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How a Sustainability Dream Became a Reality: Interview with DGrade's Founder Kris Barber

APR 14, 2020

For our first blog, we thought we’d share the origin story and evolution of DGrade via an interview with Founder and CEO, Kris Barber. Kris now has 30 years experience in clothing manufacturing, however his career did not begin in the way one might imagine.

Question: Tell us about your background Kris?

Answer: I began my career as an account manager for a large advertising firm in London in the 1980’s – not quite ‘MadMen’ days but it was still very common to take clients out for long lunches taking up most afternoons.

After some time there, I decided I needed to do something more fulfilling, something that I was passionate about. I was an avid surfer and loved the ocean, so I left London and the corporate world to set-up my own magazine called ‘The Edge’ which focused on surfing and skateboarding.

Settling in the Gower Peninsular in Wales I became fully immersed in the surfing culture. My magazine became very popular for its interviews with key surfing and skating personalities and cool merchandise product features.

Overtime I became more involved in the product side of the business, as this was where our key revenue came from. Slowly it took over and I sold the magazine to focus purely on products, working with Body Glove who were distributing their line in the UK for the first time.

During my time in the Gower Peninsular, as I spent more time in and near the ocean, I became acutely aware of the human impact on the ocean. This is where I first really became aware of plastic pollution and got involved in initiative to combat ocean pollution.

Question: When did you come up with the idea for DGrade?

Answer: While living in Wales I was involved with Surfers Against Sewage. Seeing how much plastic waste was getting into the ocean, I made the decision to focus solely on sustainable fabrics as a way to ensure plastic was recycled instead of going to landfill or polluting oceans. DGrade was born from that decision and was established in 2010.

We spent the first 5 years on research and development into fabrics and blended yarns made from recycled plastic. We now have a portfolio of over 250 different fabrics under our Greenspun® yarn label which is made from 100% recycled plastic bottles.

Question: How did DGrade evolve from the UK to the UAE?

Answer: Setting up the company in the UK, I got heavily involved in recycling initiatives to source the PET plastic we needed. This meant working with events, such as the London Olympics, and large festivals (Reading, V festival, Glastonbury) where we set up temporary manual recycling facilities so we could segregate and bale plastic on site. I established a supply chain with China, India and Pakistan and began making fabrics from recycled water bottles.

In 2010 my wife and I moved to Dubai. I could immediately see that the UAE was far behind Europe in dealing with recycling, especially plastic. So, I established DGrade in the UAE as a way to supply local organisations with sustainable products, and at the same time address the plastic recycling issue. It took some time to establish partnerships, but we’ve found a supportive market and community of sustainability advocates.

Question: Where are you with DGrade now?

Answer: Well, I’m pleased to say that DGrade has really grown in the last few years – we now have a team of 12 managing recycling, clothing production and sales.

In 2017 we established the Simply Bottles recycling initiative which works with schools, businesses and events to increase recycling rates of plastic water bottles. This program has been a great success. For example, we started with 30 schools 3 years ago and now have more than 170 schools taking part in the program – collecting more than 3 million plastic bottles.

Our core business, which is of course supplying sustainable clothing has also grown. We have become known in UAE for our commitment to sustainability by supplying quality uniforms, clothing and accessories made from recycled plastic bottles and supporting companies in clothing the supply chain loop.

We secured outside investment in 2018 in order to purchase the plant machinery that we need to start flaking in the UAE. This is the first part of the process and key to taking our business forward. We expect the machinery to be installed in our premises in KIZAD in May 2020 and flaking to start in July.

A key benefit of this is that we can audit our whole process from the collection of the PET bottles, making the flake, shipping it to our partner factory and producing Greenspun® fabric to the UAE to make into clothing. DGrade is unique in that we are the only company in the world to manage the entire supply chain from plastic bottle collection to clothing production.

Question: Who are your key partners and clients?

Answer: We work closely with the local waste management companies to recover PET plastic; these partnerships are vital as we need recycle as much PET as possible. Our Simply Bottles initiative fulfills about 20% of our PET requirement, which is about 1000 tonnes per month, and companies such as Dulsco, Imdaad, West Coast, EEG are key in providing the rest.

Support from government bodies such as the Dubai Chamber, The DED, the KHDA and the Ministry for Environment and Climate Change. Without their support we could not have obtained the necessary permits and licenses need to run the business. The Abu Dhabi Environment Agency have taken an active role in keeping us abreast of new legislation, which has been very important to us.

We have also partnered with Zayed Higher Organisation to recycle and supply sustainable fabric for their job creation program for people of determination.

On a commercial side, we have had great support from local businesses and international corporations. Working with companies as varied as Emirates NBD, YAS Island, Jumeriah Group, Unilever, to name but a few, has helped us raise our profile and make great connections.

Of course, Expo 2020 Dubai is also an important relationship. We were awarded the license for Expo 2020 Dubai product in 2018 and are proud suppliers of official Expo 2020 Dubai t-shirts and caps.

Question: What does the future hold for DGrade?

Answer: We are very excited about the future. We have well established partnerships enabling us to recycle more and more plastic – saving millions of bottles each year from going to landfill. Every day more people and more organisations take initiative to address sustainability and plastic pollution which provides DGrade with the opportunity to fulfill their needs.

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