Building a Top Luxury Brand that Gives Away 50% of Profits while Diverting 10 Tons of Waste per Year Kresse Wesling - co-founder, Elvis & Kresse

Kresse is the co-founder of Elvis & Kresse, a sustainable luxury lifestyle accessories company that has been rescuing raw materials and donating 50% of profits back to charities since 2005. In 2011, she received Cartier’s Womens Initiative Award, in 2012 she was named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum and in 2013 she received an MBE from the Queen.

Kresse lives in Kent, England where she operates an open workshop with Elvis in a listed and environmentally restored Mill. Elvis & Kresse are genuinely open, transparent, kind and run open-book accounting with all their stakeholders and associated charities. All of their items are handmade from reclaimed materials, including decommissioned fire-hose, luxury leather off-cuts, auction banners, printing blanket, military-grade parachute silk and tea sack. Their packaging is also reclaimed and they are fully powered by renewable energy.

It is fascinating to learn about Kresse’s path to becoming a social entrepreneur and what inspired her to start Elvis & Kresse.  She also shares valuable advice for aspiring Arc Benders.

How did you first find your way to using business as a force for good?

It is always interesting to look at these things retrospectively, and from my current vantage point I suppose I was always headed in this direction. I had a fantastic childhood in Canada, an amazing education, lots of time spent outdoors and camping. I had my first eco-awakening with the acid rain / hole in the ozone layer crisis in the late 80s. I initially thought politics would be my path to making things better, so I studied Political Science at McGill.

Was there anything specific that led you to change your mind about politics as the direction you wanted to go?

At university I became acutely aware of how much time and compromise it takes to make change through politics.

To illustrate, in response to the enormous public focus on plastic waste in the oceans the British Prime Minister announced that over the next 25 years the UK will eliminate single-use plastics by phasing them out… 25 years!?  This sounded insane to me.

I am not built to work this way. We want to make a decision and then act, immediately. When we decided to take the last vestige of plastic out of our business? We did it in 3-days.

After University, I went to Hong Kong where the first job I was offered was in venture capital. I learned so much from all of the businesses that we were either investing in or considering. I spent day after day analyzing business after business. I got a window into what a lot of different organizations do and how they operate.

One thing absolutely fascinated me – the businesses that were making a profit and not overburdened by debt or shareholders were able to think and act very quickly, they could be nimble, adapt and essentially do anything they wanted.

Of course, this power is abused in a lot of situations… but it doesn’t have to be.

If you are running a business that is successful, you have the freedom to be as altruistic as you want.

We give away 50% of our profits and that’s up to us.  If you don’t like it, then you aren’t our shareholder, investor or potential new colleague. Knowing that we have this freedom, that we can live our values through our business, that we don’t have to wait or compromise, this is why business is the best spot for me.

When we first started in the UK, there was a lot of hype about our project and I was asked to be an ambassador for social enterprise.  One thing I learned from the rest of the ambassadors and the incredible community we represent is the shared desire to make things better.  Just because the history of capitalism is one of exploitation doesn’t mean that it has to be that way in the future.

Tell me more about how you’re making an impact through Elvis & Kresse?

When I first came to the UK, I knew that I wanted to start exploring environmental challenges.  I wasn’t necessarily sure that I wanted to start a business.  I just wanted to understand the problems that the UK was facing and that I might find interesting.

I visited various landfill sites. I did quite a bit of research at the British Library.  In the year I arrived, 2004, 100 million tons of waste went to British landfills.  I remember thinking that this was an insane amount, and doubly crazy when this is such a tiny island.

I started exploring different types of waste and then found the fire-hose.  It is such a beautiful, durable, life-saving material. Each year approximately 10 tons of fire-hose is decommissioned in the UK. This happens if it is too damaged to repair or reaches the end of its 25-year working life. Compared to 100 million tons, I thought 10 would be a great place to start. We were not at all sure what we would do with it, but we knew we could save it.

The material was the starting point.  Everything else came from that.

