How can social entrepreneurship lead to a sustainable environment?
Kresse Wesling, MBE, is a multi-award winning environmental entrepreneur and Young Global Leader with a background in venture capital and significant start-up experience.
After first meeting with the London Fire Brigade in 2005, Kresse launched Elvis & Kresse, which turns industrial waste into innovative lifestyle products and returns 50% of profits to charities related to the waste. Elvis & Kresse’s first line is made from decommissioned fire hose, 50% of the profits from this line are donated to the Fire Fighters Charity. The company now collects 12 different waste streams, has several charitable partnerships and is involved with collaborations across industries, from fashion houses to FTSE 100 companies.
Measuring Success Differently
For traditional companies, success is about financial success. Elvis and Kresse has successfully challenged this notion with the Financial Times – who want to report Turnover and profitability. The only turnover Elvis and Kresse want to publicly celebrate is the amount of waste that they can reclaim.
This is important because this was the reason the business was set up – to rescue fire hoses.
Fire hoses can be put on a scale and weighed, they have an average weight. Measuring waste is their first measure of success and the real achievement of what they do. Elvis and Kresse also gives 50% of the profits to charities associated with the waste. For example with from the fire-hose range 50% of profits are Fire Fighter charities. The donations are the second thing they celebrate and measure their success on.
The 3rd measure of success is the turnover and the profitability. Money is not what they celebrate, but they do measure it as that is what keeps the doors open.
When Kresse first saw the fire hose, she fell in love with the stunning, lustrous coils of red. Her first thought was to create roof tiles with the hoses. However, she then discovered that fire hose is not fireproof or waterproof after 10 years in the natural elements!
Kresse works with MBA students. She lectures in Oxford in the MBA programme. Around 30 MBA students come over for a weekend every year. She has found the approach to the way entrepreneurs approach success depends on their motivation.
When a traditional entrepreneur thinks about business their focus is on ‘there is a market I can exploit.’ With a social or environmental entrepreneur they look at ‘what is the problem I can solve?’ It is a totally different approach.
Challenges of a Profitable Business for Good
Setting up a business is hard. That is why many young businesses fail and why it is hard to get to year 3 and year 5 and reach the milestones. It would be impossible for Kresse to run an exploitative business, as it would be an uphill battle for her everyday.
The upside of running an environmentally and socially impactful business is knowing that however small your contribution, you are making a difference or solving a problem. This aspect makes it an enjoyable challenge and an easier thing to love, be passionate about and stick with.
The circular economy is a huge area of interest now. When Kresse started Elvis and Kresse 10 years ago, they didn’t call it circular, but called themselves backward designers. Traditional designers start with a sketch, whether they are building a blimp or a building or making a dress. Then they go out and acquire the materials to make that thing. They sell that and are not really bothered about what happens at the end of it.
Elvis and Kresse start with a problem first and looked at the material – whether it is fire-hose or parachute silk or coffee-sack – and think what can be the best possible use for it? What is the best possible second life for the material?
Elvis and Kresse doesn’t do something that is cradle to cradle circular. But, they have become a poster child for how to transition, how to take step 1 towards a circular economy and how to do something more circular.
The circular economy has inspired their new range of leather system rugs, where rejected leather is used to make lego like patterns. These lego-like pieces can be taken apart and made into something else. This is designed to be circular and this will allow leather to be forever.
Impact on Daily Life
The focus on sustainable and ethical business has impacted the way Kresse lives. For example; she buys clothing from ethical brands or vintage. She hangs on to things a long time. Her engagement ring is an old ring of her grandmother’s and they have a very used car. Their home was a derelict water mill that they rescued in 2013 and they have fixed it using only things that were waste or recycled. It also impacts the way they eat; Kresse and Elvis rarely eat meat, and whenever they do, it is from local sources.
She still sees her life as rich, luxurious and decadent; as that is about experiences and spending time with the people you love, being in a free society and doing something you feel is important.
Kresse’s experience of her stay in Hong Kong, that had no recycling and did not treat any of its sewage (which all went to the sea), led her to establish her first green packaging business when she was 23 or 24 years.
On a camping trip in Canada when she was 6 or 7, Kresse was walking down a trail with her dad when she encountered a mother moose and baby moose. She was lifted up by her father and they walked backwards to give the moose space. The mesmerising image of this incident makes her miss living in Canada even now.
Takeaway from this Episode
If you are about to go and set up a business, or if you are thinking about a change in the way you work, you have to care about other peoples’ grandchildren in all the decisions that you make. If you think of that as a principle all the time then you won’t go far wrong.
Kresse Most Admires
Her late grandmother, Mrs. Kenny, a teacher – for her commitment and her being there for everyone. She was always there loving fiercely, teaching something, and did not let anybody down. She impacted the lives of her grandchildren, and hundreds and hundreds of students she taught. She also took Kresse out into nature, picking peas and berries, making pies, apple juice and pickling.
Kresse’s Favourite Resources
– Go and look at the waste in a landfill site or a recycling centre
– Be familiar with the waste statistics
– Check what materials aren’t currently recycled and think what is the best possible use for that material
– Find a material you love or find one that isn’t going anywhere good.
– Try to understand the material – it’s properties, it’s potential, it’s maximum circular potential
– Be market agnostic
– Do a market research
– Come up with a prototype
– Check if it is possible to create what can be made with the material in a cheap and sustainable way
– Check if the business needs funding and partners, and other requisites of setting up a business.
There are a lot of questions to ask before starting a business.
Companies Mentioned in the Interview
Recycling Technologies – for their innovative work in recycling films into oil to be repolymerized into new film or used as a fuel.
The Alberta Boot Company – on the longevity of products and how they resole products for life. Kresse’s inherited her brother’s Alberta Boot cowboy boots when he outgrew his.
A typical social or environmental entrepreneur thinks “What isn’t great about the world and how can I make it better?” That’s a different approach to setting up a business than the capitalist system of business.Kresse Wesling