that if campaigns such as #ShoeboxLove are considered “an honest and natural extension of the company’s culture” rather than as a photo op, they can be “a great way to spread [the company’s] message to more potential customers.”

Mr King and Ms Changco are confident Baembu lives up to this standard. “Sustainable products are not just a fad,” Mr King adds. ”There is a growing consciousness of all that, and I don’t think it will die.”

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