It’s hard not to be impressed by Genia Mineeva. Three years ago, Genia was volunteering at a refugee camp in Calais. She’d been working at the donation line, sorting through piles of clothes, and discovered the true extent of wasted material that was destined for the landfill.
At a similar time, Genia also watched Hugh’s War on Waste: a documentary that explored our complex relationship with waste and how financial incentives simply weren’t enough for recycling units to bring about significant change.
As Genia explains, “I think after my experience in Calais, I set out to be the person that would do something about it… as ambitious as that seemed at the time! I was shocked at how much we wasted, and how much could be saved and reused. Something was triggered in me…”
Where it all began
The beginnings of BEEN London were humble. It initially started with literal rubbish being shipped to Genia’s house; this was a litmus test for how her products could work and what materials were feasible to design. And at this moment, Genia suddenly envisioned leather trimmings as premium totes, landfill-bound plastics revived as silky linings, and pineapple leaves reborn into vegan leather! Genia saw treasure in what most would deem as trash…
This idea soon started to become a business reality when Genia showed friends some samples she’d been working on:
“They all really encouraged the prototypes of the first BEEN bags, and it spurred me on further. I really wanted to make things and create a social enterprise based on tangible offerings rather than just concepts”
Fast forward six months and the idea became a Kickstarter campaign. Hitting their 10k target within 26 hours, the team went on to raise a further 10k. This gave BEEN the confidence and push to develop their products, and ultimately showcased the symbolic power of reused materials.
(It is also worth noting that Genia was simultaneously studying at Cambridge University for her Postgraduate in Sustainable Value Chains: not only making her pursuit of reducing waste soaked in science, but also demonstrating a sincere passion for the project!)
Bags, bags, bags
Despite not being a ‘bag person’ herself, Genia’s products are designed to achieve three core things:
- To divert waste from the landfill – the impetus for all of BEEN!
- To address accessibility – “I wanted to make sustainable fashion something we could all access and afford. This would have the deepest and most meaningful impact”, Genia explains.
- To change our attitude towards waste: making people proud that their bag is made from a recycled material, or wasted leather.
As they stand today, all of BEEN’s products are made locally in East London to minimise their carbon footprint and create the highest level of transparency. They use no virgin materials and are purposely made of square and rectangular panels to ensure the minimum waste in their design. As a result, the difference between buying on the high street versus buying from BEEN is astronomical: their carbon footprint is almost 1/10th of a high street equivalent, with the difference = leaving the lights on for almost a year.
In terms of the end of life process for her bags, Genia has made it clear that they are truly bags for life. Describing them as “seasonless”, BEEN’s raison d’être is to shift away from the throwaway culture that lurks behind the fashion industry. So, to encourage this, BEEN offer free repairs and bags can be easily re-recycled: removing the aim that most companies have of selling lots of bags and maximising profits!
On top of that, BEEN outsource their fulfilment to MailOut: a mailing social enterprise that provides training and well-being support for adults with a learning disability and autism. They support their trainees to pick, pack and post out the orders, whilst teaching general office and warehousing skills.
For me, this truly showcases how impact is built into the backbone of Genia’s business – from product creation to delivery.
Over the past year, BEEN has gone from strength to strength. From being welcomed into the British Fashion Council, to collaborating with haute couture partners. So, when I asked Genia what her goal was next, it was simple:
“The dream is to become the go-to place for people to buy their bags. We make beautiful and functional bags that benefit the environment, and want as many people to enjoy them. We want to keep our goal of diverting kilos away from the landfill and make circularity in fashion a norm. However, before we focus on scale, we want to focus on quality and really nail what we are doing with the BEEN bags.”
The all-female team are currently working on a new bag called Monier, named after the street of their new workshop in London Fields (which will be open from April 12th, by the way!). Showing me the new Monier prototype over our Zoom call, Genia rightfully gushes over her new creation.
BEEN London is an inspiration to us all – not only finding a market for recycled materials in fashion, but also doing it with such style!