November 29, 2022

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Innovative Retailer: BEEN London – Retail Insider

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The Name: BEEN London

The Place: East London and proud of it.

The Story: Sometimes you just need to take your hat off to someone. And today that someone is Genia Mineeva – founder of BEEN London and general all round good egg.

Well, this is glowing. Tell me more. She runs a sustainably-designed bag company despite originally having no formal qualifications in sustainability or bag design either for that matter. But as she herself says if you want to change something you can either just endlessly criticise it or you can suggest an alternative.

Genia Mineeva with her products (picture Glynn Davis)

That’s focus for you: In fact she started out as a journalist and moved sideways into comms for NGOs where she worked firstly on human rights and then got interested in sustainable issues and climate change where she realised, as she told Retail Insider editor Glynn Davis, “a lot more could be done.” She was especially interested in the intersection of business and NGOs and wondered “if business could be a vehicle for change” while also seeing that just being worthy is no good – the stuff has to be retailable and stand its ground. And do you know what finally galvanized her cat-like into action?

No idea: The curly headed one.

Shirley Temple? No. Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall with his crusade on reusing coffee cups. And being a journalist by training she began talking to people. But without much immediate success it must be said.

The fiends: Well, quite rightly they pointed out that as businesses the recycling had to make business sense too. It’s not about fluffy, warm, green feelings.

Show me the money: Exactly. So Mineeva decided that she was going to be the middle (wo)man between the waste streams and landfill. And along the way public opinion was going to be shifted too. Oh, and she was going to have to train up big time and fast.

Tell me: First courses in Sustainable Value Chains at Cambridge University and then Accessories Design at London College of Fashion.

You make it sound so easy: So armed with the know-how she then went to the funding site Kickstarter with her ideas for several bags from recycled materials. In 26 hours she got 269 orders through. This all happened in 2018.

So a recycled bag – is all of it recycled? Yup. Eco-friendly zips from reconstituted polyester. Left over leather from the tanneries (according to Mineeva one of the worst materials for waste with up to half wasted as off-cuts), and linings from recycled plastic bottles.

The Margate Weekender

Leather is a funny one isn’t it. How do you make these lovely bags from little scraps? Aha, you don’t. You mill them into powder and press them together to make new leather.

Get away: But that was all before ‘leaf leather’ anyway.

Sorry, what leather? Oh yes, they use pineapple waste leather, apple peel leather and BEEN London has just been awarded a grant to work with Treekind and Biophilica to work on the aforementioned leaf leather. This material decomposes in just nine months into nothing.

Ummm… No it’s fine. You have to bury it first! Your actual bag won’t disintegrate in nine months. It’s all go in the world of leather I can tell you.

Clearly: But as to the question of whether it is possible to make the bags entirely from recycled materials the answer is an emphatic yes! Mineeva stuck her neck out on a variety of very early prototype processes but it’s all come up roses. Sometimes using very simple tricks.

Like? Like making square bags because circles generate too many offcuts. Plus everything is stitched using recycled cotton yarn so no nasty glue.

Can we call her The Queen of Waste: Certainly one of them, and more living proof that one woman’s trash is another woman’s treasure.

Mineeva sounds like a collaborative sort of a gal: Oh yes, in fact she’s not worried if much bigger players start getting involved in this. They follow where pioneers like BEEN London have been and that’s all good with her as it will always have a boundary-pushing role. And simply as an experimenter.

I bet they all want to learn from BEEN London anyway: Yes, the conference circuit definitely beckons. She has some good stats to share though.

Go on: BEEN London did a lifecycle analysis on their products versus a usual high street bag. Theirs were 87% lower based on C02 emissions and, of course, the biggest factor was not using virgin textiles.

So let’s turn to production. What sort of numbers are we talking here? There is a studio where the products (which include laptop cases, overnight bags, backpacks and card holders) are designed. And a mere hop, skip and a jump away is the workshop where the ladies who sew reside. So all East End produced.

Doesn’t she know it would be cheaper in China? Stop! People say that to Mineeva all the time. In fact she hired traditional artisan bag-makers in the capital and uses their expertise.

East Enders: Artisans at work

Just kidding! How many a month? They’re doing about 150 per month so it’s definitely niche but as Mineeva says the customers are fiercely loyal to the brand. And collections sell out.

Talking of that what sort of collections is she working on? Funnily enough, one big one has just launched. BEEN London was approached by delivery giant DHL who wanted to know if anything could be done with their beautiful, silky, F1 motor sports sponsorship banners.

Oh. I was sort of thinking of influencer collabs: Well think again. Because this is where it’s at – rethinking waste streams for huge clients. The DHL collection consists of only 35 pieces in each category like backpacks, duffel bags and so on but it will go like hot cakes. And anyway, it does have an influencer collab.

Spot the brand: the DHL backpack

Yes? Author Candice Brathwaite did a collection. So there.

Does Mineeva know that H. Forman & Son in East London (very near the BEEN London office) is turning its discarded salmon skins into leather? She does now.

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