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Dutch Female Founder Challenges The Leather Industry With Her Growing Brand
This Dutch female founder swapped a career at the UN for entrepreneurship: with business, she would teach the fashion industry a lesson in sustainability. Working with tanneries in India, Paulien Wesselink has turned a longstanding interest in global development into an eco-friendly leather bag brand that embraces the trade-not-aid philosophy. She started as a recent college graduate with just €15,000 in her coffers and has now grown O My Bag to a recognized brand across Europe.
In 2010, Paulien Wesselink had just finished studying history and international relations when she landed an internship at her then dream job: the foreign affairs office. After all the time spent envisioning a career at the foreign office or UN, Wesselink quickly realized that it wasn’t for her. As a self-described “hands-on” person, the role was too passive for her.
“I really liked the content and the things that people were busy with, but it didn’t have an entrepreneurial spirit at all,” Wesselink says. “I missed that.”
Instead of slogging away in public policy, she reverted to entrepreneurship — a faster pathway to putting her values into existence. “I decided why not start a brand where you feel you can make a contribution in the world in your small way, but start it up yourself and do it,” she says, seated outside her Amsterdam office.
With a passion for bags and an understanding of what the European market needed, Paulien launched O My Bag, a sustainable and fairly-made leather bag brand. Starting a business straight out of college is challenging enough, but Wesselink wanted to do a business that involved traveling to South Asia for her supply chain and having inventory – both of which require capital. She received a €10,000 loan from the city of Amsterdam and an extra €5,000 from her father.
In 2010, she made her first trip to India to see the tanneries. Accompanied by a friend, Wesselink headed off to India armed with just a rough business plan and little knowledge of the intricacies of the leather or tanning industries. The pair visited numerous producers and tanneries. None of them were suitable.
What Wesselink did take away from that first trip, however, was an affirmed passion for her fledgling business. “We didn’t find any tanneries – or any good producers for that matter – but I did find my passion,” she says.
Bolstered by the notion of ‘trade versus aid’ that she had first come across in school, Wesselink was committed to the idea of starting a business that could provide people with jobs and a means of supporting their families. It seemed so simple that Paulien recalls wondering, ‘Why doesn’t the whole world work like this?’
In 2010, when she launched the company, the fashion industry had a rather blasé attitude towards sustainability. Her goal was to show the fashion world that it is possible to have a successful luxury brand that doesn’t rely on dangerous and underpaid working conditions or environmentally unfriendly processes.
The brand’s range of bags are all made from sustainably sourced “eco-friendly” leather, a decision that Wesselink claims is more than just a sartorial choice.
“Leather is very durable,” she says. “It’s a very sustainable product. It gets a lot of flack these days because everybody’s into vegan products, but it allows you to make things that you can use for years and years. In that sense, it’s very sustainable.”
Leather was a particularly good match for the brand for two more reasons, she says. Firstly, it’s one of India’s larger exports so there is potential for it to provide a lot of employment. Secondly, the Indian leather industry is particularly guilty of being environmentally unfriendly.
This second point may seem unusual for an “eco-friendly” brand to discuss so openly, but Wesselink claims the industry’s current unsustainable practices make it an important industry to reform.
“It’s an important industry to take on and show that it should be done in a much more sustainable way.”
The process of leather tanning, she notes, can have a disastrous impact on water systems and the local population. The repeated soaking and wringing out of hides creates large quantities of wastewater with pollutants, which, if managed poorly, run off into the surrounding soil and into local water systems.
The problem is particularly true, Wesselink explains, of small tanneries who are more likely to use the heavy toxin chromium and simultaneously, less likely to correctly carry out the required water purification process.
The original idea, Wesselink says, was to build a company that was focused on creating social impact through employment. But when she saw the state of the tanneries on that first trip to India, she realized that none of them would suit her brand.
“I thought, I cannot make these bags that come from these tanneries. Then I won’t be doing any good” she explains. “We need to do this differently.”
Today O My Bag’s leather is made using a vegetable tanning process in a factory whose working conditions meet the brand’s values and code of conduct.
For someone with no traditional business or fashion background, Wesselink leaped into her venture with a surprising amount of self-confidence. Bolstered by a strong desire to set an example of how to do business, she was unfazed about entering a market as saturated as the handbag industry. The handbags, she admits, were more a vehicle for the social cause.
For her, the focus now is spreading that story. Already in Amsterdam with a brick-and-mortar retail and countless boutiques carrying the product, she’s interested in taking it to other markets, such as Japan.
“Our purpose is making a positive difference in the world,” she says. “Now the focus is explaining how we do that in a clear way to the customers.”
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