Journalist: Redaktion ceo | Photographer: Markus Bertschi | Magazin: Green opportunity – November 2021
Swiss start-up NIKIN is contributing to the transformation of the textile industry with its sustainable fashion products. Nicholas Hänny, one of the company’s two co-founders, is opting for a strategy of progress in small steps.
Piles of cardboard boxes are stacked along the corridor in the old factory building – recently delivered goods that have to be prepared for one of the regular direct sale events. T-shirts, shirts, hats and socks – everything the company’s mostly young customers might want to wear over the year. Nicholas Hänny likes this atmosphere, which is typical for a young company with a motivated team. A bit improvised, not exactly neat and tidy, but authentic and honest. You can feel that things really are happening here.
Hänny is CEO of NIKIN, a Swiss fashion start-up that produces and sells sustainable clothing. The 29-year-old from Aargau in Switzerland set out on this adventure five years ago. Together with his friend and co-founder Robin Gnehm – also a 29-year-old local – he came up with the idea of selling sustainable clothing. The two had known each other since childhood and went on to hatch their plan over a beer when they met again after many years.
Trendy hats to start with
It all started more than five years ago with ‘beanies’ – trendy hats made from a select choice of materials. Gnehm brought the idea back with him from a trip to Canada. Hänny had made a few forays into the industry before, with sports bags he sold to his fellow students. The stylised tree became their new trademark. The NIKIN brand promise is: NIKIN will plant a tree for every product sold.
Since then, the company has planted around 1.4 million young trees all around the world. This is equivalent to a sizable forest covering almost 100 km2, far bigger than the city of Zurich. Every new tree planted will help the environment by absorbing CO2 emissions. Depending on the tree’s age, species and habitat, that amounts to an impressive 10 to 12 kg of CO2 every year. The fashion industry, on the other hand, is one of the biggest sources of atmospheric CO2 emissions, as Hänny knows very well himself.
Established in 2016, NIKIN AG produces and markets sustainable fashion. The company’s trademark is a stylised tree. The main target group is 18 to 35-year-olds with an affinity to nature and the environment. NIKIN plants a tree for each product sold. The company is based in Lenzburg in the Swiss canton of Aargau and has around 50 permanent employees and 20 casuals. Its 2020 sales, based on its own figures, totalled around 13 million Swiss francs. NIKIN is largely certified to the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS).
Constantly scrutinising processes
How can I motivate the industry to produce and sell more sustainably? This is the question Hänny has continuously asked since the beginning. ‘This is a responsibility for the companies involved,’ Hänny proclaims. In practice, he explains, it means taking an honest approach, ensuring transparency, and also constantly scrutinising existing processes. ‘At the beginning, I still had to Google what ‘sustainable fashion’ means.’ No generally accepted definition has surfaced so far, he says, but efforts are ongoing. NIKIN elected to align with the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) and has gained at least partial certification under GOTS.
NIKIN is currently working with Ecos Consulting Firm and others to draw up a list of criteria for sustainable fair fashion. The aim is to examine activities more closely and extend the partial certifications. ‘Traceable TreeShirt’ is the name of a crowd ordering project where the focus is on end-to-end sustainability and transparency, from production to delivery. ‘It’s all about inspiring and motivating others,’ says Hänny. NIKIN understands sustainability as a process, a path to be travelled, one step at a time – or, you might say, ‘tree by tree’. There’s always room for improvement, he’s keen to add.
Starting with logistics
Even though his influence as a relatively small player in the fashion market is limited, the young entrepreneur is proud to share his achievements. Besides the high proportion of organic cotton in most of the lines, recycled materials are also used for new products, such as beach fashion made from recycled marine litter and bodywear mainly produced from organic cotton, enriched with recycled polyester in selected colour patterns. Hänny would like to use more of these raw materials, but some of them are in limited supply and some others are still too expensive.
Transport is also an important issue. The company has a policy of shunning air freight. For each package shipped to end customers by the logistics partners, NIKIN will make a payment that offsets the CO2 footprint. Hänny knows that some companies offset their CO2 emissions without giving it a second thought. He says that although this is a self-serving approach, it’s still better than nothing.
At NIKIN, offsetting is only one of many measures to reduce the carbon footprint. Customers who want to return goods bought online must pay the return expenses themselves. And the paper used for delivery notes is made of sugar cane bagasse rather than cellulose from wood pulp.
“At the beginning I had to Google what ‘sustainable fashion’ means.”
Certification gives suppliers a marketing edge
One particular aspect of fast fashion that concerns him is overproduction and the associated waste of resources. Hänny is responding by trying to persuade suppliers to find sensible re-use opportunities for sewing scraps.
