Welcome to this column within our broader sustainability section which focuses on what fashion retailing is doing to address the issues in its industry. It’s exciting times for anyone involved in this area as technology and retailers try to keep up with customers’ demand for all things ethical. From fur farms to fast fashion, excess packaging to plastic coat-hangers –
this is where the real action is.
There can be few words that go less well together than luxury and ethical – in fact normally the two seem to be mutually exclusive. One of the few exceptions to that rule is Elvis & Kresse, the brainchild of Canadian expat and self-diagnosed waste obsessive Kresse Wesling. Her company uses decommissioned firehoses from London Fire Brigade as well as an
increasing variety of other waste streams such as silken auction banners and tea sacks to fashion and package a large range of hand bags, luggage cases, purses, belts and other accessories.
Something must be going right for the entrepreneurial Wesling because the company is just moving to larger workshops and premises to accommodate increased demand and R&D capabilities. With a background in venture capitalism in China Wesling cut her teeth on the unlikely project of swine waste filtration, which turned a polluting substance into the revenue
stream of fertilizer. Suffice to say it taught her that there is a lot of brass in the muck – literally – while also alerting her to the eye-watering levels of single-use consumption globally.
Back in the UK in 2004 she decided that something environmental was going to be her destiny and set about tracking down what gets thrown away in the landfill sites around this country. This led to the discovery of the very large amounts of often useful and beautiful materials and textiles which are industrially dumped every year or as Wesling describes them “rivers of opportunities”.
Having settled on fire hoses she searched for any way to use it and noting that some French luxury brands use a similar material in their goods she decided on fashion. The luxury sector became the target when she realised that none of the luxury brands ever scored well in environmental reports. “It was obvious that this industry had structurally failed” she explains. Her frustration with the fashion brands continued as she constantly came up against “the rules” often set by a few French houses, which controlled the way the luxury fashion business had to be done. “Three people sitting in France aren’t going to define this industry. The customer will define
it. I don’t mind disrupting it at all,” she says.
The company used designs informed by shop floor staff at luxury department stores who told her what designs sold well every year, not
just one particular year. Thus the Elvis & Kresse range has been focused on just sixteen classic pieces. Although Wesling didn’t target any one kind of customer she did relish the possibility of having 66,000 brand ambassadors in the shape of the nation’s firefighters and she explains that “In a good year we get three tonnes of hose, in a bad year 10 tonnes”. Good in this
context, of course, meaning a lack of fires and therefore less used up hoses.
Her products are ‘backward designed’, which means that they begin with the waste product and its qualities at the forefront and then design back to the product item. Another difference to the traditional luxury fashion company is that money is not Wesling’s main motive in running the company. Rather, she regards success firstly in terms of how much money gets given to her charity partners. From the outset 50% of profits have gone to charities related to the waste she is saving, including the Fire Fighters Charity.
Secondly, she also measures success in how much waste is saved from landfill. There is a strange belief around ethical consumption that products should be at a price that low income consumers can afford otherwise that is of itself in some way unethical. Not so, according to Wesling. She makes the point that if sustainable products always have to be sold at a lower, supposedly more egalitarian, price then someone, probably one of the
artisan craft workers involved in its production is probably paying the price. “100% of our costs are labour,” she comments, “and the cost is how long it took them to make that bag”.
Furthermore, she could also legitimately point out that since half of Elvis & Kresse’s profits are donated to the benevolent fund for firefighters any reduction in the prices results in less money for that good cause. Ultimately the slightly odd assumption that if something is relatively expensive it is somehow un-ethical makes no economic sense – in Elvis & Kresse’s
case the cost is an indication of the fact that people and the environment have been costed out properly throughout the production process. Clearly not the case across all of the luxury sector.
In the long term Wesling sees collaboration and sharing open solutions with brands as the way forward alongside Elvis & Kresse’s own development and expansion. To that end she doesn’t do straightforward eco-consultancy but always has a defined end to a project with the brands she works with such as the project to use leather off-cuts from Burberry. In terms of how companies of all kinds tackle environmental problems she is appalled that
the unprofitability of a business can be blamed on its B-corp status and also has no truck with the barriers put up to change by some executive boards: “The excuse always given is that it is difficult to retro-fit a sustainable model on to an older company. It’s way too much of a crutch.”
She is more positive on the consumer attitude to luxury and fashion noting: “No-one makes the choice to support exploitation and environmental degradation. They just need to see it for what it is. People now expect to understand the provenance of the materials, and they appreciate that this fire hose has been saving lives for years.” This appreciation gives the products a calculable added worth. Finally it is to her credit that Wesling can make the boast that “we’ve never had any dead stock, and no sales or discounts either”. Not many retailers – luxury or otherwise – can say