Updated: Jan 3, 2021
Every day we make choices in our lives that affect our climate, our environment, people’s lives, our oceans and our wildlife. From what we eat or what clothes we buy to what make-up we choose, everything has an impact. It is up to us if that impact is bad or good.
Yes, it takes a little more than just saying no to plastic bags or ditching plastic bottles to be kind to the environment.
No, that does not mean that it is hard or requires major lifestyle changes.
Living a greener life is easier than you think. How? Well, there is actually an eco-friendly more sustainable option for almost all products that you use in your daily life. You just have to look for it, try it out and fall in love with it.
While you are at it, you can save some turtles and some trees as well.
One shop that is offering a great selection of more sustainable, eco-friendly and natural alternatives to products such as make-up, skincare, kitchen items, personal hygiene, swim wear and even jewellery is Unplug.
Located in Bangsar Villager II in Kuala Lumpur, the shop is run by the dynamic and inspiring sister-duo Atiyya and Najmia Zulkarnain. They are driven by their motivation to show the public that being more sustainable does not have to mean being an extreme minimalist or having to go without certain products, it is about alternatives.
You should drop by someday. I am sure, you will find a thing or two that you will want to try out. Just like that, more often than not, you are also supporting local artisans and low-income communities to earn a living.
Before you go through, find out more about Unplug from Atiyya, who sat down with me for an interview.
What inspired you to start this business?
My sister and I always dreamed about starting our own sustainable business but we were not quite sure where to start or what to sell. Then, about five years ago, my sister came back from one of her business trips and showed me Turkish towels.
They are handmade from Turkish cotton which is a premium cotton that is known to have extra-long fibres. These fibres lead to the towels being extra soft and highly absorbent. I was sceptic at first. The towels were so thin, but I rapidly changed my mind after the first use. They are super soft, in fact they are getting softer with every wash, and are of premium quality.
And that was it ….
We found the first product that we believed in because it was made from natural cotton which came from farms that banned harmful chemicals from their fields. It was also produced sustainably and of high quality.
So now that we had our product, we founded the brand Realm and tried to find shops that were aligned with our brand values and core believes. That, however, turned out to be surprisingly difficult. So, we opened our own store.
We could have just opened an online store, but we felt it was important to have a physical store first, where our customers can see the products and learn more about them from our amazing sales people. We think that the human connection between us and our brand is important.
Once we opened the store, we started looking for other brands that would complement our products to expand our shop and turn it into a concept store that offers carefully selected sustainable products.
Is Unplug your full-time job?
I used to work part-time on our business while also working in a digital agency creating brand campaigns for products and companies that I did not connect with. After leaving this agency, I started working full time in our business. Now, both my sister and I dedicate our undivided attention to Unplug – that is when we are not at home with our families.
Tell me about your biggest achievement with this business so far?
My sister and I have achieved a lot in the past few years. Not only have we learned a lot about how to become successful female entrepreneurs who are juggling family and business but also how to grow our business, promote what we believe in, and adapt to a rapidly changing economy.
In terms of growth, for example, we started our business with 11 brands, and we have successfully grown our business to 45 brands as of today. I am confident that our business will grow further.
Even now during this pandemic, we have brands that contact us because they want to become part of our concept store. That gives us the motivation to continue even now during these challenging times in which consumer behaviors are changing even faster than before.
Additionally, when Covid-19 forced us to close our retail business overnight for an indefinite time, we had to find other ways to sell our products. It forced us to be nimble and act fast. Within two weeks, we set up an online store which is becoming more and more successful.
Another highlight for us was when we were invited to share our beliefs during a TED Talk. We believe that small changes in your life can have a great impact on the environment. No need to be extreme. The idea is to find a middle ground between a more sustainable approach to life and the fast-paced consumerism of society.
Just unplug and reflect on it.
What was your biggest challenge so far?
It is safe to say that this year is presenting us with the biggest challenge so far. Everything has changed this year, especially the consumer behavior of our customers. Their spending patterns have changed drastically. We need to study these new trends now in order to adapt our business model.
Another thing that we are dealing with is that Malaysia is big on trends. The concept of shopping and living more sustainably is a rather new idea that is growing slowly.
What are you hoping to achieve in the near future?
Aside from growing the brands that we work with in Unplug we want to design and sell our own sustainable products. Similar to what we did with Realm.
Another dream for us is to find the right strategy to have an omnichannel presence that would allow a wider audience to access our products online whilst still experiencing the benefits of knowledge sharing and human connection offline at our store. We thread carefully as our first pillar is to provide real connection and dialogue in store. We consider this essential.
What product categories are you focusing on and why?
We funded Unplug because we wanted to offer a stressless way to slowly change your lifestyle towards a more sustainable one.
We wanted to show that change can happen in many areas of your home and your daily life including fashion, personal care, accessories, make-up, kitchen and travelling.
There is an eco-swap for almost all consumer products.
Our goal is to offer that.
One way to do that is by looking at our own daily routine and speaking to others. We are constantly identifying new items that use chemicals, are made from single-use plastics or are produced unsustainably.
Then we look for an eco-swap that meets our selection criteria and we try to add the brand to our list of vendors. At the moment, we are looking at Mother & Baby brands for example.
What are your selection criteria for brands that want to be featured in your store?
We are looking for approachable yet sophisticated products that are of high quality. When we look at new brands to be included in our concept store, we apply the following list of criteria:
Preserving traditional skills and handcraft
Positive social impact
All the brands that we work with fulfill some of these criteria. It is not a requirement to be a champion in all of these categories.
Tell me a little about the brands that you have selected so far …
All the brands that we work with have been carefully selected by my sister and myself. They are all owned by inspiring individuals who are offering innovative products that are more sustainable, support communities in need and or offer an eco-friendlier solution to a product that all of us probably have at home. That includes skincare products, kitchen products, fashion items and even furniture.
We are constantly looking for brands that we like to include in our store. Most of the time we look for them online. Other brands actually approach us.
What they all have in common is a strong relationship with us. We believe that is very important to the success of Unplug. In terms of geography, 60% of the brands we work with are local. The other 40% come from Singapore, Greece, Italy, Hong Kong, and New Zealand.
What does zero-waste and sustainability mean to you? How do you integrate both into your lifestyle?
You need to practice what you preach. Step by step we therefore started to swap certain products that we use daily with more sustainable ones. It wasn’t an overnight thing.
It was a gradual process towards a greener and more sustainable lifestyle.
In what areas do you find it challenging to reduce waste? In what areas is it the easiest?
Personally, I find it hard to integrate sustainable products into my outfits. I like fashion and it is often very expensive to change to more sustainable clothing items. Additionally, fashion is very subjective. Often, it the products that you can find are simply not my style.
All other areas are ok. My skincare for example now consists of 100% sustainable products. It feels great and I know what I am doing this for. Eco-swapping, however, is not the only solution. Other ways to reduce my impact on the environment are reusing certain pieces and products longer as well as second hand and donations.
When it comes to our business, we find it challenging to swap our packaging material to 100% sustainable options. This is something we are currently working on. Hopefully, in the near future, we can achieve that – especially now that we are growing our online store.
See, it is that easy!
So let’s all be a little more conscious and environmentally-responsible in the way we consume.