Calculating The Carbon Footprint of a Handbag: A Lesson from BEEN London

Founded in 2018, BEEN London has already proven its commitment to sustainability by undertaking an in-depth life cycle analysis of its star design. Founder Genia Mineeva tells us about the carbon calculation process, the company’s raison d’être and what lies ahead.

Do you know the carbon footprint of your handbag? It’s not something one might first consider when purchasing an accessory and even if you do, finding that information is typically no simple task. But one fast-growing brand has already gone to the trouble – and discovered that its bags – made from 100% recycled materials – have a carbon footprint a tenth of the size of a high street equivalent. Soon after BEEN London passed its one year anniversary, the team undertook a radical Life Cycle Analysis with Terra Neutra to discover just how eco-efficient its most popular product truly is. “The guys at Terra Neutra were just amazing,” says founder Genia Mineeva. “They did the research for us pro bono because they wanted a case study and they said to us, ‘you clearly have absolutely nothing to hide.’”

Despite having a relatively short supply chain and all products being locally-manufactured in East London, for Mineeva the research was undoubtedly a little nerve-wracking. “It’s slightly scary!” she says, remembering moments of thinking: “What if it’s actually really bad!” The data collection phase itself was lengthy, as analysis of every phase of the Columbia’s production process was undertaken. “We measured everything from what car delivers our bags from Stratford to Camden, the distance, Addison Lee, their offsetting programme,” says Mineeva. The entire process took around six months – but to the team’s delight, the results didn’t let them down. BEEN’s considered approach to every aspect of the value chain proved to have a significant reduction in carbon emissions, and has additionally provided them with a dynamic resource for making informed decisions about future product developments; “that spreadsheet isn’t static – it’s now our tool for seeing what the C02 emissions would be for any new materials or products that we are putting together.”

Somewhat surprisingly, BEEN was never meant to be a business. “It was just meant to be me trying out making a product entirely from recycled materials and seeing if it’s even possible,” says Mineeva. Prior to founding the brand in 2018, her varied career moved from political journalism to global communications within impact-driven NGOs and social enterprises. For years, Mineeva says, “I was sitting in the newsroom thinking about all these people out there actually changing the world, and I’m just sitting here writing about them.” A pivotal moment came in meeting Muhammed Yunus, a social entrepreneur and recipient of the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize. “He was talking about doing business completely differently,” she remembers: “That is, it’s not a business for the sake of running a business and making money. But it’s a business for the sake of solving a problem.”That assertion ignited the first sparks of inspiration that today have become BEEN, an innovative and fashion-forward solution to reducing the world’s waste.

A postgraduate degree in Sustainable Value Chains and a course in design equipped Mineeva with the knowledge and skills to start putting her idea into practice. “I thought: what would be the most efficient tool of, not just diverting waste from landfill, but also changing attitudes to things made from waste. I thought, if I make something pretty that could seamlessly slide into people’s lives, [the] storytelling and conversations that a bag could start, plus the impact, maybe that could work?” The product itself had to be functional, stylish, and not distinguishable from a product made from non-waste materials. “It has to be great – the more people we convince to buy recycled products, the better,” says Mineeva. “We are here for impact, and it only makes sense if we can scale it.”

Every fabric used in BEEN’s designs has to be made from a waste stream. Mineeva uses the example of mushroom leather which, while being a fantastic alternative to the virgin option, would require intensive resources in growing and developing it. “The main criteria for materials is: can we rescue anything that otherwise would be chucked away?” Using Apple Skin, Pinatex and Econyl among others, BEEN’s forward-thinking approach to materials also means that durability has to be taken into account; the brand offers free repairs, to make sure the bags have as long a lifespan as possible. In this way, BEEN’s attention to detail is apparent in every aspect of the products’ designs. Thoughtfully named after East London locations, each pay homage to the brand’s championing of local manufacturing too.

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In spite of the pandemic, it’s been an exciting 12 months for BEEN. The core team has grown, moved into a studio of its own (in East London, of course), and a collaboration with performance-wear brand TALA has proven that the appetite for sustainable, stylish products is – well, pretty ravenous. From pricepoint to aesthetic and even target customer, at first glance the two brands might seem an unlikely pairing – but Mineeva and TALA founder Grace Bevereley’s mutual commitment to sustainability, and making sustainable products accessible, resulted in a backpack that, when I speak to Mineeva, had almost completely sold out. Creating the Vauxhall Backpack provided an opportunity for BEEN to try out new ideas and work with new materials, and proved a huge success with customers who loved the functional design (“with about a gazillion pockets”) and the innovative materials, including recycled felt made from IKEA uniforms. Our fingers are crossed for news of future collaborations. 

BEEN prides itself on being a business that asks questions, from the carbon footprint of a product to how the smallest millimetres of leftover fabric shavings could be put to use. So what questions does Mineeva think the most pressing questions are for brands at present? “For me, the questions I’m fascinated by at the moment are the kind of, the raison d’être: why does a brand or company exist? I feel slightly sorry for big companies, because they exist not for the reason of sustainability. When the entire company is built around something else, like just making money, it’s very difficult to kind of add on those CSR policies or sustainability initiatives. For brands like us, it’s really easy. So this fascinates me: why do people get out of bed in the morning to do what they do? And can this be changed somehow? I feel like the answer is very complex to that.”

So what lies ahead for BEEN? Mineeva hopes that one day the business will be able to collaborate with one of the big luxury houses to provide sustainable solutions for waste materials. “I think we could be really useful for each other,” she says. “We could be the little guys with a bit of credibility who could pick up that waste.”