“I think your average tourist would be going to the Tower of London and the National Gallery,” Kresse Wesling laughs, recounting her first visit to London from Canada back in the early noughties. “I have been to those places now, but it took me a couple of years to get there because the first place I went was the British Library, then I visited the sewers, followed by a waste transfer station at Battersea that’s now an uber expensive housing development.”
Fair enough, horses for courses, I say. But also, why?
“I’ve always been really interested in waste and the environment,” she smiles. “And in 2004, about a hundred million tonnes of waste was going to go to landfill in the UK. You compare it to buses or blue whales and it becomes this obscene, inconceivable amount. So, then I started thinking, oh, I’ve got to go to the landfills to actually see what this is.”
What Wesling saw shocked her. “To me, landfill is really the worst, because it’s literally like picking the earth up, like it’s a rug, and sweeping our mess underneath it. Then you go to the landfill sites and you see so much of it is obviously reusable, and it doesn’t need to be there. I was getting angrier and angrier, but I was also getting more and more excited. Because when I saw a fire hose, I just thought, right, a hundred million tonnes is too big of a problem for me to solve, but between three and ten tonnes of firehose a year? Wow. That’s a solvable problem.”
Trash to treasure
I’d argue most people would have looked at firehose on a landfill as a fairly unsolvable issue, but Wesling’s initial thought as she collected up her wares was that it must have some industrial use. When no one wanted it, however, she returned to the British Library with her partner, James ‘Elvis’ Henrit in tow, where further research revealed the material was actually remarkably similar to those used by a host of luxury fashion houses.
The pair began to look into the luxury goods industry, and discovered that very few houses were scoring highly in terms of sustainability. “They’re earning all of the money, they’ve got enormous margins, and they’re constantly using this language of craftsmanship and provenance and history. And it’s disingenuous, because you can’t care about provenance and not care about the environment. You can’t care about craftsmanship and not care about people. And yet here was an industry that didn’t seem to care about the environment or people. And we knew we were going to do both of those things.”
The pair’s resulting company, Elvis & Kresse, was launched in 2005. Based around the pillars of ‘rescue, transform, donate’, the couple initially used the hose material to create a range of luxury bags and accessories, before branching out into other rescued materials. Today, their range encompasses accessories and homewares, using everything from parachute silk and coffee sacks to leather offcuts rescued through a partnership with the Burberry Foundation.
However, not content with proving that goods can be produced entirely from waste, 50 per cent of all profits from the firm are donated, half to the Fire Fighters Charity and the remainder to environmental organisations such as, this year, Barefoot College. Over the last 15 years, the firm has reduced over 220 tonnes of material from landfill and donated over £170,000 to good causes.
Why go so far, I ask, when you’d already be doing good by merely finding a new home for waste materials? “We’ve got a short amount of time as a human civilisation in order to save our environment,” Wesling shrugs, “so you can’t just make cool bags. That’s one thing. You have to also be using renewable energy and creating apprenticeships, operate as a social enterprise, be a B Corps, be transparent, give 50 per cent of the profits.
“We are trying to explode the myth that businesses have to be selfish and profit hungry, and prove that actually the more you give, the more you get. There is no amount that we could give that would ever outdo the amount of goodwill that we receive in return.
“And if you think about a circular economy, yes, we can get the goods moving in a circle. But if we’re not going to get capital moving in a circle, soon we’ll have civil wars all over the place because we’ve had rising inequality since the seventies. People have to decide to do something about that. There’s a Swedish concept ‘lagom’, which is enough. We have to decide what is enough. Elvis and I don’t need very much. So, I think just more companies have to be much, much braver about what the role of business is in solving societies most pressing issues.”
Business for good
While Wesling acknowledges that many businesses see philanthropy as an extra, or a tax offset, she is adamant in her belief that giving money away also makes sound business sense. “There’s a lot of people who buy our pieces because they love the fire service. And that could be a 10-year-old boy that we make a belt for, or a 98-year-old retired fire chief in New Zealand. There’s no link in this group beyond a real attraction and draw to the fire service. And what people just don’t sort of get is that there are 66,000 fire service personnel in the UK alone. How many brands have that as a core community? And that’s just the personnel. All of those people have family and friends, and then there are people who’ve been saved from fires…
“We decided to give because it’s as society should be, and we’re trying to model that. But a big part of why we’ve succeeded is because people appreciate the giving, particularly the community that we’re giving back to.”
With philanthropy and environmentalism forming such a huge part of the pair’s ethos, it would be easy to think that the products themselves are an afterthought. But Wesling is adamant that great design is as key as great ethics.
“As soon as you prioritise charity over quality, your products become meaningless. Both the mission and the products have to be right if we want to solve the firehose problem on an ongoing basis. We have to make it absolutely something to be cherished by other people, so design is unbelievably important to us. And so that’s why I say we rescue, we transform, we donate. Transform is crucial, because if we don’t truly transform it, and if we don’t make something innovative and wonderful with it, then how is anyone else going to love it?”
The drive to sustainability
But while Elvis & Kresse’s aim is absolutely to make products that can stand equal with those from big name luxury houses, there the similarities end. For the wider fashion industry, Wesling says, needs nothing short of a total overhaul.
“We are running out of materials, so the reckless abandon with which we use very, very precious resources like cotton has to stop. And then think of the prices people are selling at. The race to the bottom has left us with a completely unsustainable system – financially, socially, morally, environmentally.
“Now, sustainability’s become so popular that every brand wants to say that we’re sustainable. Or they want to have a sustainable collection, hoping that the two per cent of what they do that has links with sustainability might just cast a green shade over the rest of the brand, and it’s dangerous. It’s very dangerous. So, we’re either going to be pushed to change, or we’re going to choose this. And what I hope is that culturally, we come to the right conclusion first.”
But while Wesling is nothing short of militant in her desire to prove a better way is possible, she is also, she says, optimistic that she is not alone in that belief. That increasingly, both consumers and businesses are waking up to the realisation that inequality benefits very few.
“You don’t want to be the squirrel that has all the nuts and that all the other squirrels attack. That’s just stupid,” she laughs. “And actually, if we think about the world that we want to live in, do you want to only be able to feel good about yourself by contrasting yourself with people who have less than you? Wouldn’t you rather be in a society where, actually, everybody was okay? Where everybody was looked after?
“Yes, you could push yourself to achieve lots of wonderful things – but why do we have to put a financial price tag on them? I think it’s much more interesting if, as a culture, we could value people for what their contribution was, rather than how much money they could accumulate. We’re very conscious that things can be made better and that if you make them better, then no one can tell you that it’s impossible, that it’s unaffordable and that it can’t be done.”
And with that, she’s off. To a landfill or a luxury fashion house, I don’t know – but wherever she arrives, she’ll be the one delving in the discards pile, hunting out her next piece of world-saving trash to transform.
Find out more about Elvis & Kresse, or shop the collection, here
Full Disclosure: Elvis & Kresse were invited to feature in The Flock’s Conscious Christmas gift guide. Every brand contained within the guide was selected by The Flock and invited to feature on account of their sustainable, ethical and/or charitable credentials. The for-profit brands included each made a small payment to help fund the cost of researching and producing the guide. No affiliate links have been used, and The Flock will receive no income for any sales made as a result of inclusion.