Meet The Maker: Genia Mineeva, BEEN London
Welcome to Hope and Story's Meet the Maker Series, where we chat to some of the people behind our favourite independent British brands.
BEEN London launched on Kickstarter in 2018, but their story began long before that.
Founder Genia Mineeva has quite the CV. From political journalism at the BBC to UN Campaigning, she has always been interested in driving change for good. There was one issue that really got under her skin: coffee cup waste. We chatted to Genia to understand how that story led her to launch BEEN London, a company that produces the most beautiful, innovative, sustainable accessories.
Genia, for anyone not lucky enough to have come across BEEN London before, can you explain what it is that you do?
'We make accessories - bags, laptop cases, wallets, backpacks entirely from materials that would otherwise end up in landfill. So, it's quite something. Basically what we enable our customers to do is divert waste from landfill. All this perfectly beautiful material is, like, leather off-cuts, plastic bottles that have been used once, discarded textiles from clothes that can no longer be worn. That can all be turned into new material. We then take it and turn it into a handbag that looks beautiful and performs exactly as you'd expect a leather handbag to, but has a fraction of the carbon footprint. one-tenth, to be precise.'
You've done the maths, then...
'I have actually have!' (laughs)
Take us back. You were originally a political journalist. What gave you the inspiration to move from that into launching BEEN London?
'I was in news and current affairs at the BBC, in the field as well as the news room. One day I'd be in France covering the presidential election and the next I'd be in the news room editing other people's work. It was really diverse and I met some of the best people of my life doing it, but at some point you realise OK, I am here telling other people's stories but I will actually have much more impact if I roll up my sleeves and go and do the work myself.
It was this feeling of, OK, I am interviewing these amazing people but I actually want to be there and have an impact myself. So I thought the world of NGO's (non-profit organisations) would be the answer to that. I thought I would go where the impact is and I would create some change there. So I joined an amazing NGO as Director Comms which was a natural progression from journalism. The company was founded by a super model, so very high profile in certain circles. A great NGO working with children with special needs.
During this work I met Mohammed Yunus who is a Nobel prize winner and the guy who invented the concept of social entrepreneurship. When he was talking about social business I thought, 'this is the solution.' You can look at a problem and create a solution around it but not rely on constantly fundraising as a charity.
I went on to work for the Global Goals Campaign for the UN with Richard Curtis, so I was moving towards Impact and Comms. I was also a Director of change.org helping people around the world run campaigns.
And then.... I watched a film about waste and completely ruined my career! I was like oh my god, we are creating so much waste. We all think someone is recycling it somewhere. No one is recycling it, unless they have a financial incentive to do so. It all just gets incinerated or goes to landfill.'
And so much of this waste is fashion, right?
'A lot. So I thought, 'OK, let's make a product that is made entirely from waste. Has anyone done this before? Is it even possible?' And it happened to be bags. A lot of my friends are quite educated women doing cool things. None of these women with disposable income would spend £1,000 on a bag, but a lot of them would spend £1,000 on having an impact. They know where they want to spend their money and it's not into big brands, fuelling their marketing. That's not where they want their money to go. But having an impact on the world is a good thing. It gets me excited.'
So you are making these beautiful bags that are not only massively sustainable using recycled materials, but they are also top quality. I can see why people feel good to be having an impact when buying them, but also get massive benefit themselves when buying them.
'That was the idea. To create a product that was beautiful and functional. Although the reason I get out of bed in the morning is the impact we are having and the carbon footprint calculations we have done behind it. But, it has to be a beautiful product first. Customers might join us because of the designs or the colours or the function, but then they become part of our community because of the impact which slowly they learn about as they understand more about BEEN.'
We've spoken about impact quite a lot here. Can you tell us how exactly you are having an impact with your products - from material selection right the way through to finished bag.
'It's quite straightforward. First and foremost, we only work with certified materials, so it has to have an international certification. The big criteria for us when choosing a material is whether we are diverting waste from landfill. We make everything by hand in East London to avoid any additional air miles. We design to avoid any off-cuts whatsoever. If you look at our products, all the panels are rectangular, and that's done to minimise waste. They are made in one of the last remaining leather goods studio's in East London. All the big brands have moved their production to Asia so we are proud to be made in the UK.'
That's pretty admirable to keep production in London. I'm sure it would have been easier in some respects to have moved your production overseas. Have you found there's more of a sense of community keeping everything closer to home?
