The Accessories Brand Making Sustainable Bags Only From Waste, At Mainstream Prices

BEEN London

It’s almost inconceivable in the current climate for a fashion brand to launch into the market without boasting sustainability credentials in some shape or form. Consumers are increasingly aware of the environmental impact of fashion and expect a level of transparency when it comes to the ‘total cost’ of what they are buying. The elephant in the room, however, is how the business model a brand or retailer operates under fundamentally influences its ability to design, manufacture and sustainably sell products, from design concept, all the way through to the end-of-life. Few brands have devised a sustainable product roadmap end-to-end, but one London-based startup has written a blueprint for sustainability across its entire supply chain while managing to compete with the high street on price—an incredible feat in today’s challenging retail climate.

BEEN London creates no-nonsense, high-quality leather (and leather-alternative) accessories from meticulously sourced recycled (and recyclable) materials. Every component in their bags contains recycled materials, from the zips to the linings and even the leather. Notwithstanding the magnitude of this sourcing challenge, the products are manufactured in London and retail for a price in the range of what you would pay at Arket. How? I met with founder Genia Mineeva to learn more about BEEN’s sustainability framework, and their end-game in offering affordable sustainability.

Materials that normally end up in the landfill are the starting point of our design process

Genia Mineeva, Founder, BEEN London
Today In: Business

In her previous role as Director of communications at Change.org, working on the UN Sustainable Development Goals, Mineeva was acutely aware of the huge challenge in providing sustainable product options to global consumers and the general lack of accessibility of most brands (in terms of both price and design). Rather than approaching BEEN London as a creative venture, Mineeva is using bags as a tool for communication and education—she wants BEEN London to be the catalyst for a broader and deeper understanding, and adoption, of sustainability. Sustainability’s biggest accessories brand champion if you like.

Underpinning this entire initiative is the concept of taking the waste and defying its origins. Mineeva says it’s about rewiring our thinking to celebrate the fact that we can take something once considered dirty and worthless and use it to fly the flag for designing, making and consuming sustainably. Perhaps an oxymoron, sustainable consumption has to be about buying the most sustainable option when you genuinely need the product to make any sense. To that end, BEEN London products are resolutely practical and hard-wearing, rather than a seasonal fashion purchase.

Digging into the waste origins of the core leather product range, the leather is made from offcuts from the pre-chemical treatment phase of leather creation (around 40% of the total hide is wasted at this stage). These offcuts are ground it down to a powder that is then compressed using heat and water into a new leather material. This material is then bonded to a recycled polyester base to provide stability and durability that rivals traditional leather hides. Add to that the recycled polyester linings, recycled PET zips and partially recycled metal in the metal teeth zips (the highest level currently available), and the full waste origins of the product are mapped. This is a lot of material details, but that’s what makes BEEN London’s products sustainable. It also illustrates the difference between a product labeled as sustainable when containing a single sustainable material, for example, versus one that is created from only recycled (and recyclable) materials to the full extent of what is available from material suppliers. The other consideration, of course, is the impact of manufacturing and shipping, with most high-street brands manufacturing the far east to achieve competitive retail pricing. BEEN London’s manufacturing facility is in London, reducing the carbon footprint of the product dramatically.

There are financial implications of working with local manufacturers and only sourcing the highest grade of recycled materials that meet the standards of EU Reach compliance, guaranteeing safe chemical use for people and the planet. The real challenge posed by the cost of creating this end-to-end sustainable product, however, is in not passing this additional cost on to the consumer. Mineeva has made some smart design and retail decisions that allow her to compete with the likes of Arket. The most crucial of these is the decision to work with rectangular shapes only (which is the shape of the supplied materials she works with) so that offcuts are almost entirely eliminated in the manufacturing process. The dimensions of the pieces making up the bags are all a factor of the size of the source materials, so Mineeva has ensured that mathematically, she is using the material most economically. “You will never see us make a round bag,” she said.

What is rarely considered in terms of sustainable design is that a designer’s creative license and aesthetic whims (not to undermine them, but simply to recognize their impact) generally place form and style over sustainability. At the very least, this means designers usually work independently of the manufacturing process, causing an out of sight out of mind scenario in terms of the amount of waste their designs generate. The other consideration here is the resulting impact of such design freedom on the final retail price of products and the fact that the wastage cost-effectively hits the pocket of the end-consumer. This may be a point of struggle between design, sourcing and sales teams at some brands, but when a brand is launched for the sole purpose of providing a more sustainable alternative to the bags currently on the market, creative abandon is clearly not a priority.

BEEN accessories are not only crowdfunded (via a recent Kickstarter campaign) but crowd designed. The latest product, a backpack, was created following a series of requests from followers of the brand on Instagram, who Mineeva says have become ambassadors and advocates for the brand. The backpacks were tested by customers and tweaked based on their feedback, resulting in the final design.

In a recent conversation with the CTO of Depop, Remo Gettini, he explained to me how the growth of Depop’s marketplace to over 15 million users is rooted in word-of-mouth, albeit delivered digitally. What Mineeva is describing has parallels. This business model, where waste (and cost) is trimmed and the consumer (or user) influences the decisions the brand (or platform) makes, is driving the explosion of DTC and peer-to-peer fashion consumption in various forms, whether it be selling, renting, swapping or designing fashion. This model represents a move away from traditional sales models and decentralized manufacturing. It also further supports the research contesting that Gen Z and Gen X, are not blindly loyal to brand names, they are in search of brands that resonate with their beliefs and have a community around them—their tribe.

In search of competitors, the brands that are operating similarly are few, but notable mentions are Bottletop, which turns waste into decorative and distinctive artisan-made bags (which is reflected in the price, from around £195 for a shoulder bag) and Edun, which sells directional designs rather than ‘everyday’ practical bags you can sling over your shoulder, starting from around £350. BEEN London, however, appears to offer the only affordable, truly sustainable, high-quality leather bags that can withstand the everyday battering modern life swings at them that (literally) doesn’t cost the earth.

[“source=forbes”]