Sisters Najmia and Atiyya Zulkarnain started their entrepreneurial journey with a lifestyle brand called Real.m which deals with fabrics. It was then that they discovered the ecological impact of the conventional cotton production industry.
As soon as they realized this, they decided that it was necessary to find sustainable and ethical production alternatives. With this, the UNPLUG Foundation was born.
UNPLUG is a sustainable retail and e-commerce start-up based in Kuala Lumpur with a retail store in Bangsar Village II. Just like with Real.m, the sisters aim to offer eco-friendly alternatives for products ranging from clothing to personal care and home products through UNPLUG.
“We created UNPLUG with two goals,” Najmia explained. “First, it’s about addressing the need for small, ethical and eco-friendly brands to find a retail business platform to promote their products with sustainability as a key value. Second, it’s about providing a space where people can easily find sustainable products. »
Inspirational local brands
With local brands including but not limited to menstrual health brand Bobble, social enterprise selling personal care products Mangosteen, and beauty and skincare brand Glow & Blush, it is clear that UNPLUG is a friendly space for Malaysian entrepreneurs. That being said, it also offers global brands.
According to Najmia, 69% of the brands they currently offer are local brands. It has increased since the pandemic, when local support became particularly crucial.
“To date, I observe that global brands are generally more adhering to sustainable practices,” Najmia explained. “Malaysia is very new in its move towards sustainable consumption and production in retail. Infrastructure, knowledge support, supply and demand are not yet fully available. »
However, she also said things are happening locally. It will take more support from all levels of society, but she expressed optimism about the future of sustainability in Malaysia.
For aspiring entrepreneurs looking to join the bandwagon, one gap Najmia has observed in the market relates to products suitable for market men. Maybe that could spark some inspiration.
Respect the metrics
UNPLUG takes sustainability very seriously. Just look at their eight metrics, which are:
- Environmentally friendly materials;
- Environmentally friendly packaging;
- Sustainable purchasing and processes;
- social impact;
- Fair trade;
- Zero waste innovation;
- Preserve traditional know-how;
- Local manufacturing.
To make it onto UNPLUG, brands must meet at least two of the sustainable metrics. The brand recognizes that the small size of many of the brands it works with means that it takes heavy resources as well as research and development to achieve the eight metrics.
So two metrics are a reasonable starting point.
In cases where brands do not meet the parameters, UNPLUG should refuse them, which they have often done in the past.
“If we come across a brand that has the potential to grow commercially and in their sustainable approach, we take the opportunity to work with them as it gives both of us time to grow in the region,” Najmia added. .
But recently there has been a phenomenon called greenwashing, whereby organizations have attempted to deceptively market their brands as environmentally friendly in order to attract consumers.
Najmia is aware of this and wary of it, which is why the UNPLUG team takes care to understand the scale, the context, the process and the people behind the company it integrates.
“Before onboarding brands, we do a few meetings to understand the brand, owner and product line,” Najmia said. “We also have to physically see the products, because quality and design are important.”
This helps Najmia find that smaller independent brands are generally more transparent with their goals and intentions.
Lean and Green Operations
Internally, UNPLUG has also implemented measures to maintain its own green operations. Since the company does not manufacture its own products, it focuses on improving general waste management.
According to Najmia, UNPLUG does its best to reduce waste in business operations, as well as single-use paper and plastics. All packaging boxes, bubble wrap and bags recovered from products sent to UNPLUG will be kept and reused.
“That’s also why it’s not uncommon for online customers to receive refurbished goods in reusable boxes and bubble wrap,” Najmia explained.
In addition to reused packaging, UNPLUG uses beehive kraft paper packaging and polybags, which are made from polylactic acid. It is a biodegradable, carbon neutral and even edible alternative.
UNPLUG also does not print receipts in stores, but rather offers digital receipts. Their shipping carbon footprint is also taken into account, planning and capping their restocking shipments with international brands at an average of twice a year.
Culture of overconsumption
UNPLUG is defined as the antithesis of mass production and overconsumption. So what is the brand doing differently from other stores to go against the grain?
“When we think about overconsumption, it’s important to note scale and context,” Najmia began. “At UNPLUG, all the brands we offer are small and independent. This also means that their stock level is extremely lean. We do not work with the seasons or follow market trends to increase the flow of sales and purchases.
Besides just being a place that sells eco-friendly alternatives to everyday products, UNPLUG also aims to educate shoppers about its sustainable measures and encourage shoppers to take the time and buy better. Buying better means buying less in the long run due to superior quality and durability.
Najmia personally believes that it is the responsibility of every individual to be informed and aware of their own habits and impacts, instead of falling into trends and norms dictated by popular culture.
“We are not in an anti-consumption campaign,” recalled Najmia. “On the contrary, we want to stimulate sustainable and responsible consumption and production in our role as gatekeepers between producers and consumers. We can filter based on the values we believe in.
Connected to the future
Currently, UNPLUG is rebuilding its foundations, which have been affected by the pandemic.
“We are starting from scratch after the pandemic and we still don’t know what will happen in the next few months,” Najmia explained.
So far, some of that rebuilding involves pop-up events and other activities beyond retail. Once the basics are back in place, Najmia plans to develop an UNPLUG experiential store and expand the brand’s presence nationally and beyond.
Najmia believes Malaysians are now more aware of the environmental and social challenges facing the retail supply chain, but there is still work to be done.
For example, many people often take at face value that sustainable products mean sustainable materials and workmanship. She thinks it will take longer to unpack this, although she is happy to see at least more people taking action.
“Ultimately, UNPLUG is at the service of supporting small, independent businesses making big strides in a tough space,” Najmia concluded.
“The impacts of mass production have cost us too much and created a profit driven model at the expense of people and the environment. We need to slow down and redistribute power and wealth.
While this is a much bigger problem that UNPLUG cannot tackle on its own, the brand seems to be focused on what can be done, providing a platform for willing consumers to do better. choice.
- Learn more about UNPLUG here.
- Read other articles we’ve written about Malaysian startups here.
Featured Image Credit: UNPLUG founders, sisters Najmia Zulkarnain (left) and Attiya Zulkarnain (right) with their older sister Naadira Zulkarnain (middle) with whom they founded Real.m