Sisters Najmia and Atiyya Zulkarnain started their entrepreneurial journey with a lifestyle brand called Real.m that deals with fabrics. It was then that they uncovered the ecological impact of the conventional cotton production industry.
Upon realisation, they decided it was necessary to find sustainable and ethical production alternatives. With this, the foundation for UNPLUG was born.
UNPLUG is a sustainable retail and e-commerce startup 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 from apparel to home and personal care products through UNPLUG.
“We created UNPLUG with two objectives,” Najmia explained. “Firstly, it is to cater to the need of smaller ethical and eco-brands in finding a commercial retail platform to promote their products with sustainability as a key value. Secondly, it is to provide a space where people can find sustainable products easily.”
Uplifting homegrown 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’s clear that UNPLUG is a friendly space for Malaysian entrepreneurs. That being said, it also carries global brands.
According to Najmia, 69% of the brands they carry right now are local brands. It has increased since the pandemic, when supporting local became particularly crucial.
“As of today, I do observe that global brands are typically more adherent to sustainable practices,” Najmia shared. “Malaysia is very new in its move towards sustainable consumption and production in tretail. The infrastructure, knowledge support, and supply and demand are still not fully available yet.”
However, she also said that things are shifting locally. It’ll take more support from all levels of society, but she expressed optimism about the future of sustainability in Malaysia.
For aspiring entrepreneurs who want to join the movement, a gap that Najmia has observed in the market are products tailored toward men in the market. Perhaps that could spark some inspiration.
Meeting the metrics
UNPLUG takes sustainability very seriously. Just look at their eight metrics, which are:
- Environmental-friendly materials;
- Environmental-friendly packaging;
- Sustainable procurement and processes;
- Social impact;
- Fair trade;
- Zero-waste innovation;
- Preserving traditional skills;
To make it onto UNPLUG, brands need to meet at least two of the sustainable metrics. The brand acknowledges that the smaller size of many brands they work with means it takes heavy resources as well as research and development to reach all eight metrics.
Thus, two metrics are a reasonable starting point.
In cases where brands don’t meet the metrics, UNPLUG would have to decline them, which they’ve often done in the past.
“If we come across a brand that has the potential to grow commercially and in their sustainable approach, we do take the chance to work with them as it allows us both time to grow in the area,” Najmia added.
But there has been a phenomenon of something called greenwashing lately, whereby organisations have tried to deceptively market their brands as eco-friendly in order to attract consumers.
Najmia is aware and wary of this, which is why the UNPLUG team takes care to understand the scale, background, process, and people behind the business they’re onboarding.
“Before onboarding brands, we do undergo a few meet-ups in understanding the brand, the owner, and the product range,” Najmia said. “We have to physically see the products as well, because the quality and design matter.”
It helps that Najmia finds small independent brands to typically be more transparent with their goals and intentions.
Lean, green operations
Internally, UNPLUG also has measures in place to keep its own operations green. Since the business doesn’t produce its own products, what it focuses on is improving general waste management.
According to Najmia, UNPLUG tries its best to reduce waste in business operations, and single-use paper and plastics. All packaging boxes, bubble wraps, and bags collected from products sent to UNPLUG will be kept and reused.
“This is also why it is not uncommon for online customers to receive goods repackaged in reusable boxes and bubble wraps,” Najmia explained.
Other than reused packaging, UNPLUG uses hive kraft paper wrap and polybags, which are made from polylactic acid. They’re a biodegradable, carbon-neutral, and even edible alternative.
UNPLUG also doesn’t print receipts in stores but instead offers digital ones. Their carbon footprint in terms of shipping is taken into consideration too, by planning and capping their restock shipments with international brands to an average of twice a year.
Culture of overconsumption
UNPLUG calls itself an antithesis of mass production and overconsumption. So, what is the brand doing differently from other stores in order to go against the grain?
“When we think about over-consumption, it is important to note scale and context,” Najmia began. “At UNPLUG, all of the brands we carry are small and independent. This also means, their inventory level is extremely lean. We do not work with seasons or follow market trends to increase the flow of sales and purchases.”
On top of being just a place that sells eco-friendly alternatives to everyday goods, UNPLUG also aims to educate buyers on its sustainable metrics and encourage shoppers to take the time and buy better. Buying better means buying less in the long run because of superior quality and durability.
Najmia personally thinks it’s the responsibility of each individual to be informed and mindful of their own habits and impacts, instead of falling into trends and norms as dictated by popular culture.
“We are not on an anti-consumption campaign,” Najmia reminded. “If anything, we want to stimulate sustainable and responsible consumption and production in our role as gatekeepers between producers and consumers. We get to filter according to the values we believe in.”
Plugged into the future
Currently, UNPLUG is rebuilding its foundation, which was affected by the pandemic.
“We’re starting from scratch post-pandemic and we’re still unsure of what’s to come in the next few months,” Najmia shared.
So far, part of that rebuilding involves pop-up events and other activities beyond retail. Once the building blocks are back in place, Najmia anticipates developing an UNPLUG experiential store and expanding the brand’s presence nationwide and even beyond.
Najmia believes that Malaysians are now more aware of the environmental and social challenges faced in the retail supply chain, but there’s still more work to do.
For instance, many people often take it at face value that sustainable products mean sustainable materials and manufacturing. She believes it’ll take more time to unpack this, though she’s happy to at least see more people taking action.
“At the end of the day, UNPLUG is in the service of supporting small independent businesses who are making big steps in a difficult space,” Najmia concluded.
“The impacts of mass production have cost us too much and have given rise to a profit-driven model at the cost of people and the environment. We need to slow down and re-distribute the power and wealth.”
While that’s a way bigger issue that UNPLUG can’t tackle on its own, the brand seems to be focusing on what can be done—by providing a platform for willing consumers to make better choices.
Featured Image Credit: Founders of UNPLUG, sisters Najmia Zulkarnain (left) and Attiya Zulkarnain (right) with their elder sister Naadira Zulkarnain (middle) with whom they founded Real.m