Having changed to a vegan lifestyle and deciding on the new direction and ethos of her brand, Helen immersed herself in research, testing and finding ways to make Watson & Wolfe as sustainable as possible, whilst refusing to be swayed to those who doubted her ambitions. She tells us more:
Which steps did you take to make Watson & Wolfe a sustainable, eco brand? There must have been an enormous amount to source, research and discover?
We started out by testing a huge number of materials, at the time, there were fewer option than there is now. We finally found the perfect fabric for our initial purposes in Italy – a beautifully soft, smooth and lightly grained fabric, which looked and felt just like real leather. What is more, it was 30% more sustainable than other vegan leathers, because the base of the material is made from non-food grade corn, all obtained from a renewable source. It could be used in the same way as leather too, folded, stitched and embossed. All the qualities we were searching for. In the end we fixed on the rPET fabric for our linings, made entirely from recycled plastic bottles, from a company in Taiwan, which had the cleanest production process and produced the highest quality product.
We chose our suppliers carefully because we wanted them to care as much as we do about the impact their businesses have on the planet. All our raw material factories harness green energy and have efficient systems for solvent and air exhaust. The effect on the surrounding environment is the lowest it could feasibly be.
We wanted to produce products which will last, so we set out to find small, artisanal factories who could deliver on highest quality craftsmanship, who have ethical working conditions, a fair-trade policy and who valued their staff. We fixed on working with a small group of factories in Turkey and Portugal, who have a long history of working with luxury leather brands. Everything is handmade with traditional leather working techniques by experienced people and our factories are incredibly supportive of our project and understand our objectives too, which is paramount for us.
What about factors such as offsetting your carbon footprint, as you were making the products overseas and shipping internationally?
Our environmental footprint is a primary consideration and we take full responsibility for the impact it has. This is why we are working with One Tree Planted, to offset a proportion of the carbon we generate. As a reforestation partner, they help to plant trees in the ground in different areas of the world, including North America, Latin America, Asia, and Africa. For every order we receive, we donate a tree and are choosing to donate trees to planting projects in The Amazon and Australia, where the needs for reforestation are vital.
What sort of reaction did you get initially when launching the brand?
Nobody had an objection to me designing and making luxury animal leather wallets. But when I decided to stop using leather and began showing them vegan and sustainable materials, everyone had something to say about it! I had obviously gone mad and was making radical decisions! I was immediately hit with a lot of scepticism. Friends and family said, ‘There isn’t a demand’, ‘Maybe vegan men don’t want that?’, ‘Maybe the market is too small’. But I was not going to be deterred, and I’m so glad that I wasn’t because the reaction of the public, our customers, the press, stockists and the industry wide validation we have received tells a different story altogether. Receiving amazing feedback from customers all over the world and winning the PETA ‘Best Vegan Accessories’ award in their annual Men’s Fashion Awards in our first year of trading was the only encouragement I need. It was fantastic!
Why did you decide to launch products for women?
This, or a more unisex focus, was always on the cards, but it was brought forward due to demand and continual requests from our customers. We kept getting asked by women buying for their partners and from customers and fans of the brand at shows and events. We’ve launched with a small range initially of cross-body and tote bags, again using classic colours and timeless styles to create slow fashion accessories that will not date and which are robust and affordable. The initial reaction has been fantastic and the cherry on the top has been receiving another award, this time by Marie Claire magazine, with a ‘Highly Commended’ for Best Sustainable Accessory Brand 2021.
What is next for Watson & Wolfe?
We are always busy with several projects in the mix at one time. Over the next 12 months we want more people to be able to buy us locally, so we are doing a lot of work with independent retailers to get Watson & Wolfe on shelves in store.
We are constantly working to reduce our carbon footprint by streamlining our supply chain and this year we hope to make big strides here. By building relationships with suppliers closer to where we manufacture, our raw materials have less distance to travel. Moving things by road a short distance is far better than flying materials halfway around the world. But it is important that our quality is not compromised to achieve this. Providing a quality product is first and foremost, so we are working with producers to deliver the same quality as we get now. B-Corp certification is on our radar too. Of course, there is also much more, including new products, new colours and new materials which we would love to introduce too. It is impossible to do everything I want to do, so I must be realistic about what we can achieve this year.
How do you like to relax?
I’m an active person and I enjoy getting out into nature. I love yoga and road cycling, so I try to get at least 30-40k in saddle each week. I’ve recently introduced my children to the delights of camping – they have really taken to life under canvas and it’s great to see them playing in the woods and away from technology and devices! I also enjoy hiking and doing the crossword - something that I have enjoyed since childhood and a passion that was passed on by my late father.