The nuns of the Abbey of Our Lady of Nazareth in Brecht in the province of Antwerp have found a way to support themselves in a very unique, Belgian way, and are quickly expanding their client base internationally.
The nuns live according to the Rule of Saint Benedict, meaning they have to be self-supporting. In 1964, the Trappistine Sisters of Brecht started producing soap and washing-up liquid to earn an income, which later became TRAPP. – a line of soap, body and hair care products, based on the abbey's own recipes.
What makes their offerings stand out is the products they use. The nuns launched a range of shampoos, hand soap and body lotion in which they incorporated 10% of the Trappist beer Westmalle Dubbel from the abbey nearby, a world first.
“Older sisters remembered that in the past, beer was used to curl hair and make it shinier," Sister Katharina, abbess of the abbey of Our Lady of Nazareth, said at the time of the product launch.
A scientifically based study about the benefits of beer for skin and hair showed that there are many advantages, thanks to the polyphenols, trace elements, vitamins and minerals in the beer. "They stimulate the natural volume of the hair."
Leaping into the digital age
Three years ago, the "sisters of the abbey" expanded their client base by leaping into the digital age and launching their online shop, where they also sell soft bath linen alongside their care products.
"In the beginning, our online sales channel existed only in Dutch. Quite logically, we then attracted 99% of consumers from Flanders and the Netherlands," Sister Katharina said in a statement.
However, the nuns soon suspected that people from other countries may also be interested in buying the products, especially due to the global reputation of Belgium's craft beers. "That is why we first added a French translation to our webshop," she said.
"This expansion ensured that French speakers from Brussels and Wallonia, as well as more and more French people, became fans of our shower sheets and Trappist beer shampoo."
Step towards internationalisation
Later on, the online shop was also translated into English and German, with the help of Flanders Investment & Trade. Soon, the Trappistine Sisters saw the demand for their products boom, proof that the step towards internationalisation is bearing fruit.
Orders from Germany, Spain and Denmark started rolling in. Esrum Kloster, an old Danish Cistercian monastery dating back to 1151, even became a customer of the Trappist sisters from Brecht.
"We are regularly asked if we can also ship to Great Britain. Since Brexit, the export formalities and customs rules have become so complex that we cannot, unfortunately, respond to these requests," Sister Katharina said.
The nuns also noticed another transition, from private individuals purchasing their goods to an increasing number of business customers seeking out their products, including bed & breakfasts, hair salons and beauty institutes.
The products can be bought in the online shop, as well as in the abbey shop where, apart from their own products, the nuns also sell candles, Trappist beer, honey and jam produced by other monasteries.