Conventional is not a word one would use to describe Tracy Ruggier. Her ability to think out of the box and stubborn determination to run a business fairly where end users and suppliers all benefit, was instrumental in creating It’s Not Made in China bottled water.
The name has had its share of controversy, with Tracy even receiving death threats from people who took umbrage when a post of the cheekily named bottled water appeared on Chinese social media. “We had an idea to do things a little differently, and locally, and because everyone is so used to reading Made in China on just about everything, we knew that by saying the opposite and calling ourselves It’s Not Made In China, we would signal that we wanted to do things a little differently. If most goods had labels stating: “Made in Yugoslavia”, we would’ve called ourselves: “Not Made in Yugoslavia!”
“We really thought people would see the humour in the name,” she says, laughing
She may be petite, but Tracy is pure dynamite, tackling everything she does with a passion second to none. She’s raced motorbikes, hitchhiked around Africa, earned a reputation as a vegan cook and worked in the corporate world. It was while working for a corporate that a director told her in no uncertain terms that she was “too emotional and worried too much about the consumer.” “He told me I would never make it in business because of my beliefs. It was that statement that gave me the motivation and belief I could change the way business is run.”
Disillusioned by the corporate world Tracy decided it was time to do her own thing her way. ‘I wanted to do something that I could feel good about. I was very aware of the high unemployment rate in the country and how automation had become the norm. I didn’t just want to earn enough money, but wanted to create a business that wasn’t over-automated and one that could also be of benefit to others and the environment.
Having worked with artists and creatives in the corporate world, Tracy said it always bothered her that many of them struggled to enter the art world having no platform on which to showcase their work. It didn’t take her long to figure a way to match artwork to a plastic water bottle and before long she and William had designed and patented a hip-flask bottle on which she could put an artist’s work.
Tracy set up a competition inviting illustrators and artists to send in designs to be used as labels for their water bottle. The designs poured in. “We wanted to keep it exclusive so only print a minimum run of a particular art work making each bottle a limited edition. We pay the artist for their work so they earn a bit and have a platform for their creations.”
Tracy shares some heart-warming stories of artists and illustrators who have established careers for themselves because of the exposure they have received through the bottled water. When it comes to the water in their bottles, Tracy and William visit water plants and take account of how many people they employ and how automated the plant is. “If they fit in with our vision, we’re in business,” she said.
The bottle itself has also received accolades from experts in the industry. “I got a call from Extrupet who specialise in recycling PET (polyethylene terephthalate) plastic bottles. They were excited over our bottles because not only are they transparent, which makes them cheaper to recycle, but they are also thicker and heavier than other bottles. This means that informal recyclers are more than likely to pick up our bottles because they get more money from recycling plants when they return them. They also mentioned that the glue we use to paste the label on comes off easily, making the bottle perfect for recycling.” Tracey was thrilled to learn that Extrupet recycles bottles into fabrics, which sparked another idea.
“It wasn’t a stretch for us to collaborate with Durban fashion designer, Amanda Laird-Cherry and voila! We started making fabric, using the art from our illustrators and turning them into bags. It’s 100 per cent recycled plastic bottles! She also approached the Holmes Bros and they designed T-shirts made from fabric that is 75 per cent plastic.
“We love the fact that our plastic bottles can be used in such a way as to create fashion items, and give us an opportunity to play in the fashion industry. We like that making t-shirts and bags from fabric that has been made from recycled plastic bottles, creates awareness of what is possible in terms of reuse and recycling, and we see it as a way to create awareness of the need to recycle. Humans are destroying the world and will eventually destroy themselves. We use too many resources and we create too much waste. Making usable items from waste, is one of the ways forward.”
It’s hard to believe that a simple plastic bottle has influenced so many lives and careers, and fulfilled Tracy’s vision of establishing a company where everyone benefits. “We’re giving pickers a job and an income, we using our bottles as a platform for emerging artists and we’re recycling! And to top it all, our customers love our bottles and reuse them.”
The future for It’s Not Made In China looks bright. Tracy and William are looking at expanding their product range so they can pay artists by selling fashion items with their designs. “This year we will export to the UK and Ireland. We’ve also had many enquiries around the world, including China, to develop the brand in other countries and have discussed a possible name change for our bottled water outside Africa. We are also looking at ways to push the re-use of our products both here and overseas.
And when she and William aren’t consumed by plans for their bottled water company, Tracy says she loves to cook, spend time with good people and travel.
It’s Not Made in China is based at 6 Station Drive, Umgeni Park, Durban.
WITH THANKS to the following for their role in our February 2020 COVER SHOOT:
Photos of Tracy: Michelle Venter, RavenFire Photography South Africa, 071 365 4754, www.ravenfirephotography.co.za
Hair & Makeup: Jacqui Trinder, Accentuate Hair and Makeup, 079 541 2551, www.professionalmakeupartist.co.za
Venue: Brigit Filmer Spa & Skin, 031 767 1668, www.brigitfilmer.com