Episode 25 Geoff van Sonsbeeck – Baukjen

Circular Economy Podcast Episode 25 Geoff van Sonsbeeck - BaukjenGeoff van Sonsbeeck has been at the forefront of the slow, sustainable fashion movement for over 15 years.

Geoff is the Co-Founder and CEO behind the direct to consumer womenswear brands BAUKJEN and ISABELLA OLIVER.

Having spotted a gap in the global market for stylish and high-quality maternity clothing whilst his wife was pregnant, Geoff left his job at Shell International to set up Isabella Oliver back in 2003.

In 2012 he expanded into non-maternity clothing, launching the contemporary womenswear brand “Baukjen” which is now the majority of the overall business.

Baukjen focuses on environmentally, ethically and socially conscious style for a sustainable future. It is working through the process of certification as a B Corp.

We talk about the how the two brands are building on their durable and timeless design ethos and evolving a range of circular practices. These include takeback schemes, resale, and rental. Baukjen is also switching to more sustainable fabrics – even moving away from organic cotton.

We also discuss how consumer attitudes are changing, including the growing interest in fashion rental.

I was struck by the wide range of sustainability initiatives that Geoff and the teams at Baukjen and Isabella Oliver are involved in. For a relatively small company, they are innovating in lots of areas, and, as Geoff said, building a ‘movement for change’ with their supply chain partners.

Baukjen is proving that people are happier with beautiful, well-designed and high-quality garments. People want clothes that fit well, look good and are made to last. Slow, sustainable clothing instead of fast and forgettable. 

Podcast host Catherine Weetman is a circular economy business advisor, workshop facilitator, speaker and writer.  Her award-winning book, includes lots of practical examples and tips on getting started.  Catherine founded Rethink Global in 2013, to help businesses use circular, sustainable approaches to build a better business (and a better world).

Stay in touch for free insights and updates…

Read on for a summary of the podcast and links to the people, organisations and other resources we mention.

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About Geoff

Geoff van Sonsbeeck BaukjenGeoff van Sonsbeeck is the Co-Founder and CEO behind the direct to consumer womenswear brands BAUKJEN and ISABELLA OLIVER.

Having spotted a gap in the global market for stylish and high-quality maternity clothing whilst his wife was pregnant, Geoff left his job at Shell International to set up Isabella Oliver back in 2003. Since, the brand has globally become the favourite celebrity brand.

In 2012 he expanded into non-maternity with the launch of the contemporary womenswear brand “Baukjen” which is now the majority of the overall business.

Geoff holds a master’s degree in Business Economics, and a postgraduate degree in Finance, and has been trained as a NATO prisoner of war interrogator.

Baukjen is a London-based womenswear brand, with a focus on environmentally, ethically and socially conscious style for a sustainable future. Baukjen’s Mission is “To put our customers and people at the heart of everything we do; through the timeless, carefully crafted designs that empower women to be their best selves every day, and our determination to drive lasting positive change in a damaging industry – through sustainable practices, recycling of garments and fabrics and a commitment to a more ethical supply chain.”

Baukjen’s purpose is “Designed for Good. We practise environmental, ethical and social responsibility and are motivated to make lasting positive change”. This is underpinned by its values: social responsibility, sustainability, transparency and people. The company is working towards B Corp certification, and commits that ‘Every year we will give at least 10% of our profits to charities’.

What we talk about

[03:12] Geoff tells us about how he and his wife founded Isabella Oliver back in 2003. They were disappointed by the poor quality and durability of maternity wear in the UK. Isabella Oliver was the first fashion vertical in the UK, selling only through e-commerce. Quality of both design and materials was crucial. They aimed to sell a small capsule collection of well-designed clothes that would last for years.

A decade later, Baukjen was launched, aiming to create ‘lifetime value’ by offering ‘slow fashion’ that would mean happy customers.

Fast fashion problems

[09:30] Then we discuss the issues of fast fashion and the challenges of trying to change the system. Geoff sees signs that the sector realises the customer is changing. People expect brands to do the right thing.

[12:47] We discuss the challenges already emerging from the coronavirus (the UK was one week away from ‘lockdown’ at the time of recording). We talk about how it is likely to change behaviour and spending habits. In addition, it is exposing those companies who don’t have true visibility of their supply chains.

Baukjen’s supply chain

[09:35] Geoff explains how the supply chain is managed and how the company is moving to more sustainable fabrics. It is moving away from organic cotton as there are much better options, including Ecosphere and Tencel. For recycled fabric options, it is working with its largest factory in Portugal, developing a patented mechanic recycling process.

[16:47] We hear how Baukjen eliminates overproduction by designing and producing in small batches. That moves us onto the hidden issues of supply chain waste across the fashion industry.

Circular flows

[20:12] Geoff talks about some recent initiatives, including a social media campaign, encouraging people to ‘pass things on’. Recognising that this is inefficient, Isabella Oliver now offers a take-back campaign for any brand of maternity wear. However, now that customers are returning bundles with a mixture of different clothing brands, it is easy to see the difference in quality between Isabella Oliver and other maternity wear brands.

All the returns are triaged, with some being suitable for resale, as ‘pre-loved’ items on the Isabella Oliver website and others being passed to end-user charities. Currently though, most have to go to the factory in Portugal for recycling.

Clothing rental and designing for longevity

[26:12] Research highlighted lots of interest in renting clothes, with one-third of Baukjen customers keen to rent certain items. Clothing rental is fast-becoming a perfectly acceptable solution. Baukjen designs for longevity, not just with a season in mind. Baukjen’s design team choose colours and shapes that will work for several years, not just ‘right now’.

Top tips for aspiring circular businesses

[32:12] Geoff’s shares his top tip for startups and existing businesses: “it’s a mindset shift. Go on a journey with your suppliers and customers, and bring your team with you.” Geoff is confident that you will be amazed. People will buy into it and want to collaborate. You need to work with the people who want to change. This is a movement, and you need to be taking everyone with you.

[33:12] We finish with guest recommendations and how to get in touch with Geoff and Baukjen.

Want to find out more about the circular economy?

If you’d like to learn more about the circular economy and how it could help your business, why not listen to Episode 1, or read our guide: What is the Circular Economy

To go deeper, you could buy Catherine’s book, A Circular Economy Handbook for Business and Supply Chains This comprehensive guide uses a bottom-up, practical approach.  It includes lots of real examples from around the world, to help you really ‘get’ the circular economy.  Even better, you’ll be inspired with ideas to make your own business more competitive, resilient and sustainable. 

Please let us know what you think of the podcast – and we’d love it if you could leave us a review on iTunes, or wherever you find your podcasts.  Or send us a Tweet: @Rethink _Global.

Podcast music

Thanks to Belinda O’Hooley and Heidi Tidow, otherwise known as the brilliant, inventive and generous folk duo, O’Hooley & Tidow for allowing me to use the instrumentals from the live version of Summat’s Brewin’ as music for the podcast. You can find the whole track (inspired by the Copper Family song “Oh Good Ale”) on their album, also called Summat’s Brewin’.  Or, follow them on Twitter.

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