If you are capable of something, you are responsible for it – interview with Kresse Wesling
I really liked when you said during your lecture at Central Saint Martins „Fashion goes against everything I want to stand for”. Why is that?
K.W. : It’s interesting that you ask about it just now, that I am writing a blog for Huffington post about it. Fashion is ephemeral. It is here now and then it is gone. That’s not how I understand value. Why would you put all this effort into making incredibly wonderful, durable things and then expect people to get rid of them and move on to something else? I think we have to question the term itself and question if it is actually helping us? I think it is not. I understand that people still need to wear clothing and belts and carry bags, but these things should be built to last, made well in conditions that don’t destroy the environment. That is something we could celebrate. Fashion doesn’t tend to do those things, it is really extractive. It doesn’t generally pay people well. And I don’t mean only manufacturing, there are some luxury brands who are infamous for relying on free interns. When companies pay below the living wage then essentially the state is subsidizing this business as employees have to count on state aid. I think that any business that works like this should be clear that their success depends on state support.
Do you think it makes sense to distinguish fashion and sustainable fashion? Shall we find a new name for that? Or change the way fashion is?
K.W.: You can always come up with a new phrase. That’s how I came up with #thisisluxury as I wouldn’t ever describe what we do as fashion. I don’t think we are fashionable at all. I wouldn’t want to do a London Fashion Week but I would love to do London Permanent Week. On the flipside of that there are terms that became trendy like the word ‘sustainable’ and now, before we have achieved anything like sustainability, people want to move on to new words. Sustainable is not enough anyway. We are smart, we’ve got great technologies and capacity for change and advancement. So why is sustainable acceptable when it is really the least we can do? When you go campingyou should leave your site as if you were never there. We should take this approach towards the whole world! Just look at the planet and some completely destroyed ecosystems. You can certainly tell that we are here.
To redress what we have done should be a big adventure way beyond being sustainable.
We should be doing awesome and amazing, exciting things. I don’t like the word fashion and what It implies; I find it quite funny that it is used in other contexts in a derogatory way: here now, gone tomorrow. Some things get dangerous when they become fashionable. I was just watching a documentary about how foraged food is becoming fashionable which could be dangerous for delicate ecosystems as loads of people have no idea how to forage in a good way. It is a bit frightening.
Fashionable things on a big scale can turn into something we don’t know. We don’t know the results of our behaviours…
K.W.: And often we don’t know for a really long time.
Your business is run in a transparent way and you say that it is the most rational way to do it. You are clear about the profits you share with the Firefighters charity who fuel your business with the raw material…and yet it is such an uncommon way for a business to operate. Why is that you think?
K.W.: I think it is down to education and experience. If you studied business and learned about how to stay ahead of your competition or about marketing campaigns, you learned a vocabulary similar to that of war. This makes a lot of people think that someone has to win and someone has to lose. A very good friend of mine feels we must reject this binary system: there doesn’t have to be a winner and a loser. We designed a business that creates a lot of winners. This makes it easy to be transparent. If our business created a lot of losers we would probably be less transparent. I think if a business is not willing to be transparent it is because it is embarrassed about something. It reminds me of when I visited my friend in Venezuela years ago and she said: you will have to buy a bikini now because everyone wears them, even the grandmothers. If you don’t wear a bikini here, everyone will think that you have something to hide. And so I bought one because standing out was the last thing I wanted to do! I hope that this will happen to the business world. It would be great if the least transparent businesses became the odd ones out, and attracted more scrutiny.
Why isn’t donating 50% of your income to Firefighters charity is not just a CSR strategy but it is actually creating an ecosystem where materials flow from waste to products. How would you differentiate this?
K.W.: Well a lot of companies use vocabulary that is all about being good and some of them are trying and testing things and experimenting with being good. This is very positive. They are trying to work out how quickly they can change and how much. But there are also companies that aren’t doing anything at all and yet still use the same vocabulary. That’s very annoying. Then there are people like us, who are as transparent as possible, and are constantly working on how to improve what we do and how we share what we do. We want to tell the whole story. So there is still a bit of work for a customer to do, trying to understand who is genuinely doing something good and who is just using the words.
Do you think consumers do that enough?
K.W.: I think there are substantially increasing numbers of highly engaged people. They are engaged with all aspects of their life. They want to spend more time with families, meditate more, think long and hard about eating meat or not, taking a long flight or not and so on. There are also people who don’t consider these things. The vast majority of global population doesn’t have access to internet shopping or the time to research the products they use. The majority don’t have the enormous choice that is available in the UK. We have started something but there is a long way to go. I can absolutely imagine a world where certain practices aren’t working anymore because nobody is willing to buy from them. There have been so many statements by big corporations about people being hyper aware.
I hope that an era of big businesses doing big bad things has to come to an end. Maybe this will take the next 30 years. It will definitely happen during our lives because there simply aren’t enough resources for consumption to continue this way.
I attended an event this week about AI and robots taking over, I optimistically thought of the potential upside to it. Imagine if it meant more leisure time for everyone, imagine that all the time you put in your work could be spent being a good human being and fostering your relationships. That would be pretty spectacular. I hope this is not too crazy or utopian.
I don’t think it’s crazy as nowadays already we ask ourselves this question: how can I make the best of my day not only to get the job done but also around my values and my relationships.
K.W.: And I genuinely don’t think that’s the question anyone asked themselves generations ago… My Dad never asked himself “how can I live my values at my work?” He would ask ”how can I put food on the table?”
My Dad too. Maybe that’s why I can ask myself this question now.
K.W.: Yes, we have the privilege to ask ourselves this question, but what are we going to do with these privileges? We could distill this interview into one short statement: You either care about other peoples’ grand children or you don’t. If you live by that then you have to respect everything and can’t treat people or the environment badly. If you take this as your north star then you can’t go far wrong. Where does this sort of clear morality comes from? K.W.: I went to church on Sundays as a kid but I don’t think that has anything to do with it. I had amazing grandparents and an incredible upbringing. My Mom’s Mom was indescribable in her commitment to others. She was overwhelmingly kind. I don’t even remember the context of this, but she once said to me: “If you are capable of something, you are responsible for it”. I think about this all the time. If I can do something about it, then I have to do it. I just have this belief that we can do better. You are not a cake made of certain ingredients that will just come out a certain way. There is always a potential. We are all unfinished. I’d rather keep getting better.
Tell me more about your process of putting reclaimed leather into interlocking pieces and new material…
K.W.: We spent several years developing these shapes and now for over one year we have been selling the rugs. We are now working on several ways that people can interact with the pieces and are about to debut a collection that combines both leather and fire hose.
Do you think you could scale this system so that it could bring an effect on a larger scale? If there would be a global corporation who would like to process their leather waste would you agree to cooperate with them?
K.W.: I would go for it. We are doing this to solve the problem of world’s industrial leather waste. That is 800,000 tonnes every year. So if anyone wants to collaborate we would definitely try to find a way to work it out. Together we can solve this problem faster. We are also working out ways to engage consumers on the transition to the renewables. So 50% of income from leather project goes to our Unplugged campaign. There is something great about operating in a company of our size. Growing organically for 10 years and has given us time to really think through these issues and develop our own clear vision.