Tracy Ruggier was partly aggrieved, partly amused: “I was told repeatedly I’d never make it in business … too emotional, too sensitive, worrying too much about how everyone was doing, and whether they were benefitting fairly.” “Fairness” crops up repeatedly in her conversation, “Why can’t business just be fair? Why can’t we make money, and everyone along the way also benefit?” Naïve? Well, apparently not, because she’s living the dream.
Tracy’s corporate life was long and unfulfilling, and when she, or it, slowly ground to a halt, she moved to what would surely be the caring world of an NGO. Only, it wasn’t. As soon as CSI became the corporate buzz word, money flowed in, and so did greed. She shrugs, “I didn’t belong there either, so I opened my own business from home. Pink Trash – my range of dog’s clothing – was doing well … until the corporates swallowed that niche. Essentially, they killed the CMT industry.”
Tracy’s disillusionment with the corporate steamroller approach, particularly in the clothing and CMT world, was gradually breaking her down. She watched as small business and entrepreneurship was quashed, and quantity and price beat quality and home-grown: “I had to do something I was going to feel good about.” Tracy is vegan, too, so sustainability is always an underlying thread: “I didn’t want to just make money, I wanted to create something which wasn’t over-automated, but rather benefitted many people.”
Tracy watched Chinese imports erode the clothing industry: “I decided to be straightforward – I registered a name called It’s Not Made In China.” She had little idea of what the product would be, but it did have a very visible pair of scissors, so likely to involve the CMT industry.
Over the years, Tracy had worked extensively with creatives, and it had always bothered her that initiates to the art world had no affordable starting point. Artists, water, plastic bottles – how to mesh them? Together, she and husband William, decided to design (and patent) a bottle that resembled a canvas, one on which she could put the artist’s work. Hence the square bottle. But she took it much further.
Where did you get the artwork? “We found one illustrator, and from there on it was word of mouth. Illustrators and artists don’t have a platform to market themselves – so, we said, ‘we’ll give you that, and we’ll take the risk if no one buys a bottle’. We wanted to keep it niche, so we print a minimum run, therefore making it a limited edition bottle. We started holding competitions for illustrators.” Today, they are inundated with designs: “We don’t look at the name or fame of the person who submitted it. We have a little ‘judging’ panel, and we choose what we like.” To date, they have 49 illustrator’s work printed on their bottles.
It’s Not Made In China has some heart-warming stories to tell of illustrators who’ve used this platform to catapult themselves into careers or down paths they’d given up on. For Tracy and William, these stories were what made them feel it was really working. That, together with their hands-on requirement for the water, labelling and bottling plants: “We don’t produce our own water, we go to water plants, see how many people they employ, how automated they are, and if they tick all the boxes, we’re in business.”
But there’s more to their bottled water than artists and water. It’s the bottle. Extrupet contacted Tracy: “They specialise in the recycling of PET plastic bottles. They wanted to congratulate us on our bottles: “Your bottle is see-through – better and less expensive to recycle a clear bottle than to make new bottles – it’s thick, so it won’t ever land up in the ocean – the pickers or informal recyclers get triple the return on money on your bottle than any other. And thirdly, your glue – when you peel off the label the glue comes too – so you’ve this perfectly clear bottle for recycling.” He said, “You don’t know what you’ve created.” Tracy didn’t’, so he explained: “We turn bottles into all sorts of things like fabrics, and we want yours.”
Once Tracy had seen the astonishing recycling work Extrupet was doing, she thought, hey, fashion accessories: “Since I was working with illustrators, why not collaborate with Durban fashion designers.” Tracy approached Amanda Laird-Cherry, who was thrilled with the concept – she’s making the bags. The fabric used to make them is a thicker, felt-like fabric made 100% of recycled bottles; and Holmes Bros, the T-shirts (75% plastic, but feel just like any Tee).
For It’s Not Made In China, their focus is on their bottled water, but they love to explore other concepts. For now, it’s more around marketing and PR, rather than a strong revenue stream. But who knows? They’ve set up an online shop.
For the couple – and all those who are illustrating, bottling, collaborating, recycling, relaunching careers off the back of this – this is the shape of the dream they had. No large corporates, just small outlets passionate about It’s Not Made In China bottled water – “Pofadder, the Karoo, little dorpies are our biggest fans, largest market. We’re giving pickers a job, a life and an income, we’re recycling everything back into whatever we can, and we’re recycling the bottle pre-form. Our customers re-use our bottles over and over. We know this because they tell us. They do this because they like our bottles.”
And it’s (definitely) not made in China.