A leading light for sustainability in fashion
With a passion for protecting people and planet, Cameron Saul believes that fashion can become a driver of positive change for the environment and societies by leveraging technology and sustainable practices. He talks to us about how his company, BOTTLETOP is leading the charge.
Cameron’s roots are in the fashion world where he’s worked for Hugo Boss and Maurizio Baldassari as well as for his father’s brand, Mulberry.
Taking a gap year after school, Cameron recalls how BOTTLETOP’s development stemmed from his time in Uganda, helping to educate young people about issues like drug abuse, reproductive health and unplanned teenage pregnancy.
“I volunteered with an organisation called Restless Development”, he explains. “They ran a peer to peer education model, which I think is particularly effective in addressing those delicate teenage health issues in challenging parts of the world like sub-Saharan Africa.
“I could see how challenging it was for local organisations to raise funds and scale that kind of work. Shortly before I left the village and Uganda, I came across a little handbag maker that made bags from the round tops from glass bottles with a really cool wireframe design and I loved it.”
Returning to London to study his degree in business management at Kings College, Cameron grasped an opportunity to work at Mulberry while studying and after graduating. It gave him a unique opportunity to develop his ideas.
He explains: “With the inspiration that I took from working closely with that community in Uganda, the quality of execution of that upcycled bottletop bag design, coupled with the support from my family and friends, it was the kind of melting pot that enabled us to launch BOTTLETOP within Mulberry at that time. Then it was seeing how that blueprint works in terms of livelihood creation, using beautifully executed sustainable design as a tool to empower artisans and then raise funds for education.”
Cameron explains that the company’s structure has evolved in line with retail industry developments. Social enterprise wasn’t a term that was used in 2002, he says. They set up BOTTLETOP Foundation as a UK charity, which is how they operated for their first 10 years. They used fashion, contemporary art and music to raise money to support the operation and to donate to the grassroots health education projects.
“In 2012 we began to see this landscape change and people really started to wake up to the impact that purchasing can have on people and planet. The importance of that started to creep up the mast in terms of people's purchasing decisions”, Cameron explains.
The team took the decision to launch a for-profit private limited company, BOTTLETOP Fashion Company, that would enable them to raise much-needed capital. This company has a commitment to donate 20% of its profits back to the foundation.
“By breaking the two things apart we were able to immediately cover the operational overheads of the BOTTLETOP Foundation”, explains Cameron. “This means that whenever we're fundraising through the foundation, we can be very clear with our donors that 100 pence in every pound is going straight to our beneficiary projects. The BOTTLETOP Fashion Company, which is also supporting artisans and supporting women economically through product creation is funding the operational costs of the foundation.”
With any social enterprise it’s important that funders or donors understand what their money is being used for. Measuring social impact is a challenge, but Cameron’s team is tackling it using a range of data that is fed back through the different projects that the foundation funds.
“We have agreed targets around who the peer education programmes are trying to reach and how they reach them”, Cameron says. “Theatre projects measure things like the makeup of the audience, number of people in the audience, number of people who have been involved in the production and so on. We also track numbers around the issues that we are addressing through those creative workshops, for example prevention of unplanned teenage pregnancy.
He continues: “It’s also important we gather feedback on what that process looks like and feels like for those who are participating.”
The BOTTLETOP Fashion Company also measures its impact. They have developed a survey system for employees in Brazil to report back on the difference that working for the company has made to them and their families.
Seeing this impact is what really counts to Cameron. “It’s seeing the fruits of our endeavours on a human level that’s most rewarding. Visiting the team at their atelier in Brazil, where they are working in a beautiful environment and are properly supported and paid. It’s seeing not only the personal transformations that they've undergone by being a part of the company, but also the impact on their family and their communities. These are marginalised people that we’re working to support, so whenever we get the opportunity to visit our studio it's immensely gratifying to hang out with those guys and enjoy those precious moments - that's hard to beat.”
Cameron’s just as proud of the team in London. “Our new flagship store in Regent Street is the world’s first 3D printed store using waste plastic”, he enthuses. “It was the brainchild of one of my two business partners, Ollie, who really stepped into the future with that one.”
Sustainability in retail and consumption is a topic close to Cameron’s heart. “We should be using technology to advance the conversation around sustainability and how that can work hand-in-hand with beautifully executed, upcycled and sustainable artisanal products”, he says.
It’s a challenge that the team is enjoying exploring. The zero-waste store is made up of waste plastic bottle filaments turned into panels by 3D printing robots. On a social level, Cameron says they involved the communities in collecting the plastic to generate income.
This approach is one he intends to extend into future collections and hopes will influence others.
He explains: “Hopefully we will continue to see this growing consciousness from consumers around the world. I think the next 10 years is going to be absolutely critical for everybody living on planet Earth in terms of what we're seeing on a climate level. On a social and political level there's so much going on.
“I think as a brand we will be working to consistently and continually develop extraordinary products that are empowering people and planet in their production or through their creation.
“We're very focused on scaling our impact around the world in different artisan communities. We will achieve this through launching physical retail stores in key places where we can not only sell product but also raise more awareness of these issues. We will continue to set an example in the fashion industry, which has one of the most negative impacts of any industry.”
Having spent 17 years building BOTTLETOP, Cameron laughs that he is still wearing several hats. “Not only do you have to be comfortable with that, but you also have to enjoy throwing yourself into different aspects of what you do”, he advises.
Having said this, it’s also important to play to your strengths, he says. “Be honest with yourself about your strengths and weaknesses so that you can find supporters who complement your own skill set, because I think that way you can move much further and faster.”
Generally, one of the most important contributions the social entrepreneur brings is their vision and drive. “You need to bring people with you on that journey”, Cameron says. “Often people are giving of themselves for little or no financial return and you've got to be prepared to wear your heart on your sleeve. Your passion has to underpin everything that you do because that is the fuel that will carry you the distance.”
It is so easy to get blinkered with the day-to-day work, but one of the lessons Cameron learned was to keep his peripheral vision open. “Very often over the years at BOTTLETOP, the real gems have come as a result of the huge effort and work that we put in, but not necessarily come from the places that we've expected them. Often you'll be driving towards achieving or delivering something over here and then over there at a different corner in a different situation the treasure will be revealed.”