“It’s ‘capitalist karma:’ the more good we do as a business, the more we grow, the more amazing things happen to us.”
We are on the phone with Kresse Wesling, co-founder of UK-based high-end accessories brand Elvis & Kresse. Her point is one worth dwelling on – this “capitalist karma” – because the myth persists that social enterprises will struggle to make money, and will struggle to scale. But Elvis & Kresse has done that and more, with their recent launch of a five-year partnership with the Burberry Foundation.
Elvis & Kresse got its start in 2004 when Wesling and her partner, James “Elvis” Henrit, learned that 100 million tons of waste went into landfills in the United Kingdom each year. What started as a mind-boggling problem quickly turned into inspiration for the duo.
Where could that much trash go on such a tiny island? Wesling and Henrit set out to see for themselves, visiting several landfill sites and transfer centers in a few weeks. During one of those trips, they had a chance meeting with members of the UK fire service who were discarding some of the 10 tons of fire hose they decommission each year. Wesling and Henrit saw possibility.
“A fire hose is 22 meters [approximately 72 feet] long. It is a durable and robust material, but if you get an irreparable tear somewhere in the hose, it goes to a landfill. I thought it was too beautiful to leave there, so I brought some home to my apartment and that started the business,” Wesling told us.
The pair didn’t immediately see luxury belts and bags when they looked at the fire hose lying on their floor. They weren’t even thinking of accessories or luxury products. Their mission was to solve the 10-ton-a-year fire hose problem.
“We were completely led by the material,” Wesling says. “When we finally got through to understand what nitrile rubber is and what it can do, we knew that it would have to be something high-end and relatively niche, because it has to be cleaned by hand. So, it took us a long time to get that first product. But then, we sold 500 belts in one day.”
Elvis & Kresse began with a generous give-back program that was born the same day Wesling serendipitously crossed paths with the London Fire Brigade at a UK landfill. In passing, she told them that if anything ever came of the hose, she’d give them half the profits. She now calls that decision the best thing that ever happened to the company. Most startups, she says, are completely on their own when starting out. Elvis & Kresse, on the other hand, were never on their own.
“We had 66,000 fire service personnel in the UK that were all rooting for us,” she says. “We had the firefighter’s charity in there too that were rooting for us. And we had a community behind us because of that donation.”
With that vote of confidence, the company moved on to a problem 80,000 times bigger: leather offcuts. These are the scraps produced from the billions of leather goods created worldwide, which result in 800,000 tons of leather waste hitting landfills. Once again, it’s a mind-boggling problem, and once again, the company’s approach centers around following the material’s lead and finding good partners.
“We designed a Lego-like system that allows us to make the most use of that leather off-cut, because we’re transforming it into a series of components, and those could be pieced together to make a whole new textile,” Wesling says.
Enter: capitalist karma.
“It was at that point that the Burberry Foundation first approached us,” Wesling continues. “They were inspired not just by the textile, but also the way we run our business, spread information, the fact that we’re a certified B Corp, and a certified social enterprise, and that we have a 10-year history of being at the forefront of sustainability, making a luxury good.”
The partnership with the Burberry Foundation includes a commitment to run leatherworking apprenticeship programs in the UK. It’s a craft with a long history in the country that has been largely outsourced to developing countries in recent decades. Throughout most of Western Europe, most leather workers are nearing retirement. In reaching this agreement, then, this small company has set its sights not only on solving for 800,000 tons of global waste, but also on restoring a craftsman economy in the UK.
As a more-than-profit company, then, how do they measure success?
“We use waste in ways that we reclaim, so we measure success on a kilo-by-kilo basis. That’s one thing I’ve always loved about this business: even on a bad day, we are keeping some material out of the ground. That is a deeply satisfying feeling.”