NIKIN clothing comes from producers in Portugal, Poland and the Czech Republic. The bulk of the cotton comes from Portugal, with some from Turkey. The CEO is pleased to see that his encouragement has resulted in a number of suppliers gaining certification, which they can now use in their marketing. The factories are selected carefully. Monitoring producers is a key element in NIKIN’s sustainability strategy.
Nicholas Hänny (29) is co-founder and CEO of NIKIN. After graduating with an MBA, he gained his initial work experience in e-commerce before going into business with his childhood friend Robin Gnehm. Forbes magazine listed Hänny together with Gnehm and Carla Vilela Gonzaga Hänny, both members of the four-member management team, among the ‘30 under 30’ in the ‘Social Impact’ category in Europe. Hänny, who also works as a lecturer and coach, was a boy scout for many years and describes himself as a person who’s close to nature. He’s married and lives in the Swiss canton of Aargau.
Growth from within
NIKIN is also making great efforts with regard to its own contribution. Customers will soon be able to swap clothes, outlets are called in for unsold items from the company’s collections. A ‘re-use collection’ is in development right now and is part of the recycling efforts. Employees organise campaigns like the regional Clean-Up Day. The species of trees planted by NIKIN not only include deciduous trees and conifers but also orchards, because they create more work and income.
Elements like these are the essence behind the growth of a young company, started by the two co-founders with just 5,000 Swiss francs in seed capital from their own savings. So far they’ve had no need for external capital. ‘We’re doing fine without big loans from the bank,’ says Hänny. Even so, they do feel the pressure: salaries have to be reasonable and suppliers paid on time. This is all part of the commitment to fair business practices.
‘Things can get tight towards the end of summer. We can only hope for the fourth quarter to bring in the cash we need.’ Their online shop did well from the beginning, helping the two entrepreneurs during the start-up phase – and it’s still doing well today.
NIKIN now has around 50 permanent employees and 20 casuals who help out at events and in sales. ‘We’re always a bit behind, organisationally, it seems,’ the CEO accepts with a hint of self-criticism. There was a point in time when the company had reached a size that made an HR department and expense policies necessary, he remembers. NIKIN AG is now a public limited company with structures and defined responsibilities.
Hänny says he still often follows his gut feeling. He describes a difficulty he and other company founders have in common: ‘We have too many ideas and too many projects happening all at the same time.’ A lot of suggestions come from customers, and the inhouse salesforce consolidates the input. The goal is to learn and improve along the way: ‘Certainly, we’ve made mistakes, but we’ve also got some things right,’ says Hänny. For instance, they decided to focus advertising strongly on social media, Facebook and Google, which has paid off.
“What good is it to us and those interested in sustainable clothing if it’s simply too expensive?”
Getting the basics right is more important than a perfect solution
What’s important to Hänny in all projects is to find a good balance between fair and sustainable production on the one hand and a reasonable price for the item on the other hand. ‘What good is it to us and the people who are interested in sustainable clothing if it’s simply too expensive?’ he asks. To him, accepting and embracing responsibility are more important than perfect solutions.
What are the company founder’s plans for the next five years? ‘I want us to communicate what we do and how we do it with even greater precision.’ He wants to build on the good relations with his partners and secure them over the long term on the basis of master agreements. NIKIN is also considering a physical brand presence with its own shops. The pandemic and other circumstances have, however, resulted in an ongoing postponement of this project. Hänny says a trial with a pop-up store is on the cards for the coming year. NIKIN wants to keep its prices within the range of other major brands. The goal is more durable products with a timeless design. A high-quality T-shirt from sustainable production lasts a long time.
The goal: 100 million trees
Hänny himself has kept his lifestyle a modest one: the two founders have only been paying themselves a salary for the last three years. ‘I probably earn less than many of my college friends,’ says the MBA graduate. His point is that he can live the way he wants and is happy with the way things have turned out. He has no need for expensive extras. And a few years from now, when the forest of new trees stands a hundred million strong and NIKIN has become a well-established brand across Europe, he’ll look back with great pleasure on what he and his team have achieved.
Nicholas Hänny – In the spotlight
What personal goal do you want to achieve?
My goal is to share and spread entrepreneurial thinking and knowledge, to inspire other start-up founders and encourage them, and to share my own experience along the way.
What’s your favourite weekend activity?
Spending time with my family and friends, exercise for relaxation, skateboarding.
When you go on holiday, do you prefer the mountains or sun and sea?
One of my favourite places is Lugano. You get the best of both worlds there.
What kind of things get your thoughts going?
I think about some of the negative developments in society these days: hatred and violence, intolerance and arrogance, increasing racism.
What have you learnt during the COVID-19 pandemic?
To enjoy the moment and to become better at switching off. I’ve learnt to better separate work and private life and resolved to turn off my computer at 7pm. I also switched off the annoying notifications on my mobile phone. It lowers stress and improves my quality of life.