Saturday Essay: What’s Working And How Do We Do More Of It?
Speeechwriter Brian Jenner asks us to consider what's working and how do we do more of it.
Image by Spencer Garner from Pixabay
For the past 20 years, I’ve worked as a speechwriter. Every speechwriter yearns to write a great line that will go down in history. One like J F Kennedy’s. ‘Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.’
I’m quite unusual amongst my colleagues. I’ve got my soundbyte ‘oven ready’ for the day I get the call from a new head of state requesting an elegant sentence to inspire citizens to higher things. Here it is: ‘Ask not ‘what’s broken and how do we fix it?’, ask instead: 'what’s working and how do we do more of it?’.’
I worked this up after reading a book by Chip and Dan Heath called Switch, How To Change When Change is Hard. It’s easy to analyse problems, “the reason we’re in this mess is because of Brexit, the lockdown or the failings of the political system…” But do we need to do this? Maybe we just need to look around and identify what’s thriving and emulate that.
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels
This suspicion has been corroborated by my speechwriting work. The best speeches don’t analyse problems, they inspire people to go out and do things. They’re focused on the future not the past. So who is flourishing? And what are they doing that seems to be working?
Over the past 10 years there is one entrepreneur who stands out for me. She runs a luxury fashion business. I have one of her products about me most days. They’re expensive, quirky and stylish. Whenever someone comments on them, I love telling the story of the company, and how I met the owner. They’re possessions that I treasure, reflecting my values and aspirations.
I first met Kresse Wesling when I was organising a business event. I remember how she opened her speech. “While most people go to European cities for holidays to see the sites, I got to European cities for holidays, and I visit landfill sites.”
Kresse confessed that she is obsessed by waste. She came to Britain from Canada in 2004 to research our country’s waste problem. We dumped 100 million tonnes of the stuff into landfill that year. On closer examination, she discovered this waste fell into categories: a huge amount of it was rubble from construction, but there was also food waste that could be returned to the soil.
Kresse got inspired by an infinitesimal detail discovered during her research. The French fashion entrepreneur, Louis Vuitton, used a special type of rubber in his luxury bags. This durable rubber had something in common with the rubber that was used in fire hoses. The London Fire Brigade threw three tonnes of firehose into landfill every year.
Could this hose be recycled? Kresse saw the potential to turn the discarded hose first into luxury belts, and later into handbags and other accessories. As Kresse says in her presentations, the hose had a provenance, it was associated with life-saving and rescue. She wanted to turn it into something beautiful.
To listen to Kresse is to engage with an uncompromising mind. She studied politics at university and she freely admits her preferred mode of governance is dictatorship. At the outset she pledged that her business, founded with her partner, Elvis, would give 50% of profits to charity.
Was that virtue signalling? It was certainly bold. It could have been a severe handicap to growth. Kresse insists that this path set them up for many serendipitous opportunities. Because the company gave money to fire-related charities, the PR people working for the London Fire Brigade became willing to promote Elvis & Kresse during their downtime.
The big break for E & K came completely out of the blue. Mario Testino photographed Cameron Diaz wearing an Elvis & Kresse belt. The photograph appeared on the front of Vogue magazine.
When I first found out about the business it never occurred to me that I would become a customer. But as my own business began to flourish, I enjoyed buying their stuff. I started with a wallet, then an iPhone case, and then a supercool overnight bag, followed by a man-bag for nearly £300.
Once, at Berlin airport, a fellow traveller recognised the bag and he told me he knew one of Elvis’s parents. He said wryly they could have made a fortune, but they refused to compromise on their principles. That exchange left me even more in awe of E & K!
Before lockdown, I invited Kresse to speak at a conference of speechwriters. Speechwriters have to write about sustainability, and it’s extremely hard to do, because it’s usually seen as an interference to business as usual.
The wonderful thing about the E & K story is that it’s not abstract. Abstract ideas have been translated into products - products which become even more desirable if you agree with their principles. Also, luxury products are often associated with greed and ostentation, the E & K brand subverts those expectations.
The company pays all employees a living wage, even the teenage interns they take on in the summer. Their factory uses renewable energy and they strive to emulate nature – every byproduct they create in their processes, they turn into something useful. Whenever they consider a new strategy, they ask themselves, is there anything that is likely to harm anyone’s future grandchildren, if we do this?
Kresse & Elvis
In more recent years they have identified how the big fashion companies discard leather off-cuts. Kresse realises that the way to deal with this is to talk the language of money to the finance directors of these companies. It costs £410 to bury 10 tonnes of leather, but Kresse knows a way of generating £100,00 profit from recycling it. Who’s going to argue with that?
What can we learn by observing how this business operates?
What delights me about E & K is the way that it’s so easy to write and talk about what they do. It reminded me of an idea I picked up in a book by the economist, John Kay, called Obliquity. The most effective way to make money is often not to be focused on making money. Or to put it another way, the higher purpose that is involved in achieving something special is so complex it can’t be expressed in crude profit-making terms.
M & S was built by two great businessmen, Simon Marks and Israel Sieff. They were confronted with the problem that some of their employees were coming to work undernourished, so they decided to create a staff canteen, to foster:
‘the sense of participation, which cannot be supplied by the best of wages or the most generous bonuses, but only signs of personal trust..welfare is something which is always changing its opportunities and demands – because human nature and general circumstances are always changing.’
This M&S policy created a strong sense of esprit de corps in the company and cemented its place as a cherished (and highly profitable) high street chain. E & K has also got a keen sense of how to create a ‘sense of participation’. When I buy E&K I’m not just buying a product, I’m investing in the kind of world I want to live in.
Focus has shifted to the environment and our responsibility for it. E & K have identified how we want to define ‘welfare’ at this point in the 21st Century, and they do everything to support it. They’ve identified a huge problem and they offer a template micro solution that is practical, innovative and symbolic.
If I were hoping to inspire a new generation of entrepreneurs in the post-pandemic world, I would say, look at how Kresse is focused on values and not consequences. I’m sure Brexit isn’t helpful to them, I’m sure the pandemic has brought problems, but the principles behind their business are as tough as the fire hose they use to make their gorgeous accessories.
Every time I log on to the E & K website they seem to have new products. It’s not a conventional business and they haven’t become successful in a conventional way. But in the coming years, I think that will be something worth copying.