by Francesca van Soest, MBA ’23. Photo credit: Zoë Law. Originally published in the Spring/Summer 2023 issue of Business Class magazine.
I first met Kresse Wesling in the spring of 2022 on my international experience to the UK as part of my MBA in Sustainable Innovation. During our trip we had the privilege of visiting various sustainable businesses, but none stood out to me quite as starkly as Kresse and her partner Elvis’s workshop and their regenerative vineyard.
Back in 2005, Kresse and Elvis were inspired by an encounter with the London Fire Brigade, where they learned that thousands of pounds of damaged industrial grade firehose was thrown away every year. They did some research and discovered the hose material was the same as that used in luxury handbags—and so the Elvis & Kresse sustainable luxury handbag brand was born.
Elvis & Kresse can now add regenerative farmers to their resume. When we visited their manufacturing facility last spring they had recently purchased the property behind their workshop and planted 12,000 grape vines, which were being cultivated without any waste or need of pesticides.
They were also in the process of moving their workshop into a new carbon-neutral building (whose straw-bale-filled walls not only keep the interior warm but also contain captured carbon from when the straw was still growing). I caught up with Kresse, who also joined Gustavson’s International Advisory Board in 2022, to see how things have progressed since I last saw her.
Q: How has being a regenerative farmer impacted you?
KW: I think it is emotional. We are on the front lines of climate change, and yet it is delightfully complex and wonderful and mysterious and educational. We’re so happy to be here and feeling that we are on the right track.
Q: How does a regenerative vineyard play into Elvis & Kresse?
KW: Our goal is to turn the whole site into a place for education, innovation, research and development. Just last month we hosted five workshops for people who wanted to come and make bespoke bags, and we ended up giving them tours around the whole facility and an education in regenerative farming and living. Most people don’t expect that—and they really enjoy it!
We also have lots of great collaborations combining the business side of things with the farming side of things. An example is a solar forge that we are working on to turn recycled metals into bag buckles. A scientist from Queen Mary University of London [UK] spent a year working on how the waste heat from the solar forge can be used to produce specific kinds of biochar; this means we can make biochar in addition to the buckles for bioremediation on the farm. And that is what we expected from this place—that it would be a place of active experimentation where people can discuss their wild and crazy ideas.
Q: What hurdles have you faced in your entrepreneurial journey?
KW: We run a social enterprise but run into the same hurdles that major corporations face, plus we have the added challenge of trying to save humanity at the same time. Navigating new markets and all the other skills we didn’t have before we started forced us to do a lot of research and learning. But we learned the basics of computer coding and photography, which allowed us to enter into contracts with vendors when we had more funds, and we were able to understand how long projects should take and the fair cost we should be paying. We also had some nightmare customers, like large-scale department stores that wouldn’t pay us upfront, and sometimes we wouldn’t get paid until nine months after they sold our goods. This meant we had to carry costs for a lot longer than we anticipated.
There are hurdles all the time that you don’t expect. This past summer we planted 12,000 acres of vines, and then we had one of the worst droughts since 1976. But what are you going to do about it? Are you going to cry or are you going to get on with it? Q: Do you have any advice for young entrepreneurs on how to increase resiliency in their business?
KW: Metrics coming out of the B Corp movement indicate that companies more ethically and environmentally minded from the outset are much more likely to be resilient, and certainly that is our experience. I don’t have to come up with a marketing campaign, I don’t have to spin stuff. I just explain it, and that helps you to be resilient. When the pandemic hit and other companies were struggling with supply chain issues, I wasn’t—I have been stockpiling them for years, and my materials are free! All of the ethical and environmental decisions we have made have allowed us to become more resilient.
Q: If you had the power to effect change in terms of regeneration, what would you focus on first?
KW: I think the first thing we need is irrefutable evidence that the food from a regenerative system has huge beneficial outcomes for health and for ecological systems. We need people to wake up and realize that this is the only way to farm. We need an avalanche of data that is powerful and incontrovertible, and we need every government to get on the path to regeneration.
Q: What does regeneration mean to you personally?
KW: There is a debt [from my privilege] that is so vast that if I am not 100 per cent focused on how to overwhelmingly repay that debt over the course of my lifetime, then I am basically a waste of my human flesh. So, I guess regeneration to me means that you better start thinking about how much good you can do, and you better start thinking about it now. You better start looking at all the skills that you have got and all the problems you can solve, and you better go hard at those, run towards that danger and see what you come up with.