From there you started making beautiful products. Can you tell me what kind of decisions you made because you were a B Corp and how you have built impact into your business?   

You can rarely make one of these decisions in isolation.  Let’s say the initial goal of your business is to solve an environmental problem.  You can’t then ignore other environmental problems or social problems as you form your business.

Every time you make decisions about how you’re going to structure your business, you have to think intentionally about what kind of people you work with, what kind of packaging you’re going to use, how you’re going to distribute.  All of these choices sum up the kind of business you are.

If the foundation of your business is environmental, how can you do something fundamentally against that core value?  I never understand a company that makes a great green product and then packages it in 10 layers of plastic and styrofoam. I found this amazing women’s cooperative that does incredible work to support the livelihood its entire community.  They have both an incredible social heart and skilled craftsmanship… and yet they make and sell a throwaway product.  It doesn’t have any environmental value.  There is a real disconnect there.

We took everything about how we formed the business quite seriously.  It had to stem from the same overarching goal to ‘Do more, be better.’  This is our motto and certainly informs a lot of our decision making.

I know Elvis & Kresse gives away 50% of profits – at what point did you make this decision?

We made this promise the first day we met with the London fire Brigade. We had no idea that we were going to succeed, let alone make any money.  I said on the spot, ‘no matter what I make, I’ll give you half’.  They thought that was really funny.

You can’t actually give money to a public sector organisation, but what we could do was give money to the Fire Fighters Charity (FFC).  At the end of the first year we had about 134 pounds in our account… and we simply gave all of it to the FFC. It was a small amount, but it mattered to us and to the Fire Brigade and FFC.

It was a snap decision, but it was one of the best decisions we’ve ever made.  When you start a business, one of the things you need is people to celebrate what you do and share your story.  We had 66,000 firefighters celebrating with us.  It really was the capitalist version of karma. The results were instantly apparent.

Also, it feels incredibly good and it leads you into this greater philosophical debate about the fact that sharing has inherent value.  When we’re kids we’re taught how to share and then spend the rest of our lives learning to be selfish.  It doesn’t make a lot of sense.

What obstacles have you had to overcome along the way?

There have been a lot.  The first obstacle was the material itself… if we had started with leather, it would have been so much easier.  Leather is a known material.  Fire-hose is not a textile.  It’s filthy, round with edges you can’t flatten, long and unwieldy.  We had to find our own way to clean it and transform it into a usable material.

Then we had to find our own way to manufacturer it. In the beginning no one wanted to work with the hose. Not anywhere we went in Europe. There was a real snobbery about it.

It was the stubbornness and determination of Elvis that pulled us through. Although he had never used a sewing machine before he simply learned to sew.  We bought a machine, it broke, we bought a bigger machine, that broke.  Finally, we got a truly industrial Toyota that we had to bolt to the floor.  This was capable of handling the hose and Elvis made the first rudimentary pieces.   Only then did we find a partner who would take a chance on us and our designs.

The next obstacle was the consumer, people who didn’t know and love us (like our friends and family) simply did not understand what we were doing.  People really get it now, more of the traditional brands are starting to speak our language. The concept of sustainability in fashion and luxury is still nascent, but something is definitely happening.

We are one of the oldest sustainable luxury brands in the UK.  That’s really great on one hand but it has been a huge journey.  The press originally perceived us as quirky and ‘cute’. This was helpful in terms of sharing our story, but traditional consumers of luxury goods like things that are very well known, established and reliable. It has taken years to be accepted in this way.

Then there are the same battles that all other businesses have faced.  We started before Twitter.  We started before there were any ecommerce or website building platforms like Shopify. We didn’t have a budget for our first website, so Elvis learned to code and we built it with Dreamweaver. We worked out how to build a supply chain, be amazing at customer service, find amazing suppliers…

These are only a few of our hurdles… a tiny, tiny fraction, yet here we are, 12 years later.

I think the best way to describe it might be like this.  Raising children is difficult and relentless, but you get the joy of having children.  Running a building a business is difficult and relentless, but we get the joy of being a social enterprise and solving problems.

