For the last two days I have been a Practitioner-in-Residence at the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship at Said Business School. I called the first group discussion, Adventures in the Circular Economy, and shared our methods, ideas, false starts and successes in an über informal, transparent and personal way. This is what green manufacturing is to us – it’s personal. Our design process is completely backwards. We start with unwanted materials that are at the point of being scrapped, take them home, study them, find their best attributes, and transform them into products that have the potential to completely change the future. Not just the scrap we take, but all the material of that particular type. So yes, it is about waste minimization and resource efficiency but mostly it is about cherishing the material, honouring it with incredible craftsmanship, ensuring that this next life is as long as we can possibly make it.
I don’t like fire hose, I love fire hose.
Our respect for these materials is evident in the products we produce. Our belts are built to outlast your jeans; our customers choose us as much for our design quality and durability as for the unique history of the hose and our profit sharing with the Fire Fighter’s Charity. The whole value of our brand is tied up in the values of our brand. We don’t base our decisions on how to minimize environmental impact, all of our whys and hows are based on maximizing the good associated with the mission of raw material rescue. Cleaning, storing, pattern-making, cutting, shipping, packaging, it all has to live up to the world we want, rather than the one we’ve got. It has to survive what we think 2050 might be like, rather than meet the typically seasonal / trend lead structure of the fashion industry.
Let me give you some examples of this decision making in practice. The majority of British fire hose is 10cm in diameter, so our panels, which are ship-lapped together across all our patterns, are 10cm wide. Our bags are therefore designed to minimize / eliminate off-cuts. Back in 2008, one of our waste partners asked if we could make use of 180,000 sticky labels that had been ordered in error. They were too wide. We found and reconditioned an old label printer and started collecting boxes from local shoe stores so that we could hand-cut cardboard in an old fashioned style, to perfectly match and make use of the stickers. We are still using these labels today, and when we run out, we will redesign our labels to suit a new waste.
These methods come naturally to us, we don’t have a work/life balance, it’s just life. Our factory and home share the same physical building, so when I say we take the waste home, we literally take it home. There is no ‘away’ for the waste to go, there is no escape. This is hard to duplicate for a large company, but if they start keeping their skips in plain view, in the lobbies, in the C-Suites, it could help. It is also hard to go from being a linear business - make, sell, transfer full responsibility to the consumer - to becoming a circular one. Elvis & I always wanted to make something truly circular, and now with our leather project, Designed for Deconstruction, we have made a really great start. We reclaim leather off-cuts from a cross section of the best of British leather craft, from saddle makers to car manufacturers. Instead of stitching the thousands of small scraps together, we have designed pieces that are made to interlock, so that any geometric object can be made, un-made and made again, or made differently. Here the manufacture is completely by hand, and potentially, completely by the hands of the customer. This is an untried, novel approach, it isn’t a tweak, it may upset (we have many vegetarian and vegan fans) or confuse our existing customers; it is inherently risky. But we don’t have shareholders to answer to, or sales targets to meet. We are free to experiment. Large companies could be too, there are examples of pioneering sustainability agendas that are aligned with shareholder vision.
Any business success we have or profit we retain is used to keep innovating, keep collecting new materials, keep solving problems and keep enjoying what we do. If this weren’t about fun and love and what matters to us, we would be doing something with much less risk. But we are running out of low risk scenarios; a couple running an SME has all its eggs in one basket, but so do the collective corporations and their staff, the collective countries and their citizens… Unless, of course, we manage to colonise Mars.
Written by Kresse Wesling, Founder, Elvis & Kresse