In the Philippines, ocean waste is turned into activewear

This sister duo creates fitness gear made out of regenerated ocean plastic.

by Andrea Trinidad

In 2019, sisters Maui and Sammy Shah were inspired by the entrepreneurial grit of Nike’s Phil Knight after reading his memoir, Shoe Dog, and wanted to pursue a venture of their own.

Both fitness buffs, an activewear brand seemed like a natural choice. Aware of the negligent practices of online fast-fashion stores, however, they knew their brand had to be concerned with more than just making a profit.

“We saw so many Instagram stores where the owners would buy in bulk and then resell it,” shares Sammy. “There’s so much waste created with that. We knew that we didn’t want to add to that as a business.”

Maui, a business development manager based in Singapore, and Sammy, an incoming Business Administration senior at the University of the Philippines, then created SunnySix Active, the Philippines’ first sustainable activewear brand.

Sisters Maui and Shammy Shah, founders of SunnySix Active.

They partnered with Healthy Seas, a non-profit organisation that conducts ocean clean-ups, and sourced an eco-fashion manufacturer as well. This enabled them to create fitness gear made entirely of ‘eco-nylon,’ a nylon-like fibre spun from fishing nets and discarded plastics.

As well as promoting marine conservation, the duo also wholly embrace the “slow fashion” philosophy by taking into account the entire lifecycle of their products. Beyond considering where the materials are sourced from and how the gear is produced, they also ensure that their manufacturers are compensated fairly and that they could inspire their consumers to lead sustainable lives.

“We definitely have a long way to go, but I find it so cool that we’re inspiring others,” shares Maui. “People say, Oh! There’s a sustainable option for activewear. They realise that they can make more conscious, smarter choices. We’re happy to give that option to others.”

SunnySix Active products use EcoNylon, a nylon-like fibre spun from fishing nets and discarded plastics.

INKLINE sat down with the Shah sisters to learn more about the story behind SunnySix and where they want to take it next.

I: Why start a project to address environmental issues in particular? Did you always have that connection to the environment?

Maui Shah: I think it was a lot of different experiences that led to my being more passionate about the environment. Back in 2017, I spent around 5 months in Hawaii, surrounded by people who loved the island; who hated tourists that trashed everything; and who truly believed in preserving the nature they had. I was heavily influenced by it and brought this with me to the Philippines as well as Singapore.

I: Why do activewear rather than casual clothes, or a bag, for example? And what’s the story behind the name SunnySix Active?

Sammy Shah: When Maui and I first talked about it, activewear was the first thing that came to our minds. We never really considered making casual clothes or bags. I think it’s down to the fact that there are a lot of possibilities to what designs you can make with activewear. With casual clothes, people have different tastes that you would have to appeal to, whereas activewear is more basic, more generic.

M: I also think it’s because we grew up being active people. It’s always been part of our lives. So when creating a brand, we wanted to start something that we were very knowledgeable about. It was also something we both really enjoyed!

S: And, the name SunnySix has a personal meaning: we all love music and wanted something positive and we came across the song, Sunny by Marvine Gay, and thought it was great. It was also perfect because our dad’s nickname is Sunny. And, we’re six in the family. It’s very meaningful!

Q: How did you find out about eco-fabrics, and Healthy Seas, the organisation your brand has partnered with?

M: We drew a lot of inspiration from a brand in the States, Girlfriend Collective. There was a lot of research involved, as well as a lot of backtracking on who owned the brand, their past interviews, what their process is, as well as who they donate to, which turned out to be Healthy Seas.

While we don’t use the same fabric Girlfriend Collective uses — they repurpose plastic bottles — we are the same in that we’ve been able to find a way to use repurposed fabric.

Healthy Seas repurposes fishing nets into EcoNylon fabric for garments.

Q: How long did the research process take for finding the manufacturers for eco-friendly activewear? Any challenges?

S: We tried looking for manufacturers here in the Philippines, but we discovered that, sadly, most factories don’t really care so much about using eco-fabric. It’s just not in their systems yet. And, having zero experience in fashion, trying to find a manufacturer was difficult. It was a lot of trial and error.

Q: Your project has, somewhat, a two-fold mission: while you are addressing marine conservation, you also address the fast-fashion industry. Personally, it’s hard to break from fast-fashion. I still buy from Zara, for example! But how important was this aspect for you, especially with the treatment of labourers?

M: I agree! It’s hard to understand something when you don’t see it. But when brands start to talk about it, you realise, there are people that are making these clothes! You don’t realise that sometimes making clothes involves horrible conditions. Luckily, now, there are so many resources online, and the more you research, the more sensitive you grow.

Visiting the manufacturing site was super important because I saw how well they were treated. It’s great to know that in our hearts, that we’re working with them. In this sense, I think it’s crucial to meet your manufacturers.

We’re lucky because ours truly believe in eco-fashion. The owner, a British man, has been there for 50 years. He was telling me how, at the start, he was producing the usual fabric, but throughout the years there was such a nice shift. There gradually started to be a lot of environmental-friendly options. And we’re lucky because they really made it possible to make our project happen.

The Shah sisters had to source eco-fabrics for activewear from Indonesia, as there were none in the Philippines.

Q: I think there’s also this huge shift in consciousness towards the environment. The current generation is pushing for it, so these options have become more and more possible.

M: It’s really nice that people are starting, even in small ways. Even with something as simple as brands changing their packaging. You see a lot of online shops do this, and it’s such a good start. But for us, we didn’t want the eco-friendly aspect to be just a random part, like a container. We wanted it to be the core. We wanted it to be the product itself.

Q: How was the process of designing clothes? You use a lot of bold colours — what was the philosophy behind that?

M: We have zero knowledge of clothing tech! I was the one sourcing the fabric, learning measurements, and how heavy the fabric should be, for example. It has a lot to do with research and asking lots of questions to the manufacturers.

Activewear designs are generally more on the neutral side, and we wanted to stand out when we first released. We wanted people to see our clothes and think, ah, that’s SunnySix. So, for our first collection, we chose bold colours.

S: We’re a bit more experienced and know what we want now, so with our second collection, we’re experimenting with more fabrics. Seeing all these activewear shops release so many new designs right away is surprising because it’s challenging for us; we produce in small batches. It really takes time. We didn’t just want to keep releasing because we wanted to be fully committed to each collection. There’s a lot of thought put into it. But it’s all really exciting! Maui and I get to agree on the designs and talk about it together. That’s the best part about working with a sister: it’s so much easier because we’re exposed to the same things; we more or less have the same vision.

I: How has the reception been like?

S: We’re happy to have been getting great feedback. People appreciate and see what we’re doing, and how we’re trying to be sustainable in all aspects. It’s nice when someone privately messages or gives us a good review. It lets us know that they believe in it.

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