This week we invited James Munro Boon, founder of Elephant Branded, to take part in a Plastic Expert Interview.
Hi James, would you like to tell us a little bit more about yourself?
Hi Joseph, thanks for having me. A bit about me..? well I am not sure exactly what to say, I am a fairly normal guy, with a regular day job and normal ish life. I do live in Hong Kong which I suppose is a little strange and I also run a small ethical company in the evenings called Elephant Branded which uses old cement bags to support education in Africa and Asia. So yes, I suppose a little strange.
How did Elephant Branded begin, and how have you grown since?
Well the story really starts with my degree and my studies. I study Architecture, not the normal route to being an Entrepreneur but as I hope to show it is the reason Elephant Branded exists and I attribute a lot to that fact.
During my second year I was involved in a Project to design and build a Nursery School in South Africa as part of my degree. We spent 6 months designing the school and then went out to a small township called Jouberton about 2 hours from Johannesburg.
It was an amazing experience living in the town ship. It was the first time I had seen real poverty and it really shocked me. For a country such as South Africa, which is fairly developed, I was dismayed by the lack of basic school equipment the children had access to. The school opened and they were writing on old pieces of newspaper as they had no books!
It sounds cliche to say but it really stuck with me. I was offered a number of Jobs in London but in the end I won an International competition for a Job in Guangdong Province in Southern China.
Having never been to Asia, never mind China, I had no idea what to expect but jumped on a plane and absolutely loved it!
While working in China I traveled extensively through Asia during work holidays. I would often go somewhere and as in Africa many of the schools would be built by NGOs etc however many lacked the basic school equipment, which makes a school a school. In the Philippines, Cambodia and Loas I was shocked by this basic lack of school kit.
I wanted to do something to raise some money to fund this school equipment and stumbled over a little village in Cambodia making basic bags out of old cement bags. Over a number of months we developed the design and started working together.
The idea was simple.. Elephant Branded… by doing something as small and as simple as buying one of these bags you would not only support the village community but we would also donate a school bag to a vulnerable child in Africa or Asia, giving them an opportunity that they previously never had.
The idea is that it is the ladies own business but we work with the Village cooperatives to make the products. This gives the older generations the skills to get themselves out of poverty, while investing back into grass roots with our school kits. With these two simple principles Elephant Branded was born!
Initially I started with 50 bags in Hong Kong thinking we could donate some school kit to the school I helped build in South Africa.
Our break through moment was when I won Google Young Minds, which is Google’s World Competition for Enterprise. Not only did this give us some great exposure and endorsement from amazing people like Bill Clinton, but we also supplied Google with their VIP delegate bags. This gave us the working capital to expand without the need for investment and importantly allowed us to donate 600 school bags to Sierra Leone!
Elephant Branded now sells worldwide online as well as nationally through John Lewis. We also have a number of boutiques in London, Switzerland, Germany, USA and Australia as well as 32 Student reps in Universities across the world.
It is important to point out that Elephant Branded is not a charity, as we do turn a profit. However this is something we are proud of and for us shows that business can be a force for good in the world.
Could you tell us about the schemes to help school children in Africa and Asia?
Sure, well I suppose its two fold. All of our products are made locally in small village cooperatives 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, however fundamentally it is their own business and in my mind 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 our donation products are locally sourced wherever possible and to make sure they go to the right places. As educational equipment is fixed to the curriculum of the country by souring the donation school equipment locally, it gives maximum benefit to the local economy.
We deal with recycled materials here at Plastic Expert, so we were hoping you could tell us about the recycled fabrics used for your products?
What are your thoughts about the sustainable fashion industry?
I myself live in Hong Kong, so I am very close to China, it would be much easier and cheaper for ourselves to go to China and make all our products there, as so many other brands do, however for ourselves 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 in my mind one of the most important reasons we do what we do and for myself 100% better than simply paying some huge factory in China to do it instead.
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 myself in the UK or Hong Kong can have a friendship with a little village in Cambodia who speak a different language and have a different culture, however are all connected through business.
Recycling materials for fashion is important to keep them from being sent to landfill. What are your feelings towards our reliance of landfills?
A good question and one I am not sure of the answer to, however in real terms if we did not up cycle the cement bags then they would simply get burnt so hopefully we are making a little difference. However I do think that there is a limit to what fashion can do but do feel they have a role to play.
How can people contribute to your cause? What’s an EB rep?
If people like what we are about the can maybe buy a bag at ElephantBranded.com or even become an EB rep and promote what we are trying to do to their friends. We are very small and do not have a marketing budget etc, so rely on word of mouth, so even just telling a friend would be amazing.
What is the Siam Cement Public Company Limited seen in your logo?
The logo you see on the cement bag products is the original one from the cement company. They have lots of different mixs of cement, Camel, Tiger and Elephant so we were lucky to get Elephant. They are really nice and although we have that design on our existing cement bag range, we are currently working on new products in Africa that have our own Logo as it is a different recycled material.
What has been your greatest challenge in trying to help people?
Dealing with developing countries can be tricky from logistics to language, 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.
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.
That is really what makes it exciting and the people are the key to everything!
What does the future hold for Elephant Branded?
Growing and building upon our key values, I think is the key for the future.
From 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 across Cambodia, which has been great and the whole point of what we set out to do.
Now we are taking the model to new cooperatives in new places in 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 colors and our little EB logo as a stamp of approval.
I am super excited about the year ahead and really looking forward to getting the new products online.
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 Clinton and 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!