Would it be possible to create a successful British brand producing luxury accessories out of recycled materials, practically waste, which would otherwise go to landfill? Genya Mineeva, previously a BBC journalist and global communications director of both the Natalia Vodianova Naked Hearts Foundation and the change.org platform, has managed to do this. Mineeva’s startup, named BEEN, appeared in 2018 as a result of crowdfunding. It has already won dozens of awards for sustainable fashion and responsible consumerism, received offers of cooperation from companies with world-famous names and continues to attract customers from a wide range of income brackets. Despite all this, BEEN’s founder asserts that she never intended to make money from her idea, but only to do something about the problem of recycling waste. Kommersant UK talked to Genya Mineeva about how, instead of building up a profitable business following the principle of maximising profits, she did it by helping the environment and making the world a better place.
How expensive is the luxury of ethical production?
How expensive is it for whom? It goes without saying that ethical production makes our bags more expensive than those sewn in China using petrochemical products. Our production isn’t just more expensive because it’s done in Britain. We also pay our seamstresses a living wage (a salary higher than the official minimum wage). This is our personal choice; to pay enough money to live on and not squeeze as much as we can out of the workers. We want working conditions that respect people’s rights, and that is quite an expensive pleasure. However, this gives us absolute transparency; on any day we can invite our partners to the studio where everything is sewn. We know the seamstresses and we know their children; it’s a whole different level of relationship.
We have a choice; either to produce cheaply and sell in a shop or to produce ethically and work directly with customers to avoid imposing on them the 270% markup shop sale entails. We’ve reconsidered the next collection a little and we’ll try to sell some articles in stores, but more as an experiment than a way to make money.
I understand that not everyone can afford a £200 handbag, but we can’t produce one for under £100. We’ve taken a business decision to cut our profit and our margin to make our product accessible to a greater number of people. This logic probably isn’t very clever from a business perspective but nevertheless, it works.
BEEN was already making a profit half a year after it was founded. This is extremely rare for a startup. What made it successful?
The first year was profitable for one simple reason; we had few costs (we had no office or staff), and we had quite a lot of sales. Initially, our funding was all from my own investment, plus what we managed to raise on the Kickstarter platform. People were ready to preorder handbags and only receive them after three to four months. The idea was to buy a new bag, something you were going to buy anyway, and use the purchase to have a positive effect on certain issues, such as what happens to rubbish and ensuring respect for the human rights of the people doing the sewing. This idea had resonance. This is why they wrote a lot about us in the press and the glossy magazines, and we won prizes for sustainability straight away. At that time, I still had my regular job as the director of the UK office of Change.org, with responsibility for all of Europe. We received our first award and then the customers came to us for a second time, to buy Christmas presents. It was then that it became clear that I had to concentrate on the business.
Our profitability fell when our first round of investment ended. So far, it's the only one we’ve had. Also, the pandemic didn’t help. In 2020 our books showed a loss because we had greatly expanded our team. We had more people and more opportunities, but sales had gone down as people weren’t buying as many accessories.
Now we’re making a profit again and I’m very glad because we can invest in growth and impact again. (I’m not even sure how to say that in Russian, although it’s the main byword of our business, the idea is to have a positive effect on people, the world and everything around us). We are very careful with our finances, we try to spend as little as possible and not pass on extra costs to the consumer. It seems to me that people can see we do this and they value it. That’s why it’s all working out; people know that we came onto the market to genuinely try to change things.
How did you conduct your first round of investment?
It was an interesting story. Three years ago it became clear that everything was coming along in leaps and bounds, but we needed some extra investment to fund growth so that we could move on to the next stage of development. I talked to a couple of investment funds and I realised that they all wanted me to focus on “profits first” rather than on “impact first”, and be geared towards making money rather than following an idea. Straight away they said that there was no point paying a living wage to the seamstresses and that other costs should be cut too. I thought that if I compromised my principles and the principles of the company at this early stage then that would be the end of the idea. I’m very glad that I turned down the money they offered me, which was about a quarter of a million pounds, and I decided to stick by my principles.
I went to our customers to solve the issue of financing. There are various online platforms which you can use to put shares in your company up for public sale. One of these platforms is called SEEDRS, and on it, we offered our shares to customers, friends, acquaintances and anyone who was interested. The minimum price was £11, and some people invested much more, we’re talking about five and six-digit figures. This means we have only one shareholder, SEEDRS, who represents the interests of several hundred people, practically all of whom are women. It's really cool.
Are shares in the company still on sale?
Not at the moment. But at the start of February, we’ll start the next round of investment. It won’t just be for everyone, only for the more serious investors. We’re currently holding talks with people who understand the value of our ideas and our principles, and we’re now ready for discussions on how to improve and optimise some processes. We are ready to learn from the industry, but without making compromises.
Was it the case that BEEN’s products started to attract more high-spending clients straight away, including some from the world of high fashion?
Both yes and no, to be honest. Amongst our clients, there are an awful lot of doctors, media people and those who work for various state bodies. I wouldn’t say that it’s an especially rich section of the public. For example, one of our handbags, East Tote, costs £110. It was made in London from recycled materials. We try to make at least some of our products as affordable as possible by simplifying the design.
How did your wares reach the world of high fashion? After all, isn't it very conservative?
It seems to me that honesty and sincerity can cut through the conservatism. People look at us and say: ‘Wow! Do you do all that? And you make it out of perpendicular pieces of fabric so that there’s no waste? And only out of certified materials? And you also produce it all in London?’. It’s a shock seeing that someone is doing the whole process, from beginning to end, rather than just thinking ‘Let’s bolt on some kind of “eco” thing’, and, for those for whom it’s important, this overcomes their conservatism.
