Elephant Branded

image courtesy of elephantbranded.com

“I sort of seem to have fallen into it. We learn a new lesson everyday and that’s what makes it exciting.” – James Boon, Founder, Elephant Branded

A few weeks ago I saw an episode of the BBC’s  Be Your Own Boss, where I was introduced to Elephant Branded: a social enterprise that sells upcycled accessories. With every piece purchased, Elephant Branded donates a school kit to children in Africa and Asia, in a one for one model. I immediately tweeted them to find out more and I was happy when founder, James Boon offered to speak with me. Elephant Branded is now sold in John Lewis locations, so I stopped by Peter Jones to check out their kit and take a few photos.

Elephant Branded at Peter Jones, Sloane Square

As promised, here are the highlights of the interview that I had with James, who is currently finishing studies in architecture (this interview is edited for the sake of brevity – we spoke for half an hour).

Tell me about the story behind Elephant Branded. What’s your inspiration?

“In university, back in 2008, we spent six months designing a school. I took part in a project in Jouberton, Klerksdorp in the North West region of South Africa, an hour and half outside of Johannesburg. It’s the first time I’d ever seen poverty. When we saw the original school, it was a little tin shack school, with a hundred kids in a tiny little area. So we built this new school and it was amazing – blood, sweat and tears went into build this school. But when it opened, the kids came into the school and they didn’t have pens or pencils or any of the stuff that makes a school a school and they were writing on pieces of newspaper. It really sort of shocked me. I graduated from university, got offered jobs in London, and I turned them down to take up a job in Southern China. I moved to a city with 29 million people, which is nearly half the population of the UK in one city. It was incredible and at that point I didn’t speak any Mandarin. It was just amazing.”

“If you go to the factories in China it’s just horrible and they don’t seem to benefit anybody. While I was there we travelled a lot, and we’d go to Northern China or Southern Philippines and Cambodia, Laos and again we’d go to these schools and the kids just wouldn’t have anything. The tipping point came when I went to Japan a couple of weeks after the tsunami hit. I moved jobs to Hong Kong, and set up Elephant Branded with a simple idea. The idea was that by making something that is ethically sourced in a village cooperative that we can sell, we can donate a school kit back into that community. I started off with 50 bags in Hong Kong and it started to take off there, with just 50 bags. I moved to the US and started selling a few bags there, and then I only really started selling in the UK last February. Within two weeks we had people calling us up and saying, ‘How can I get involved? I want to get involved?’ We grew to have 10 reps in the UK and 4 internationally.”

Elephant Branded uses recycled cement bags. What happens to the cement bags that aren’t recycled? 

“When you visit the cement factory in Cambodia they just have hundreds and hundreds of these things, crazy piles of the stuff. The horrible thing is if they don’t get re-used, recycled or upcycled, they get burned and obviously the repercussions of burning stuff like that are horrendous. So that’s what happens if they don’t get recycled.”

Tell me about your work with local communities.

“We work with three villages in Cambodia. The suppliers represented on our website are a small collection of the local women we work with… The way it works is the ladies are trained up to make the Elephant Branded bags. They don’t just make one part of the bag, but a whole bag. They can make every product and they can make all of it. So, they can do it seasonally. Many of the women are widows, and sadly many of their husbands died in the Khmer Rouge or in fighting on the border of Thailand. The women look after their children and they work from home, so that means they can work a couple of days then take a few days off. Between 35-45 women work with Elephant Branded and it’s increasing every month as we train up more women to meet our growing demand.”

image courtesy of elephantbranded.com

“Suppliers work on a team level as we like the idea of a cooperative. There is a slight hierarchy as each village has a team leader. Elipompi (pictured above) is head leader in one of the villages. She is one of the elders and teaches the new ladies the designs. Pry (a local man) helps with designs and running around to send our bags. He can’t read or write so all of the women handle the money, which I think is very important.”

You started Elephant Branded to donate school kits to children in Africa and Asia. Tell us more about the impact of the school kits.

“South Africa was really the first project that inspired me to do what we do and with the Sierra Leone project we’ve donated hundreds and hundreds of school kits. We actually donate to three different schools in Sierra Leone, but only one is represented on the website. In Uganda and in Kenya (four schools, but only one is on there) we’ve worked in quite a few schools and we’re always looking for new ones. We’re potentially looking at a couple of schools in Ghana as well.”

“Five school projects are listed on the website – but we’re looking to do a project with the Cambodian village school in the next month or so.  We also will work with a second school in Cambodia in the next month where all the school bags will be locally sourced. So the idea is that we’re actually going to try and make the school bags out of the same materials that our bags are made out of. We’ll make them really well done and little padded shoulders, made properly as little school kits. We’d make them there in Cambodia where we currently make all our bags.”

image courtesy of elephantbranded.com

“In other places, like Kenya and Sierra Leone, the idea is we’ll source them in country. At the end of the day, there’s no point making them in UK and then taking them out, because it doesn’t benefit the local economies in the recipient countries.  So if we can make the school bags in those localities then that’s what we intend to do. That way, it benefits the local manufacturing, local industry and puts money back into the local economy of that area, which we feel is really important. That’s our aim. At the moment some of our school kits do come from the UK because we just can’t source them out there, but if we can source them in country then that’s something we do.”

