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South Africa entrepreneur Grethe Vermaak, committed to animal welfare and sustainable business practices, explains the story behind her brand, bark to José María Sainz-Maza. In an interview highlighting the importance of stray dog adoption, she talks about her current projects and her plans for the future.

Words By José M. Sainz-Maza


A continent and a half away, from the beautiful coastal city of Cape Town, Grethe Vermaak greets me as I start our online meeting (not many trips are possible this year). Aside from a couple of unremarkable interferences, everything is developing normally, and the internet shows once again to be really useful in these strange times. Grethe has a warm voice and a really nice South African accent. After some light and friendly chatting about the summer here (in Berlin) and there, I smile and ask her directly and without qualms about her business, BARK, a label of hand-made, eco-friendly cork dog collars born in 2018. 

“I have always loved animals, I have a special affinity for them; I have three dogs and I adore them. I have been working for a few years in graphic design, copywriting and marketing, and I always felt that something was missing. I wanted to do something positive, make an impact, create something valuable for my community. I began thinking about vegan alternatives to products typically made from animal-based materials, such as leather, and cork caught my eye. Cork is beautiful and sustainable, a type of vegetable-derived bark that regenerates itself, and is also flexible and durable, making it an ideal material for uses like this,” Grethe tells me. “I would not refer to myself as a vegan activist, but I do believe in the importance of consuming less meat and promoting cruelty-free practices, and this is my way of supporting this cause.”


As a Spaniard, cork is no stranger to me, but I was largely unaware of cork production in South Africa. Grethe explains that cork oaks also grow on the austral tip of the African continent; however, it is difficult to find sustainable plantations dedicated to the industrial use of this distinctive tree bark, so she imports a large part of this material from the world’s largest producer, Portugal. “It’s a shame I can’t use local raw produce,” Grethe says with a shrug, “but most of the companies in my area do not meet the necessary characteristics at the moment, or even manufacture cork fabric yet. I hope this changes in the future.” 

Choosing cork over other vegan options, such as plastics and various other synthetic fibers was precisely because of its inherently self-healing and renewable characteristics. Grethe also only selects it by manufacturers who are very careful with every step of the cork harvesting, processing and distribution system. “For me it is essential that the goods I sell are completely sustainable, and that includes the entire supply chain. For those items made of other materials, I use 100% recycled plastic from PET bottles and natural fibers from palm leaves,” Grethe declares, referring to some of the other products in her online store, such as dog beds or cushions. A quick pass through her website is enough to appreciate the quality and care put into it.

As we speak, I can hear excited footsteps and panting sounds in the background, and at one point, Grethe gives one of her dogs a fond command asking him to remain calm. “I adopted the three of them in shelters not far from my suburb; the first one, 6 years ago. I think that promoting adoption is very important, you can bring home any loving and wonderful animal. Dog breeding, on the other hand, causes many damages and is behind many cases of animal abuse and abandonment.” Grethe also puts these values ​​into practice through her brand; BARK donates 5% of its profits to animal protection organisations. 

The entrepreneur tells me how she began to collaborate with local shelters and how she has been expanding her donations to other animal rescue organisations in the country. Among them, she mentions Tears Animal Rescue, Husky Rescue South Africa, Tin Can Town, Pit Pals, Four Paws, SPCA Bloemfontein, Sighthound Rescue South Africa, and DARG. “I intend to donate more to animal welfare causes as my business grows, and maybe dedicate part of my time to these activities myself,” Grethe states. “It would be amazing if I could use my community of clients and social network followers to also serve as a means of sensitisation, a way to educate other people on the need to deal with these problems.”


This brings us to the future of the company and its ongoing projects. In this regard, Grethe acknowledges with a smile that BARK started as a side job and has since evolved rapidly and gained time in her schedule, thanks to the great recognition that her products have had among the South African population. “Market response has been very positive from the beginning, and more and more people are interested in products like the ones I sell as the vegan movement grows. For now I only ship nationally, but this may change in the near future,” she says. “I have found out that the more time and effort I put into my brand, the better the output is. Seeing my own business grow is really exciting.”

In a scenario as unflattering for the retail sector as the current one, launching a niche company like this is a bold movement that requires a good business plan and involves high risks. When asked about the role of social media in the launch of her brand, Grethe remarks that she has always relied heavily on Instagram sales. “Although now I also use Shopify, I am very active on social networks and many of my clients get in touch with me that way,” she shares. “The main advice I can give to those entrepreneurs who have just started their business is to keep moving forward. If there is something you are passionate about, stick to your values ​​and fight so that the product grows from there. And, of course, don’t spend money on anything unnecessary in the beginning; much of the marketing can be done with free tools. The options are endless if you are willing to take some risks, and in a year you will look back and will not believe everything you have achieved.”

In the midst of COVID-19 outbreaks in much of the world, it is hard not to discuss the effect of the pandemic on the activity of a company founded in one of the most affected countries in Africa. “At first, the impact of the lockdown on the business was very hard, also because people stopped consuming out of fear. But each one has to use the time they have, and I used mine to design new collars and dog fourniture, and post positive messages on social media to strengthen my relationships with my clients,” Grethe reveals. “I’m grateful we overcame that period. Now sales of dog beds are growing, and so are those of clay bowls for water and food.”

A few barks on the other side of the screen indicate that perhaps it is time to finish the conversation, as more urgent things await. We wish each other a good rest of the day and as soon as the conversation ends, I find myself searching online for a cork collar for my dog. Hopefully BARK will start shipping internationally soon.