Amongst our customers are quite a lot of famous people. Jessica Alba has been in touch with us via Instagram. I know that the actress Gillian Anderson has bought handbags from us. When we saw her name, we thought ‘No, that can’t be right!’, but it turned out that it really was her, she’d just gone onto our site and bought it. We have collaborated with Amelia Windsor, who is now 39th in line to the British throne. The writer Candice Brathwaite has also created a design collection for us. Naomi Campbell uses our handbags. In the States, people have unexpectedly found out about us and there have been a lot of sales.
Currently, rather large businesses are coming to us with special projects. For instance, DHL and Formula One. We also have a major project which I can’t talk about, although I can say it’s with the largest streaming company in the world.
How did you come to work with DHL?
They came to us a bit more than a year ago. Last year, we received a particularly large number of sustainability prizes and we started an interesting project with London Town Hall. British Vogue interviewed me and tweeted the article with the words ‘One of the most innovative fashion companies in the world’. After that, the “Big Players” started to notice us; Rolls Royce, who we’re discussing collaboration with, and DHL, we implemented a project for them and we’re continuing to support it.
DHL is one of the largest sponsors of Formula One racing, and they wanted to do something with the advertising banners they put up during the races (they are not made of recyclable materials). They came to us and said, ‘Let’s think of something’. We were pleased to take up their offer and we made a small capsule collection using fragments of the DHL banners. The coolest thing about it is that each rucksack or handbag sewn out of these banners was absolutely unique, no two are alike. After we had launched this project, other DHL departments got in touch, and we’ve been working with them for a year and a half now. We provide the clients with an impact report about each product, explaining how our work has affected the environment.
In 2023, we want to collaborate more with large companies. Some of them have already sought us out, even though we haven’t done anything proactive; we haven’t sent out a single presentation! So what will happen if we actively try to contact them? We’re currently in talks with a well-known sound studio on Abbey Road, and also with Nobu, the restaurant and hotel chain.
How do you keep track of how much rubbish you’ve saved from the dump and how much material you’ve recycled?
We always measure our carbon footprint because this is a global currency. We count how much rubbish we have been able to save from burning or being sent to landfill. We’ve just exceeded two tonnes.
The metric which I am proud of most of all is the work we did during the lockdown, six months of my life that I’ll never get back (laughs). We conducted a full life cycle analysis, which means we assessed each step of the product’s movement from the sourcing of raw materials to the dispatch of the finished product from our studio to the customer. We considered where the material came from, how much energy was expended to process it and how it was then transported on to us. Our materials are delivered by water to reduce the carbon footprint. We considered what kind of transport to use to take it the final mile from the docks to our studio. (We try to use electric vehicles). We worked out the total distance of the journey in miles. We use several materials (zips come from one country, and cotton padding from another). We analysed the whole supply chain. We also looked at who supplies electricity to our office and sewing workshop, as well as the number of days a week we use light and heating and the size of the storage area. We compare the carbon footprint of each product with what is sold in stores on the high streets of British towns. The carbon footprint of our handbags, which are produced in Britain from recycled materials transported by water, is 87% smaller than that of other brands that buy their materials and then produce their bags in Asia before delivering them to Britain by aeroplane. This is a gigantic difference! For me, this is confirmation that what we’re doing isn’t just a great story; we really are setting a precedent and having a direct impact on the problem of global warming. We can find thousands of solutions to this problem and show this very problematic industry that things can be done differently.
How do you fight greenwashing?
We don’t. I don’t think that it’s my mission to go around accusing people of doing something wrong. It seems to me that our mission as a company is to give an honest demonstration of how it’s possible to do things. It’s important to say openly that you don’t have the answers to all the questions. We know that many things can be improved, but for the time being, the solutions which we have chosen as a company are the best which are possible. It may be that a particular material is difficult to recycle again after we have used it, but we hope that in a few months, better solutions will be found. We try to discuss what we can do better every day, but we are not perfect.
What does the idea of luxury imply for you?
As far as the product is concerned, luxury is handmade articles. It requires craftsmanship and decades of practice. Each part is sewn by hand and painted; that’s luxury for me. In life, luxury is silence, the woods, the sea and relaxation.
What is the most difficult thing about your work?
A question which has always bothered me and is especially pressing now, is the scale of our growth; how big do we want to become? How can a capitalist way of thinking, where companies must grow quickly and endlessly for the sake of the shareholders' profits, be compatible with the fact that the planet’s resources are limited? Is it worth growing quickly and intensively, as fast as we can, or would it be better to do it more slowly and in a way that is more thought through? We are thinking about where to expand and in what order to do it. This is why we want to do this small round of investment, to hire people who can help us to grow.
What other ideas and dreams do you have? What would you like to do next?
We don’t want to just produce bags and accessories. I am thinking about various knitted articles as well; we could start with hats, scarves and gloves, also made from recycled materials. For one of our collaborations with a hotel, we are discussing the possibility of producing towels and bed sheets.
We have built up an unbelievable team. Our designer was the head of accessories at Kenzo. Brittany, who deals with production, has previously worked with ERDEM and the White Company, so she has expertise in the production of all kinds of goods, not just bags and accessories. I am also interested in the production of goods which leave no traces; you use your bag for five to ten years and then you put it in the compost, where it decomposes. Let’s take the example of trainers; how many different materials do they contain? From 40 to 80, and they are all glued together. How many pairs of trainers do we wear and what happens to them at the end of their lives? Nobody thinks about this. I am not just interested in recycling what already exists; this is great, we’re already doing it, but I’d like to develop furniture and clothes that produce no rubbish at all. How to build a world without rubbish; that’s what really interests me.