Ben Kepes’ quest to return quality, ethical manufacturing to New Zealand
At first glance, you wouldn’t guess that Ben Kepes, co-founder and director of Cactus Outdoor, was a high school dropout.
Son of refugees to New Zealand and expected to follow in his father’s footsteps and study medicine, Ben chose to go against the grain and took on an electrician’s apprenticeship – until he figured out he didn’t like it one bit.
From there, it was going along for the ride with friends Gwilym and Rob as they started Cactus in 1992 as a way for Gwilym to earn extra cash for climbing expeditions through selling chalk bags.
They ended up getting serious and securing a contract with New Zealand Post, creating bags for posties to help carry the load and combat recurring back pain from the job.
They didn’t know it at the time, but 28 years later, Cactus would remain one of the few New Zealand brands that would still be manufacturing in New Zealand, with other companies opting to go overseas to take advantage of cheap labour.
Making high quality gear that “wears in, not out” was only the start in the push to get behind New Zealand’s revitalised apparel manufacturing industry.
An entrepreneur and an ultra-runner, a technology industry analyst and a furniture maker, Ben should be New Zealand’s resident poster boy as the jack of all trades.
It isn’t so much an obsession with the rat race but more so a sheer desire to do everything, to fill his time with things he finds interesting.
Ben strives to make use of his time in ways that are meaningful to him. It’s part of the reason Cactus Outdoor also doubles as a social enterprise, committed to delivering social and environmental, as well as financial, impact.
In July of 2019, it was only the next logical step for Cactus to acquire Albion Clothing, now the largest apparel manufacturer left in New Zealand.
Albion is known for making uniforms for government organisations such as the New Zealand Police, Fire and Emergency New Zealand, and the Defence Force. On top of that, it also manufactures clothes for Kiwi fashion labels, including Cactus.
“About a year ago, we made all our packs inhouse and our clothing through other factories. We realised to continue to remain New Zealand-made we needed to own our own destiny,” Ben says.
“We had to own our own means of production. We acquired Albion with the view of really using this as the lever to rebuild clothing manufacturing in New Zealand.”
COVID-19, more than anything, has brought home the need to retain manufacturing here in Aotearoa.
“Coronavirus has shown it is really important to build some resilience within the economy.
“The fact that we make stuff here means that when the supply chains fall down – as is happening due to coronavirus – that we can still make stuff and our customers still get supplied.”
‘Made of New Zealand’ and the language around deceptive marketing
What’s shocking isn’t that many apparel brands started in New Zealand decided to move offshore – it’s the deceptive marketing practices that companies employ to fool the average consumer into thinking products are still New Zealand-made.
About five years after Cactus Outdoor was founded, many New Zealand companies started to move manufacturing offshore.
When Cactus first started, Kiwi brands like Macpac, Fairydown and Hallmark were all made in Christchurch – a lot of those companies don’t exist anymore, but the ones that do are made overseas in Asia.
“It’s really appalling as a New Zealand-made brand to see packaging that says ‘Made of New Zealand’ on a product that’s made in China,” Ben says.
“For example, a lot of our raw materials come from Asia. No one makes fabric in New Zealand anymore. So, yes, we source some of our raw material offshore, but we like to think we’re open and honest about that.
“In terms of deception, the real risk is that the average consumer goes to a store and takes a look at a product.
“They aren’t aware that ‘Made of New Zealand’ actually means it’s made in a sweatshop in China but with a New Zealand sheep photo on the cover.”
The lack of public awareness remains a huge problem, as many people – believing they’re supporting New Zealand brands – buy products sourced from overseas factories with poor environmental and social standards.
A sustainable circular economy
Especially in these Covid times, we’re used to hearing mantras like ‘shop local’ and ‘support local business’.
What does this actually mean for the local economy and minimising waste in our take-not-make society?
Albion’s factory employs skilled technicians from all over the world – their 100 or so employees hail from over 30 countries. They all work in Christchurch and contribute to the local economy.
It should be a no brainer – when people buy from their own communities, it brings huge benefits to the local economy.
For example, Orion Energy, owned by Christchurch City Council, required high-performance jackets and apparel as its staff was working out in the elements.
Orion chose to obtain supply from Cactus, whose business feeds back into the local economy. By paying real Christchurch residents, Orion is contributing to its own economy.
“We’re really proud of the fact that we have given new New Zealanders a chance to make a life for themselves,” Ben says.
If it was coming from anyone else, it would be easy to say this is a trite throwaway line meant to appease New Zealanders.
Coming from Ben Kepes, though, whose immigrant parents instilled a sense of gratitude and good fortune for living here, it comes across as sincere.
It’s born from the belief that we have accomplished, and will continue to accomplish, good things for people in New Zealand when we put our money where our mouths are and support business here that treat their workers right and provide high quality goods and services.
By Claire Wright