'Yes. A good example of that would be a composite material we work with that doesn't take embossing. So, we came up with an idea to embroider our logo instead. The woman who does it is across the corridor from our studio and I really love that and I think it's also what our customers really love about us - that our products are made from hand by women in this community, who sit in the same café's as our customers in Hackney. '
You are an all-female team. Is that just by chance?
'It felt right. It feels nice. Also our ownership structure kind of reflects that; we are crowdfunded and owned by 700 women pretty much.'
All of your products are named after different places in London that mean something to you. Will this always be the case or do you think as you grow you will look to other parts of the UK to inspire future collections?
'We name everything after places in East London, but we are running out of names! We've done a couple of collaborations which are outside of East London. In terms of where we manufacture, we will stick to London and the UK for as long as we can possibly do so.
You create very functional products with a simplistic beauty. How do you do this in the design process?
'We give it a lot of thought but it's also kind of like collective design. We will always ask our community first before we create a design. On Instagram, we'll ask things like 'is this pocket in the right place, is it large enough, do we have enough of them?' It feels like we design collectively with our customers. I don't have grand design ambitions at all, I just want to make really awesome bags that people love to wear, with the lowest impact. It's impossible to do that without our community.'
And your community have been with you from the start, right. You were born from Kickstarter, how did you find that crowdfunding process?
'Oh my god, scary. I had a full- time job at the time at change.org running European communications. I was also studying sustainability at Cambridge at the same time. I had two young children. And this project started happening. I remember speaking to my husband and saying 'do you know what, I am actually feeling a little bit overwhelmed.' He told me to start dropping things because clearly it wasn't sustainable to be working all hours doing all these things. I thought, the only thing I am not dropping is BEEN London, that's something I really love and am passionate about. So we put it on Kickstarter to see what would happen and it was funded in one day and we doubled our target very quickly.'
You've recently raised again on SEEDRS too...
'That was an interesting one. Investors started circling around us when we got our first awards. I was still riding solo without a team. I had a few conversations and got to the point of an offer from one of the VC funds, and I walked away from it. If you're an impact business, you want people who are 100% aligned with your mission and the world of venture capitalism has slightly different priorities from ours! It was quite scary walking away from all that money. The most logical thing to do next was to go back to our community and offer our customers each a tiny piece of the company. It feels great that we don't really on some white middle aged man to tell us what to do. It's empowering.'
What's coming through in this conversation is that you have never compromised and done things the easy way.
'Yeah, maybe I should have! I remember chatting to someone who used to run the accessories department for one of the biggest manufacturers in the country. She told me 'you do the designs and then they fly the bags over to you, because leather doesn't travel by sea very well.' That didn't sit right with me, that my handbag could have accrued more air miles than I did in a year. Our approach is always, 'what would women we know and love do?'
Let's talk a bit about obstacles. How has COVID affected you and the way that you do business over the past twelve months?
'I mean, it hit us, obviously. We are a bag business and in a pandemic people don't leave the house, so it hit us. But, it allowed me the time to embark on the most important journey in the history of this company which was doing a full life-cycle analysis. We measure the carbon footprint of every movement our product makes. From raw materials, for example, IKEA uniforms discarded in the Netherlands, transported to London to then become the lining of our backpacks. Or, for example, the lining of our cross-bodies. They are recycled Italian cotton that used to be clothes beyond repair. We make leather from apple skins in the juicing industry, zips from plastic bottles. We measure every bit of our products journey to understand what our true impact is. That took us five months. What we learned is that the carbon footprint of our bags is one-tenth of anything on the high street. The difference alone is the equivalent of leaving the lights on for almost a year which is crazy. So, lockdown well spent!
We also tried to support our makers throughout. We never stopped paying our manufacturers. We did the opposite, we paid them upfront.
You've taken a very difficult situation there and turned it into something positive...
'It was some great data but we can now use this tool to plug in any data when we are making a design decision to understand the potential carbon footprint it has. We are also now rolling out a Shopify app to try to encourage customer to offset the small carbon footprint that we create.
So what's in store for the next twelve months?
'We have just launched a new collection and have two collaborations coming up; one with a fantastic female author and another with a brand. Lots of new products coming up.'
You didn't strike us as someone to rest on your laurels and stand still! We look forward to seeing what the future holds for you. Thank you so much for your time, we are super-excited to be working with you.
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