How has Elephant Branded changed and grown over time?

“It all started taking off and then we won the Google Young Minds, which is Google’s world competition for enterprise. From that we supplied Google’s delegate bags for their world conference. That sort of really grew our profile. I then met Tim and obviously that helped me to work together as a team to grow Elephant Branded. From there we’ve just grown… So from 50 bags that I thought we might potentially sell, now we send thousands out across the world. We’re hoping to grow. We do have a UK team that we employ now and we have changed a lot since the BBC show. We now sell in John Lewis and I no longer do it all from my living room! We have a warehouse in Bristol. We have had to scale up a lot, but we also keep to our ethical issues and values. At the moment, we’re not looking for an investor, because what we actually decided from the whole BBC experience is that we want to keep it for the ethics and the values that it’s about. We don’t want to turn it into something that is profit driven, as investors will be looking for a return on the profit.”

“We do it as a bit of a hobby. We, myself and Tim, don’t take a salary from it and we just do it as a bit of a hobby. I think it’s quite a cool hobby – better than playing on PlayStation for a couple of hours each day. We’re making a difference in communities across Africa and Asia.” (Editor’s note: it’s such an impressive hobby, they even received praise from former US President Bill Clinton).

Elephant Branded iPad Case

What does the future hold for Elephant Branded?

“We want to grow Elephant Branded organically and make it so that people from wherever they are in the world, whether they want to be a student rep or whether they want to help set up an enterprise, they can get involved and contribute. I think that really does help us, the fact that people can just get engaged with us.”

“In Cambodia, we won’t turn into a factory. When I first went out to Cambodia I stumbled across this little village. Our idea is to use the same model to set up new enterprises from scratch in countries such as Uganda and Sierra Leone, and in Columbia and potentially some other projects. That’s something we’re currently working on with the idea that we can spread what we do throughout different countries and benefit local people. It will still be local people, local materials, and local skills. So for instance, Columbia is knitted products, Uganda we were looking at coffee bean bags, all with our elephant logo, so when you see it you know it’s been ethically sourced and donated one for one.”

Elephant Branded Laptop Case

James mentioned another of my favourite upcycled brands, Bottletop.

“I saw Bottletop on your blog. Oliver, one of the guys who runs Bottletop was one of the first people I spoke to about what we’re doing. I’d like to credit a lot of what we’ve done to him. Pass on my thanks from myself. They’re pretty cool. Someone just sort of mentioned them when we were sort of starting out. I pinged over an email. I love that their stuff is all made in little villages, not huge factories, which I think is really important.”

I’ve heard you mention in other interviews that you don’t necessarily think of yourself as an entrepreneur. 

“To be honest, we never intended – I said from the outset, I never meant to do this… Most people ask me ‘Do you call yourself an entrepreneur?’ Did you always think you’d go into business stuff?’ and I say no, I sort of seem to have fallen into it. We learn a new lesson everyday and that’s what makes it exciting. What will happen in the future? I’m not sure. I’d rather it be as it is and stick with our values and core beliefs. That’s what it’s about. At the end of the day – that’s why people like Elephant Branded. That’s why people get engaged.”

“We’re not a charity as we do make a profit out of it, and that allows us to expand and grow as we do. But again, we just keep to our core values. If a lot of businesses could think on that wavelength, just think of the world that we could have – so much better. I do think there is a yearning for it, definitely a desire for this.”

Thanks so much to James Boon for speaking with me. Let’s show Elephant Branded some love this holiday season and support a brand we can believe in. Shop Elephant Branded online at www.elephantbranded.com and in John Lewis stores.

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About the Author

Angela is founder and editor of Sasstainable, an insider voice on sustainable lifestyle and ethical luxury. In 2013, she completed her MSc in Environmental Management at the University of London, at the Centre for Development, Environment and Policy. Her passion for the environment grew out of her family's rural property in Raglan, Ontario, now a designated Natural Heritage System area in the Ontario Greenbelt. In 2009, she was granted Ryerson University's Top 30 Under 30 Alumni award, because of her work as a motivational speaker. She inspired over 30,000 high school and university students across North America. She is a published writer, contributing articles to Geez Magazine, Eluxe Magazine and Feelgood Style, among others. She enjoys fashion, cooking, art and yoga. She served on the board of directors for Toronto Zooshare Biogas Co-operative and Toronto Green Community. She currently lives in Toronto, Canada, with her 3 year-old daughter, Charlotte.