Kresse Wesling on Starting a Sustainable Luxury Brand - Elvis & Kresse

My Fives Rules For Succeeding as an Environmental Entrepreneur

October 31, 2018

Kresse Wesling, the co-founder of Elvis & Kresse, on what she's learnt from launching an award-winning sustainable luxury brand

Elvis & Kresse is a pioneering sustainable luxury brand established in 2005 to rescue London Fire Brigade’s damaged, decommissioned fire-hoses. For more than a decade we have been transforming all of London’s hoses into luxury accessories and donating 50 per cent of the profits to The Fire Fighters Charity.

We started Elvis & Kresse to solve a waste problem, and to change an industry by setting a completely different example. For more than a decade we have been redefining what waste, luxury and business are. Here are my fives rules for succeeding as an environmental entrepreneur.

1. Think backwards.

Don’t start with an idea, start with a problem. We face unprecedented environmental challenges: we have lost 30 per cent of our bees, and by 2050 there could be more plastic than fish in the oceans, much of it too small to see or capture. If you want to run a truly rewarding, impact-driven business, choose one of these challenges. When I first moved to the UK in 2004, 100 million tonnes of waste went to landfill. This provoked an exploration that continues to this day and explains why when we learnt about the damaged fire-hoses in 2005, we knew that we had our problem – the one we could solve with Elvis & Kresse.

2. Make sure you understand your problem truly, deeply and systemically.

This means knowing what it is, why it exists, how big it is, what or who causes it, where it is and what makes it worse. We traveled to see the fire-hose manufacturer to understand how the product is made, why it has a health and safety lifespan, and what else may cause it to fail. We met fire brigades across the country to understand how they work with the material, the extreme situations it is designed to survive and the workload it has to bear. We researched the entire life-cycle of the hose, from birth to death. We also spoke with academics to understand the base materials that make up the products and did a lot of research around where and how these materials are used beyond the fire service. We became hose and hose-waste experts.

3. Design a solution for the whole problem.

Be ambitious. Ensure that your solution could be scaled up to eradicate the problem. The love that we pour into each and every one of our fire-hoses is the reason why it becomes the perfect material for guilt-free luxury, and why we have been able to rescue all of London’s decommissioned hoses since 2010; however, it also means that there is simply not enough to make products for the mass market, and the process involves an intense amount of labour. Thus, in 2010 we started to tackle another problem: the fact that 800,000 tonnes of leather waste are produced as off-cut each year. For us this was a much more ambitious challenge to take on, and it required an equally audacious and innovative solution. Instead of designing products, we focused on designing a modular system, looking at specific shapes that could be woven together and taken apart to create whole new hides. This approach has the potential to solve the leather-waste issue, but only if we scale up, which is why late last year we were excited to announce our five-year partnership with the Burberry Foundation.

4. Be entirely sustainable.

This encompasses environmental, social and financial aspects, the latter because positive cashflow means you won’t have to compromise on your solution. Just because you are a purpose-driven social enterprise that exists to do good doesn’t mean you will be immune to wider economic issues. Like any business internal problems such as the loss of key staff or suppliers, or other shocks can damage your business. We encountered virtually every possible challenge in 2011 to 2012 and only survived because we reacted quickly, moved to a new location (in a new county!) and set up our very own manufacturing during the 10 most difficult and exciting days we have ever faced.

5. If a business decision is bad for other people’s grandchildren, don’t make it. Period.

This is something we talk through with Elvis every time. The world doesn't have time for exploitative, destructive businesses. Those days are gone.