Decorator’s Notebook blog will be three years old next Thursday, so I’ve been in a bit of a ponderous mood this weekend. A lot has changed since I sat down and wrote my first post, but perhaps the biggest thing has been my attitude to what good design means to me. I’ve become a lot more socially-aware in the choices I make, mostly because of the discoveries I’ve made searching for potential products for the Decorator’s Notebook shop. I now try to buy less, but better and I’ve come to appreciate that there’s always someone behind everything we buy – from the woman operating an overlock machine in a factory to the woman dropping her children off at the Basha crèche before hand-stitching kantha quilts with her friends – a real person’s life is affected by the products we buy. These two women may well be neighbours, their kids might play together on the same street. And our choices can shape their future. It’s a scary responsibility I’m only now realising I should bear.
All this has got me thinking: wouldn’t it be interesting to get under the skin of some design-led ethical brands out there, and discover how they’re helping people with the products they make? So, here’s the first in what I hope might become a little directory – The Good List – of cool brands making a difference: from food, to fashion, to jewellery… and beyond!
Last week I chatted to James Munro Boon about his company, Elephant Branded, which turns discarded cement sacks into bags, ipad sleeves and wallets, whilst helping artisans and schoolchildren in Africa and Asia. Let’s meet him and find out how…
Introduce us to your business in a Tweet
One Elephant…One Idea. By buying one of our products, we donate school equipment to children in Africa or Asia. Simple as that.
Why do you do what you do?
Elephant Branded was set up after I spent a number of years working in Africa and Asia. I’d been helping to build a school in South Africa and I was shocked by the basic lack of school equipment the children and teachers had access to. I wanted to find a solution, not through charity but through business. That’s where the idea for Elephant Branded came about; we work with small village co-operatives around the world, giving local people the skills to get themselves out of poverty and to run their own business. Then, for every bag sold, we donated locally-sourced school equipment back to children in need.
What makes you different?
Nothing really, we don’t do anything crazy, but just keep it simple. Every product we make is produced locally in small village co-operatives around the world out of local recycled materials. For each product we sell we donate locally sourced school equipment back to children in need.
Was Elephant Branded your ‘plan A’ or did you do something else before?
Elephant Branded was set up while I was at university in Bath and was designed to fit around my studies. We’re now a team of four running EB, but we still treat it as a hobby and all have full-time jobs. It sounds a bit crazy but it works, and it’s much better than playing on a PlayStation in the evenings!
Who benefits from the social element of your business?
All our products are made locally in small village co-operatives in places such as Cambodia and Colombia. The local ladies run the manufacturing as their own business and learn the skills to get themselves out of poverty. We help with designs and support, but fundamentally it is their business, which in my mind is a much better solution than long-term aid.
Also, for each product sold we donate school equipment to children in need. We work with some of the best charities in Africa and Asia to ensure that the products we donate are locally-sourced wherever possible and to make sure they go to the right places.
What’s the story behind your bags?
We initially started making products in a small village in Cambodia, this has since grown with other villages making similar products and now you can see the bags all across Cambodia. Rather than seeing this as a bad thing, we think this is great! It proves that local people can run their own business and make their way in the world without relying on aid.
Each lady works at home so she can look after her children and it is up to her how many bags she makes and when. Every maker is taught how to craft a whole product, not just one element. Now we have taken this model and used it in new co-operatives in new places around the world, from Colombia to Uganda, working with new communities to make new exciting products out of locally-available materials.
Although our products are made all over the world, each product has our brand colours and our little EB logo as a stamp of approval.
Why should people invest in ethically produced goods?
I live in Hong Kong, so I am very close to China. It would be much easier and cheaper for Elephant Branded to go to China and make all our products there, as so many other brands do, however for us that would completely defeat the point of what we do.
The reason we do what we do is for the people we work with on the ground in Cambodia and Colombia. To see a village grow and develop out of running their own business is one of the most important reasons we do what we do. For me, it’s 100% better than simply paying some huge factory in China to do it instead.
Share something you wish you knew before you started out…
When I was little I used to read books about the sharks of business and that’s what I though business was about, people trying to crush other people. What I have learnt in the last few years through EB has been completely the opposite, by taking a bottom up approach, I have realised how much business can be a force for good in the world.
Business is one of the few things that transcends politics, race, religion and culture and means that someone like me can have a friendship with people in a little village in Cambodia. We speak a different language and have a different culture, but business can connect it all.
What challenges have you had doing business in developing countries?
There are many, however that is part of the fun of doing it. With a bit of patience and a lot of hard work, most hurdles can be overcome.
Would you consider yourself a humanitarian?
No, not really, I just saw a problem and wanted to find a solution. I literally planned to sell 50 bags to my friends in Hong Kong and raise enough money to donate 50 school kits to the school I had worked on, that was it. I had no idea that it would become anything more than that.
Who do you admire?
There are many people. Pry and Mey who look after the village in Cambodia, through to the likes of Richard Branson, who last summer sat down and chatted with me about growing a business. All are just as inspiring.
When did you realise Elephant Branded was (or would be) a success?
I think when I received a phone call from Google saying we had won their Young Minds World Business competition. I remember I was cycling my bike and nearly fell off! Luckily I managed to stay on, however I still remember that moment clearly. That was probably our big break.
Where do you call home?
Gertrude Stein once wrote, America is my country and Paris is my home town. For me, England is my country but Hong Kong is my home town. I love the city and it sits in the perfect time zone to work during the day and run EB remotely in the UK in the evenings. With its winding alleys and hawker shops, through to gleaming glass skyscrapers, one cannot be anything but inspired.
What do you think your home says about you?
For the English his home is his castle, in Asia however home is for the family. In my mind there is no difference between a family and a business, both have their ups and downs, however if you get the right people around you then anything is possible.
What are you looking forward to?
The last few years have been amazing, from seeing the villages grow around the world, to seeing the donation kits go out, through to meeting the likes of Bill Clinton and Richard Branson. Elephant Branded is still young, however we are always thinking of the next idea, the next product and the next step. That for me is what makes it really exciting!
Thanks James. Do go and check out Elephant Branded for yourself and please help me share this brilliant story – whether you tell one good friend or a thousand followers – together we can spread the word that design can make a difference!
[Photographs: Elephant Branded]