Outdoor banners turn into fashion bags and coats

Some people still shop until they drop for fast fashion, but the production and consumption of clothes has environmental consequences. Social entrepreneur Elena Avramenko (MBA 2018) decided to do something about it.

She and friend Galina Gorshkova co-founded RazRez, a start-up that sources waste marketing materials and upcycles them into fashion items. RazRez’s network of professional and amateur designers create the items such as coats, jackets and bags.

Some companies spend as much as 20 per cent of their marketing budget on large promotional materials such as banners and flags – that’s a lot of heavy-duty canvas and PVC – and use them only for a few weeks! So it’s a win-win situation: companies donate their expired outdoor banners, over stocks or sample materials, and consumers enjoy purchasing authentic branded items made out of them.

What is it about your effort that makes a positive change?
“Galina and I were thinking about how we could contribute to sustainability with a start-up when we realised we could re-use existing materials rather than creating something from recycled products.

“At the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, we saw an outdoor banner advertising an artist’s exhibition. Later, we saw the banner had been turned into 50 shopping bags that were on sale in the museum gift shop. The bags were described as pieces of art in their own right – and people were keen to buy them. This was an artist’s work but also it was trash.

“The textile industry is the second-largest polluter in the world, second only to oil. Many companies use canvas and PVC promotional material for only a few weeks before it’s out of date and therefore discarded. So we collected as many large fabric banners from major companies as we could, and we turned them into bags and clothes. RazRez can reduce the amount of new items that are bought, so we can contribute to bringing down the amount of pollution from the textile industry.”

Why do you do it?
“I’m originally from Ukraine so the concept of social enterprise is relatively new to me. During my MBA studies, I took part in an incredible workshop for entrepreneurship; we met entrepreneurs over the five days of the course and they really inspired me to think about creating a business that doesn’t put profit first. While their business models are still intended to make profit, the first intention of these entrepreneurs was to solve an environmental or social problem.”

Even though Elena’s upbringing didn’t expose her to social enterprise, she was used to the idea of home-made fashions, because there was little in her local shops in the days of the USSR (before 1991).
“I spent a lot of my childhood in a poor area in Ukraine during the time of the Soviet Union. It was almost impossible to find a nice dress. If there were any, there would be only a few sizes available, so if you wanted something nice, you’d have to make it yourself.

“My grandmother experienced WWII and learned to be very frugal. Later, when I was a child, she used to make a lot of things from fabric discarded by a factory near her village. A lot of villagers made really nice things – even really attractive and funky carpets out of trash. Even if they couldn’t make clothing or furnishings out of the waste fabric, they’d use it to make cleaning cloths so it would be used again. If you think about it, these villagers were part of a real circular economy.

“I guess RazRez came from my experience of learning about social enterprises during my MBA, and the very frugal habits of the place where I grew up.”  

How can others get involved in doing something with you – or something like what you’re doing?
“So far we’ve collected used marketing materials from big companies like Nike, Nespresso, and Porsche. I’m swimming in the stuff now – I have so much marketing material stored at home – but we still want to collect more! We’re only beginning to understand what materials we need. If anyone knows companies that want to get rid of their used materials, we’ll be happy to take them!”

In addition to RazRez, Elena spends time on her non-profit organisation The Time Donors. “I call it an online knowledge exchange because it connects professionals who are willing to share their experience and expertise with people who cannot access advice from their own network and environment.

“It’s a kind of ‘triangle of value’ because the professional who gives time to share knowledge not only learns about becoming a better leader, but they also get to nominate where the small donation from their mentee goes – to a non-profit organisation of their choice – and the mentees get value from the knowledge they receive. It’s an online platform, so it’s accessible on a large scale.”

Elena shares a word of wisdom to aspiring entrepreneurs: “Before you become an entrepreneur it’s really useful to get some work experience in a big company. Work for companies that share the same values that you have. Get some experience and get to know people.”