As part of our founder interview series, we speak with Zac Johnson from NAECO about his love of the ocean, and how kite surfing inspired it all.
We love the nod to Poseidon’s trident in your logo! Where did the name NAECO come from?
The brand was always going to be centred around water, I personally love the ocean and spending time in it. I wanted the brand name to be short and catchy so went through many interesting ideas – however NAECO stuck. It is actually OCEAN backwards and this simplicity of our product going back to the ocean really resonated with me and I hope it does with my customers too. Sometimes the simple names are the best! And a brand focussed around the sea… we couldn’t resist the cheeky nod to the god of the sea within the logo.
NAECO creates luxury swimwear out of recycled polyester from discarded plastic bottles. While plastic pollution is a huge issue, why is this cause so close to your heart?
This cause is incredibly close to my heart as I am a kite surfer and scuba diver so spend a massive amount of my down time in the ocean. Over the years I saw more and more plastic in the ocean and it was spoiling the eco system. Did you know that the chances of coral disease goes up from 4% to 87% when we introduce plastics into their eco system? That then effects the fish, water and in turn effects the reduction of carbon dioxide and oxygen creation. We really do need the ocean in order to survive as mankind. Every year, 8 million metric tons of plastic end up in our oceans. It's equivalent to five grocery bags filled with plastic for every foot of coastline in the world. In 2025, the annual input is estimated to be about twice greater, or 10 bags full of plastic per foot of coastline. The worst part, this is not a natural disaster – humankind created this issue and we need to fix it.
How would you describe the style of NAECO? Who do you envision wearing your swim shorts?
The style was actually born from a need to be able to wear swim shorts at my local café in Bournemouth. They didn’t allow us kite surfers in in wet suits or surfing gear like board shorts. This got me thinking on the style… what if we could make board shorts that were strong, made from ocean plastic but looked like smart shorts so I could go to the café after a session? So, I designed the shorts to fool the local cafes into thinking we went to the car and got changed… I even added a concealed side zip to hold our brilliant new waterproof money. (by far the best thing the UK did for kite surfers)
However, I now see many types of customer buying NAECO shorts. We have surfers and extreme sports professionals to casual beach wearers and those at the beach club. They are tailored to fit most occasions and we don’t do wild patterns – this means they look more formal and fit better than elasticated waistbands. They are at the premium price point as we manufacture in the UK, are a living wage employer and offer a full 5-year guarantee on every item. We believe you should buy a product that is built to last – no fast fashion here!
Ethical fashion is an extremely broad topic. What is your definition of ‘ethical fashion’?
I agree, it is such a broad topic. For me ‘ethical fashion’ is not just making a product from sustainable materials, paying higher wages or reducing your carbon footprint. I feel it is about making a product that truly is world class, the best it can be. It needs to first of all look fantastic, feel good and look good on you.
Once you have created a great looking product then I feel you should consider the sustainable fabrics, shipping, carbon footprint, ethical manufacturing, salary of your team and external companies involved etc... I have seen many brands create sustainable products that just don’t look very nice – just being made from a sustainable material won’t sell your products and won’t make an impact on our environment. We need to create beautiful products that people love that are actually sustainable. I have a number of customers who never knew our product was sustainable… they bought it as they loved it. I love targeting these non-sustainable consumers as this is how we make a difference. The more of these I am able to convert to making a considered ethical purchase the more we make a difference to the global economy and environment.
In short, in the future I don’t believe there will be a difference when it comes to ‘ethical fashion’ I believe it will just be ‘fashion’ and all businesses within the sector will use sustainable practices within them. Consumers are becoming more aware and are making a conscious decision to buy sustainable options.
We now have a sugar tax on food – why can’t the government eventually introduce a non-sustainable tax? Therefore, forcing brands and businesses to use sustainable options or pay higher prices for it. Rant over! ;-)
How does NAECO embody your definition of ethical fashion?
I feel at NAECO we embody my vision of ‘ethical fashion’ by making beautiful products that consumers love. The fact we use sustainable materials, pay our staff well and have high ethics shouldn’t be applauded or celebrated. This should be normal for a business in this sector. Fashion is the second highest polluting industry after Gas and Oil, we need to ensure we are all doing more to be decent businesses and decent human beings.
How do you ensure ethical production throughout your supply chain?
This is a challenge at times and really takes time to research our suppliers, manufacturing processes and ensure we are checking the supply chain at every level and we ensure all our suppliers have valid paperwork to validate any claims. We also try to buy services and items as locally as possible and many of our suppliers are UK based. This can be more expensive to us and as a business we took the stance not to pass this onto our consumers but to absorb these additional costs in our business and keep our price point in line with the major competitors in the luxury swim short segment. We don’t feel buying sustainably should cost you more… we are a luxury product that provides a high-quality garment with great ethics at the same price as our competitors who do not offer ethical fashion. This is where we feel we will win.
Do you think it is the responsibility of customers or labels to create a more sustainable and fair fashion industry?
I think this is a really hard question, consumers in the fast fashion sector who buy a £5 dress or £8 shirt and wear it a few times before throwing it away are really damaging the entire planet and fashion sector. However, the manufacturers offering these garments at these rock bottom prices are also to blame.
Just because someone offers you something it doesn’t mean you should buy it. For example, you wouldn’t buy a stolen TV which puts your money into the criminal underworld… even if it was cheap! Because it is wrong, and you have standards… This is the issue, consumers are not aware how wrong fast fashion is and the damage it does to individuals, communities, and the planet. Maybe if consumers were made more aware of these issues we might be in a better place.
Brands need to do more to make products that last, these cheap items are exactly that! Just buy one pair of swim shorts or a dress that will last and you won’t need to waste time going shopping so often. But consumers need to also stand up to fast fashion, stop buying it and be more aware.
Ultimately going back to my fast fashion tax – why should this be down to brands or consumers? Why is this not down to our governments to add a tax to consumers when buying fast fashion and brands when making it? Maybe this would help.
How do you try to live more sustainably in your personal life?
In my personal life I make sure the ocean comes as a massive priority for us as a family. Plastic is literally the enemy to us and we use alternatives where possible and reusable water bottles etc… however where not possible we sort our trash so we can recycle as much as we can.
We arrange beach clean ups in the UK through NAECO which we love doing, it is amazing how much plastic washes up each day. We also use a sustainable energy provider called Bulb both at home and in our business alongside buying from sustainable clothing providers and food sources. We really do practice what we preach.
What tips do you have for people looking to fight plastic pollution in their everyday life?
I know it is so hard to avoid plastic, there will be times it just enters your life but there are things we can do. Simply taking the time to recycle and sort our plastics at home really help and by far the easiest option is buying a reusable water container. The glass ones are my favourite and some even have fancy capsules to add fruit to your water…
Another easy tip is ‘Think beyond the kitchen’ we all think about recycling the plastic bottles and containers in the kitchen but most people forget about the ones in the other areas of our house. There probably are recyclable plastics in your bathroom (bottles and containers for shampoo, conditioner, liquid soap, body wash, mouthwash), laundry area (detergent and cleaning products), and garage (auto and gardening products). Some great stores even offer to refill reusable containers in store now which is really helping.
You started NAECO with a relatively small collection of four. How would you like to see NAECO grow in the future?
In the future we would like to grow the NAECO collection to encompass more of your daily life not just the beach. We have other items we have designed and created that are ready to be launched including jackets, shirts, polo shirts and blazers. We would like to introduce these very soon.