Visit Devon’s sustainable furniture showroom
- Credit: Archant
Nkuku near Totnes stocks 1,500 stores across the UK with natural, reclaimed, handmade homeware, including Liberty and Selfridges
With Alex Cooke’s background in charity work and Ali’s in corporate finance, you might not pick this husband and wife team as lifestyle entrepreneurs, but what they have achieved at their converted barns in Harbertonford (just outside of Totnes) is a sight to behold. It’s also a lesson for all those wanting to do things a little differently.
Nkuku has grown incredibly over the last 16 years and as well as the lifestyle store, they now have a presence in over 1,500 retail outlets, across the UK, from Liberty and Selfridges to independent gift shops - and that’s just in the UK!
This year has seen them expand further, with the launch of a new sustainable furniture showroom just across the courtyard from their original store.
If you don’t know the charming story behind Nkuku already, the idea was founded on the back of a life-changing adventure for Alex and Ali, when they set off on a year-long round the world trip. On their travels, they were inspired and humbled by the talented craftspeople they met along the way. It sparked a change in them. They wrote a business plan on the back of a paperback and relocated from London to rural Devon.
The name Nkuku (pronounced ‘Nu-kuh-kuh’), is borrowed from a small village in Zambia and their first product is the journals they still sell today. Nkuku puts sustainability at the heart of all they do, using reclaimed materials and always following ethical practices.
Alex takes up the story: “We’ve always been passionate about working with sustainable, natural and reclaimed materials. An important consideration when developing a new collection is for us to always question its impact on the environment. “As well as being aware of the materials we work with, we are committed to celebrating handmade skills and techniques, without compromise. This is not just because we appreciate the quality of a handmade piece but because the age-old traditions and processes are often more sustainable. The work is more complex and it takes considerably longer - but we think it is worth the wait.”
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It is clear to see Nkuku is a labour of love. The team never seem to take the easiest route, because they want their products to stand out, to be made respecting the environment and using traditional methods where possible. Their desire to stick to their core values is demonstrated as soon as you walk in to the store.
Ali interjects: “Ancient crops like jute and hemp are naturally environmentally friendly, they are rain fed crops that don’t rely on additional irrigation and they don’t need pesticides or other treatments to flourish. The weaving processes have changed little over hundreds of years.
“This says something not only about the strength and quality of the materials but also the timeless and enduring methods that are as relevant today as they will be in another 50 years. Rattan and water hyacinth, if grown sustainably, is another important material that has a softer impact on our environment.
“Mango wood, fits into this category too; making use of wood that has already served a purpose. We only use the trees that have been harvested once they no longer bear fruit. This is a practical farming technique and has the added benefit of providing farmers with a supplementary income.
“The natural textures and hues of all of these materials create a soft, calm and timeless ascetic in the home. This subtle, understated look is the very essence of Nkuku and we’re immensely proud of it.”
Alex continues; “For us, it’s not just about sourcing sustainable materials that reduce our impact on the environment, it’s also making use of recycled materials. Our recycled glassware for example, includes all manner of useful, beautiful pieces; regenerating and giving new purpose to, in effect, a waste material.
“Our journals are another example, as they are filled with paper, made from recycled cotton rag. This is an ancient Persian method for making paper that has changed relatively little over thousands of years and is still as purposeful today – why would we do anything else?
“Our team and products may have grown over the years, but we still have the same hands-on approach, meeting and working with all our makers personally. That’s how we know that every product has a story to tell.”
Find out more here about the Nkuku story
ETHICAL BUSINESS PRACTICES
Nkuku are vocal and transparent in their commitment to ethical business practices, following the globally recognised Ten Principles of Fair Trade.
An added target that Nkuku have set themselves is working with suppliers who are at the start of their fair trade process. Providing there is the desire to start on an ethical journey, Nkuku will invest in the supplier to help them achieve this status.
“Trading fairly provides artisans from all over the world, with an opportunity to build a future. It helps businesses develop and creates sustainable employment. Quite simply, it is just at the heart of what we do at Nkuku,” confirms Alex.
THREE IS THE MAGIC NUMBER FOR THE NKUKU VALUES
Ethical – everyone, from producers to employees, treats each other fairly and with respect.
Eco Friendly – working with natural and recycled materials through sustainable methods of production shapes every collection.
Handmade - Nkuku want to ensure age-old traditions are handed onto future generations. They believe the relationship between an artisan and a handmade piece creates a story and ensures each product is an individually crafted piece.
Ali comments: “We constantly challenge ourselves to do better. We sea freight to avoid air miles and our ongoing target is to improve packaging. We are working hard with our suppliers to develop better more eco - friendly alternatives.”
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