By Noemi Plaza & Lola Connelly
Genia Mineeva, a former journalist and entrepreneur of BEEN London, is no doubt an inspiration, with her minimalist and beautiful recycled handbags. In 2018, Genia reached her Kickstarter goal in 26 hours, and in one year the business was already profitable.
Not only is BEEN London reusing materials destined for landfill, but has recently collaborated with Terra Neutra, to measure and constantly improve their carbon footprint.
Our founder Noemi was fortunate enough to discuss this latest collaboration (and another collaboration) over Zoom. Along with some empowering advice to women and the incredible support she’s experienced during COVID.
Could you tell us a little bit about your journey? For those who might not know you.
Genia: I watched a film about waste, started digging deeper and it just led me to take a closer look at the brands I was buying from. I started looking into materials and sustainability in general, and that kind of got me digging into waste. And I thought it must be possible to make a point out of creating a project made entirely from non virgin materials. And secondly, be entirely honest with your customers.
“[…] virgin materials usually account for about two thirds of a product’s carbon footprint, roughly. So I thought if we’re using recycled materials only, clearly we can make a difference”
We looked at our carbon footprint and we compared the carbon footprint of one of our bags to the carbon footprint of exactly the same kind made from virgin materials. And it’s one tenth
I really love what you are doing and how you are coming across so honest and transparent as a brand.
Genia: We are still a tiny team, I mean I wish we could do more content.
Your mission is about waste, and making beautiful everyday designs. And I think this is amazing. You are clearly breaking the stigma across recycling with BEEN London. What are your thoughts around that?
Genia: It’s becoming more mainstream and I’m so so happy about it! Of course, there are still a lot of challenges around recycled materials, such as recycled polyester.
That’s actually what I was going to ask you. When we are talking about recycling fabrics what’s the major problem there?
Genia: They estimate the mix materials. So if you look at the label you wear, it’s probably going to be 10% that 15% that, and a little bit of god knows what. So the biggest challenge is recycling all those mixed fabrics. One of our coolest materials and I love it so dearly is recycled felt. Its made from IKEA and KLM uniforms in the Netherlands. It looks so lush.
So how has the collaboration with Terra Neutra made a positive impact on sustainability?
Genia: I wanted to know for sure. Like what car we use? What kind of petrol? What happens if we replace the lining with recycled cotton, instead of recycled polyester? I really wanted to measure it. So the bigger goal of this collaboration is to have a tool which would allow us to do even better. What I can do from our end is input all the data into this tool, and see what it does to the overall carbon footprint. And it’s the carbon footprint of a pizza!
And we think about it so much. Every move we make has been thought through.
Which are the major contributors that are making your handbags have less carbon footprint?
Genia: It’s a very simple answer, it’s using recycled materials instead of virgin materials. That’s it.
That’s incredible. What’s your next goal for BEEN London in terms of sustainability?
Genia: So in terms of measurement we are definitely not done yet. We want to keep improving, keep experimenting with new materials, but also seeing and decreasing that tiny bit of carbon we’re still seeing at the moment. I see that as our primary responsibility.
So what would be your advice to our readers in spotting brands that have less carbon footprint?
Genia: I think there will be more and more movement towards showing data and sharing the data. And I know of a few amazing startups that will make it possible to offset it to the point of checkout. We could be doing that in a month’s time.
Oh amazing, so that’s new?
Genia: Yeah, thats the new exciting thing.
“One thing to reduce your carbon footprint is flying. I know after lockdown everyone just wants to get away, and so do I. But flying is the biggest.”
Which are the technologies and upcoming fabrics right now that are exciting you the most?
Genia: For me it’s the mixed recycled fabrics. I’ve been wanting to work with them for such a long time, and I think for Spring/Summer we are finally introducing an incredible beautiful mixed recycled fabric. I love it. It’s going to be a really, really beautiful fabric.
How do you keep your commitment to sustainability and transparency in balance with your accessible prices?
Genia: We basically don’t pass any of our costs to our consumers, it’s always been our principle from the beginning, apart from the honesty, transparency and the materials that we use.
We try to keep it as affordable as we can, considering that we produce in London and that we have all of our seamstresses paid the London living wage. It feels fair. I sometimes wish we were a luxury brand with a crazy markup and just have fun doing really lush expensive photo shoots.
How have you adapted to the current situation concerning COVID and how do you feel that BEEN London has contributed to your community?
Genia: We have felt the most incredible wave of support for sure. So you know our packaging and postage is done by Londoners with learning difficulties?
Genia: They are guys and girls with autism and down syndrome, and at the very beginning of the first lockdown they were told to self isolate.