This is what makes it sustainable and makes you stick with it.  The upside is so good, so inspiring.

It is also why I am confused  that exploitative, ugly and even evil businesses can find talented and wonderful people to work for them.

We talk about divestment in the press… we talk about pension funds pulling money out of oil and gas companies.  But what if all the employees just left? I understand the world would grind to a halt.  It would be quite drastic.  But, even if it just started to happen… if these companies started to struggle with recruitment.  Then they would have to change their path.

I think there is a micro-trend of this starting to happen. When I first went to my MBA program in 2011, about 5 of us out of about 50 students were really passionate about trying to make a social impact. Now the student interest is really growing. There is power in talent asking their employer ‘what is your commitment to social responsibility?’

For the last 8-9 years, I have been giving quarterly lectures at Oxford’s MBA program.  In first couple of years maybe 10% of the class would come to the introductory social enterprise lecture.  Now almost 100% of the class that is interested.  I’m not saying that all of these people are going to go into B Corps or social enterprises, but the interest level has totally and utterly changed.

In 3-weeks time, we have 30 Oxford students coming to stay with Elvis and I for the weekend.  Oxford runs the content, which is a Leadership for Impact Program.  They do it here in our home and in our workshop so they can understand first-hand what it’s like in practice. They can live and breathe the theories that they are learning and the case studies they are working on.

Oxford also runs a conference every year called Emerge and they invite all of the universities to it.  The focus is on impact driven business models, social enterprises and B Corps.  The great thing is that it is easy for everyone to get there because of the UK’s size. There is so much collaboration and idea-sharing. It is amazing.

What advice do you have for people that want to become Arc Benders and want to change the world?

I think you have to find something that you want to fix and then match that problem to the skills you have and the skills you are keen to acquire.

There is someone you should probably interview named Daniela Papi-Thornton, based in Boulder.  We met through Oxford.  She wrote this report called Tackling Heropreneurship.  It’s all about celebrating people who apprentice with a problem.  With her, I met 5 Canadian groups that were all spending time getting to grips with various problems.

There was a young man from a First Nations community that had grown up with a unique and intensely personal understanding of food insecurity… he understood the situation deeply because it affected his own community. When we met he was learning about it from an academic perspective.  He left his community and went to University.  He wanted to understand the systemic factors that create this issue and acquire the skills needed to fix it.  It’s something he had been thinking about for years.  He was hunting down the skills, knowledge, and expertise to be able to contribute.  By the end of his presentation, we were bawling our eyes out.  That level of commitment is truly outstanding.  That’s when I see people becoming incredibly effective.

It should be a problem you are willing to spend years and years of your life on.  For some people that’s solving problems with children, for some it’s the environment, or social justice, health or poverty alleviation. There is no lack of problems.

The people that are most successful at Arc Bending are the ones that truly understand the problem and know exactly how and where they can insert themselves in order to be the most effective. This leads to systemic solutions. This leads to joy.

When we started Elvis & Kresse, it was just the two of us. Our business has only grown because people came to join us and contribute their own invaluable skills and effort. You don’t have to start a business to be an arc bender. You can be that crucial person who helps a project to scale and achieve its true potential. We met an amazing entrepreneur, Jeff Hoffman, one of his signature phrases really rings true here “Ideas are welcomed but execution is worshipped.” That is so true. Ideas don’t solve problems you need teams of people with the whole matrix of required skills and work ethic.

I met someone with a strong Sales & Marketing background that wanted to start their own company and I asked why, “are you sure you don’t want to go and work for a social enterprise or a B Corp? What if you could help transform it and turn it into something 10… 15… even 20 times its current size?”  There are different paths to making change. In whatever role you’re in, if it is challenging and interesting to you and you’re having an impact then you are already one of the luckiest people you know.

To learn more about their story and beautiful products, be sure to check out the Elvis & Kresse website or follow them on social media @elvisandkresse.