As more of the population join in on the fight to be increasingly sustainable, it’s no surprise that ethical champion companies such as Elvis & Kresse are gaining traction and being rewarded for their efforts.
In a recent report by McKinsey & Company, of surveyed consumers, ‘67% consider the use of sustainable materials to be an important purchasing factor.’ With the vegan leather market also newly projected to be worth $90 billion in the next five years, it’s obvious that there has been a huge shift in consumers paying attention to eco-friendly material alternatives. Specifically, as a by-product of ethical and sustainability attitudes changing, people are becoming more and more interested in issues surrounding landfill and in educating themselves on where materials come from and where they are ending up.
It could explain why recycled material brand Elvis & Kresse had such a busy and successful 2020, despite Covid-19 restrictions and economic effects. Since 2005, they have been rescuing raw materials, transforming them into luxury lifestyle accessories and donating 50% of profits back to charities. Fast-forward to today, and you can see one of their weekend bags in the new V&A exhibition, Bags: Inside Out, as well as a film about their processes and environmental mission.
The museum purchased their classic, decommissioned red fire-hose Weekend Bag and it’s now a part of their permanent collection. The closing credits of the V&A exhibition plays host to some of the most forward-thinking and innovative examples of sustainability in fashion, and this is where you can find the Elvis & Kresse bag. It sits alongside other incredible designers experimenting with innovative and environmentally sustainable materials, including a Stella McCartney backpack made from recycled ocean plastic waste.
Clearly, this is an impressive feat for a small sustainable company. ‘My jaw dropped to the floor,’ smiles founder Kresse Wesling. ‘To be a part of the longer narrative of the exhibition is amazing and, if I think of how it is for our parents and the people who have supported the business for a long time, it just makes everyone’s year.’
But, where did it all start? Originally from Canada, Kresse met Elvis in Hong Kong in 2004 and, after following him back to the UK, for the first time in her life, she found she could be flexible, so took the time to really reflect on what she wanted to do with her life. ‘I’ve always been interested in waste, and back then, you couldn’t just Google ONS data,’ she starts. ‘I went to the British Library and explored what waste looked like in the UK, where it was and how much was there. The data was pretty stark, with 100 million tonnes of material ending up in landfill and recycling rates abysmally low.’
Kresse realised that a lot of the information was unspecific and concluded that when you don’t have the specifics it’s virtually impossible to turn a problem into a solution. ‘I started going to landfill sites to get to grips with what was actually there,’ she says. ‘When you spend a lot of time at these sites, you start to see the patterns of material coming in. I saw a lot of trucks that were clearly coming from specific industries, so I started making friends with the truck drivers to understand where those materials were being collected.’
I laugh as Kresse likens her early explorations to being like a salmon swimming upstream, but the reality is that in the world of sustainability, this really is the case. Change, development and progression don’t come easily, and those pioneering for change have worked day in and day out – often in unconventional ways like making friends with lorry drivers! ‘It was hard work, but I felt compelled to do it,’ she says. ‘I started to realise that a lot of the materials were definitely recyclable and filled with opportunity.’
After realising that the fire-hoses from London were heading to landfill every time there was an issue in their lifecycle, Kresse started researching the material and what could be done with it. ‘I couldn’t abide with the idea that this beautiful heroic material was going to go to landfill, even if there was ostensibly nothing wrong with it,’ says Kresse. ‘I refused to give up on the idea that it could be re-used as something else.’
Now, for over a decade, none of London’s fire-hose has gone to landfill and over 200 tons of material has been reclaimed to create the luxury bags Elvis & Kresse are so known for today. They also recycle many other waste materials such as coffee sacks and parachute silks, and they work with the Burberry Foundation to solve the problem of the 35,000 tonnes of leather waste produced each year by the European luxury industry.
Although Kresse wouldn’t say she is someone who has a particular interest in fashion, she definitely had a clear vision from the very off. ‘At the beginning of my research, I knew nothing about fashion or luxury and you could argue that I still don’t. But, what I did discover was a report about how the luxury industry was failing people and planet, and I just thought of that as a structural failure that I wanted to change,’ she explains.
‘I was given the beautiful opportunity of fire-hose – it has so much potential and is designed to protect human life, so in its second iteration, we wanted to make sure it’s set up to give back. We have three guiding principles: rescue, transform and donate.’
Today, sustainability sits at the core of the business, and runs off into every element of what they do – but Kresse is clear that there’s still a long way to go. ‘No organisation is perfect but every time we discover something that we can improve, we change it,’ she says. ‘When the government says it’s going to take five years to outlaw Q-tips, I find it embarrassing. It doesn’t need to take that long, all of the changes are willpower based – it can just be done.’
Vying for change is something that comes naturally to both Elvis and Kresse and, as we discuss the challenges of running a sustainability start-up, the passion is evident. ‘We have the same challenges as any company. And then, there are a lot of people that say the burden of sustainability makes it twice as hard, but I disagree with that,’ says Kresse. ‘The environmental and ethical side is what makes it palatable. Running a business is incredibly difficult, so if you were also running a business that was exploitative or degrading the environment, I don’t know how you’d sleep at night.’
As for the future, where do they plan to go from here? ‘We’re looking at being completely regenerative as a business by 2030, and carbon neutral way before that. We’ve started four research and development projects, and we’ve got a couple of new materials in the mix, some of which will be ready to roll out this year,’ Kresse explains.
I wonder if Kresse feels positive about the direction in which the public perception of sustainability and consumerism is going? ‘There are so many problems at the same time, and that’s the big issue,’ she says. ‘You’ve got, in one sense, the rise of ethical production, and it’s growing and scaling, certainly, I’ve seen that over the last couple of years.’
But on the other hand, you’ve got fast fashion companies that are growing too, some of which, as Kresse stresses, are considered ethical-free zones. ‘So, we’ve got to address deep-seated cultural issues if we’re going to really get to grips with sustainability,’ she continues. ‘Trickle-down economics doesn’t work, and we have to accept that. We have to stop importing goods that have been produced in a non-environmental and unethical way, education and culture has to shift and people’s perception of success has to change.’
It’s about keeping the momentum, our finger on the pulse as consumers and continuing to campaign for change and we can certainly start by sharing the stories of, and supporting, those companies like Elvis & Kresse that are doing it right.