“So we thought about what we can do, knowing how isolating it can be for anyone, let alone someone with additional needs…”
We turned to our customers and to our community and said, “So this is what’s happening to our guys that package your orders, if you want to send them a message of support do it”. And it was the most overwhelming response we had from people around the world. It still gives me goosebumps just thinking about it.
That’s an amazing story! How do you feel BEEN London empowers your female audience?
Genia: We make products for multitaskers, for women who have to juggle so many things in life. You know carrying a bag like ours is such a conversation starter, and I hope it empowers a lot of women to have those chats and feel good about their choices and say I’m proud.
I think being proud about what you wear is so important. It’s that feeling right?
That was put in words very nicely. And as a founder of a growing business, did you come across any additional challenges?
Genia: For me I had a full time job, an executive global role, I was studying at Cambridge at the same time, I was starting a business and I had two children.
Genia: I’m a mentor in this really cool social enterprise programme called ‘Year Here’, and I’ve been mentoring with them for many years now. Seeing people in their 20s who don’t have a family and the responsibilities of a mortgage and a household to run, I often wish I had this extra time. It would be amazing.
But having children actually draws this line, between work and everything else. So it’s helpful to have a cut off time everyday.
And what are the biggest barriers facing women in business today?
Genia: In terms of access to funding and investment opportunities. I know that statistics are really sad in terms of women accessing funding and getting investment. And that really bothers me. So this is something I would really love to see change. And I know that a lot of women that I talk to get this imposter syndrome. I don’t know if you get this sometimes?
Genia: It makes me think of this author Bréne Brown who writes about vulnerability, and she’s one of my favourite people in the universe.
“I think being vulnerable and sharing those experiences can actually be very empowering.”
So speaking of barriers to female entrepreneurs, I’d say it’s the discrimination, and the kind of internal barrier that we sometimes tend to create for ourselves. But this is something I would like to do more work in. I’ve been lucky to have a really good group of friends and people who said you should just go for it.
What would be your advice to other women and mothers thinking about changing their careers or following their dreams with a new project?
Genia: This is my favourite subject of all time. I mean it’s very simple to say just do it.
If you feel if there’s something that you can’t stop doing, that is kind of just driving you, don’t let anyone stop you.
Talk about your passion openly in conversations, in social media about your idea. It will give you confidence to carry on with this. It will create a network and a community.
“Share it on social media, share it with your friends, relatives and it will help you gain that confidence to go forward.”
It will get people excited about it. Excitement is contagious. If you’re talking to people about it there’s no way you can stop!
Definitely! That’s beautiful advice, thank you so much! And what’s next for BEEN London?
Genia: The best thing ever. We’ve got our new collection. There are new colours, lots of new shapes. We’re making our very first black product!
We are doing a collaboration with a brand called Tala. The founder Grace and I sat down and realised that our kind of thinking on sustainability is so aligned. So we joined forces and created a backpack, made entirely from landfill bound materials from econyl. We’re making a tiny, limited edition of 200. It’s apple leather that we’re adding, so it’s going to be a complete vegan product. So that’s the 10th December.
Genia: It’s super functional, but also kind of joining two aesthetics together.
I love it. So what does the morning routine of Genia look like?
Genia: Coffee and lots of cuddles. I do go to the garden with my coffee and try to catch a little bit of sunshine.
Cute. Which are your main sources of inspiration?
Genia: For design nature, for action people. All our colours are the colours that you see in nature.
So the new colour that is coming out, is going to be called red coral. But not just because it looks like red coral. But because we want to talk about coral reef bleaching. It’s an important subject.
“I want to use those colours as conversation starters, about things that matter you know?”
And there’s some really cool, successful coral reef restoration projections around the world and I think we need to shine the light on them.
Noemi: Amazing. And your favourite BEEN bag right now?
Genia: Ridley. They’re cute and they look so unusual. I’ve seen some people in the streets wearing them, which is always a bit like “Oh my god, I don’t know that person and they’re wearing our bag”. But they look great!
Noemi: That must be an amazing feeling? Did you talk to them? Did you say something?
Genia: No, I’m too shy.
A massive thank you to Genia for taking the time to speak with us. Your meaningful advice also makes us proud to say
“We support small enterprises, local seamstresses and Londoners with learning difficulties. We are proud of our choices.”
We hope to see BEEN London growing and giving us the opportunity to be proud of our beautiful choices for years to come.
This interview has been shortened and edited by Lola Connelly.
For more insightful talks with inspirational sustainable leaders head over to our Inspiration page!