Since 2005, Elvis & Kresse have been turning waste materials into luxury lifestyle accessories – and donating an unprecedented 50% of profits back to charities. The first project was to rescue the tons of decommissioned London fire-hose going to landfill; for over a decade, because of their work, none of London’s fire-hose has gone to landfill (and 50 per cent of profits go to the Firefighters Charity). Founded by Kresse Wesling and James (Elvis) Henrit, the brand also turns old parachute silk, coffee and tea sacks and auction banners into linings and packaging. Today, Elvis & Kresse has partnered with Burberry to solve the problem of the 35,000 tonnes of leather waste produced each year by the European luxury industry.
What created your attitude of care for the environment?
I grew up in Canada and went camping almost every weekend as a kid and was out with moose and bear and elk in the wild. Then when I was 16, I got a scholarship to study in Hong Kong – which has a completely different relationship with the environment. Certain things turn you into an environmentalist; for me, that was going from Canada to Hong Kong.
Your background is in politics.
I studied politics at McGill because I thought the pathway to change was through politics. But over the course of my degree, I discovered that it might not be fast enough. After graduating, I was offered a job in venture capital – which was fascinating because they had no ethics. If you presented them with an environmental idea, they’d invest in it if it was going to make them money but, equally, they would invest in a landmine or gas company. [That’s where I learnt] that, if you have values or a specific goal, a business might be a good way to live them out.
When did you first encounter the fire-hose?
Via a chance meeting with the London Fire Brigade. I went to see them in Croydon, where all the hose goes to be repaired or decommissioned. Fire-hose is a specific grade of nitrile rubber that can’t be recycled because it’s got a nylon core. I went up to the rooftop and there it was, all coiled up in these big red rolls, ready to go to landfill. And that’s when I made a commitment to fix this. When we discovered that brands like Louis Vuitton were using similar rubbers in their ranges, we turned the firehose into belts and bags.
You used recycled office upholstery, parachute silks and coffee sacks for the linings – all reclamation projects.
Why use a new material, when an incredible alternative can be saved? We still collect coffee and tea sacks for our packaging. We also use failed parachute panels and auction banners from the big auction houses like Sotheby’s or Christie’s. That means we get some exciting bags! One of our totes had a male nude at the bottom. We had to think quite carefully who we were selling that one to.
By 2010, you’d solved the problem of waste fire-hoses ….
That’s when we discovered the leather waste issue. The first five phone calls I made, I thought, we’ve got a problem way bigger than fire-hose. According to the UN, at least 800,000 tonnes of leather waste are produced by the global leather industry. This is not old sofas, old aircraft leather, old upholstery. This is post-industrial off-cut, the leather that falls to the cutting room floor. If you think about the whole process of producing leather – from the life of the cow, and tanning, how energy and material intensive it is – it’s devastating. The idea that it never sees the light of day and gets landfilled or incinerated is anathema to us.
You handle the leather in a unique way.
We make components instead of products; pieces are individually cut and hand woven together to create a whole new hide. So you could make a rug, then take the pieces apart and make two rugs. You can repair and replace. We’ve given it the potential to be reinvented through time.
About three weeks ago, a film company asked us to make leather wall panels for one of their sets. Then we found out they were going to scrap it after use. So we said, why not give it back to us? We can immediately recycle it. They thought this was genius. And, for us, it was really exciting: the circular economy in action, the living embodiment of why we set up this system.
Re use should be most logical response to the things we make …
Re use and extend, extend, extend the life. We need to get a grip on the switch from fast to uber slow. As soon as you slow down, it makes a circular economy that much easier to achieve.
Tell me more about the partnership with Burberry.
Almost three years ago, the Burberry Foundation asked us if we would like to partner with them to scale our leather waste system. It’s a five year runway of funding to train craftspeople, to build an apprenticeship programme right here in Kent, to get a production runway going. The future for Burberry is sustainable luxury. They’re doing amazing projects of which this is a cornerstone.
The great thing is that we’ll have access to at least 120 tonnes of leather off-cuts from the production of their products to make into accessories and homeware. We want to try to push circular economy values and take this leather lego system to the next level. Burberry understands it’s much easier for a small company to be radical and innovative – and they get to be a part of that. We know there are more shapes we can explore, potential recombinations that will allow us to move into products like shoes and apparel.
Is consciousness growing?
Yes. We gave a workshop where people could come and play with the leather, to feel like it’s their raw material to design and redesign with. And this 19-year-old girl said, “this is a great initiative to save waste but aren’t we supporting the wider meat industry with this project?” Ten years ago, we’d never have been asked a question like that – about the systemic challenges we face – by a 19-year-old.
I said “look, the last thing I want is 800 thousand tons of leather to come to Kent every year. It’s a dream if people eat less meat and eventually the problem is eventually 100 thousand tons a year and shrinking but [at the moment] we want to talk about this so that people are aware of it and so that their relationship with the material changes.
And everyone in the room understood this whole dialogue. Ten years ago, half the people there would have been confused by the terms “circular economy” and “sustainable”.
You’re one of the first B Corp’s in the UK.
Yes – a benefit corporation. The B Corp community is a space for profit-making businesses. When you decide to become a B Corp, you have to change your constitution to say that you value the environment and its people as equal stakeholders. The whole concept of fiduciary duty – this idea that shareholder is king and that we legally must exploit the environment [to make profits] – is over in a B Corp. It’s [a movement that is] growing all over Europe; it’s already big in the US.
It’s a great community of businesses. Ben & Jerry’s, Patagonia, Finisterre, Etsy are all B Corps; the South American cosmetics brand Natura, which has just bought the Body Shop, is one of the biggest. Innocent just became a B Corp. It’s hard to meet the criteria but it’s an open, welcoming community, changing the business landscape, ensuring business is a force for good.
I like these ideas of support and collaboration.
When you become a social enterprise or a B Corp, there is this community that wants to trade with each other because the due diligence is done. If I have to buy a pair of jeans, I’m going to buy them from a company I know has been through the same rigorous process we have. That was one of the things Burberry liked about us because it was a big bit of auditing they didn’t need to do.
We need to have these really rigorous systems in place because there are many companies that will exploit the language without doing the work. Some of the fastest growing companies in the UK are not being held to account at all. It’s terrifying. We’ve got to work harder and faster.
What’s the future for Elvis & Kresse?
Our next challenge is to use where we’ve got to so far to inspire, to engage and to speak out with energy, with ideas that things are possible. We’ve never considered ourselves an activist brand. We know what we do. We’re proud of certain achievements. And that gives us a platform to be more vocal.
How do you stay positive?
I used to read the IPCC reports. I still read a lot but not as religiously as I used to because, although I can change X, I can’t necessarily change Y. I want to know about Y but I need to deliver on X. I need to stay positive and happy about that.
I spoke at a school recently and someone asked, “does it really make a difference what I do?” And I said, YES, because if you are doing it, then you can talk to someone else about doing it and they can talk to someone else. If we just give up, it’s over. But, if everyone got stuck in, we could turn things around. The problems we face are enormous and can be paralysing but we have to stay positive and energetic, we have to act.