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The Interview: Steven Bethell, Co-founder of Beyond Retro and BVH Services

Tom Shearsmith
22 April 2023

In celebration of Earth Day 2023, the annual event to demonstrate support for environmental protection, is spotlighting one of the biggest changemakers in the second-hand fashion scene - Steven Bethell.

Earth Day, first held in 1970, now includes a wide range of events coordinated globally, with over including 1 billion people taking part in more than 193 countries.

The official theme for 2023 is Invest In Our Planet - covered across topics including climate restoration, regenerative agriculture, environment and social justice, supply chain resilience, plastic pollution, the green economy, biodiversity restoration, and universal climate literacy. speaks to Bethell, who is the co-founder of Bank and Vogue, Beyond Retro, Beyond Remade, and BVH Services. As co-founder of this family of companies, Bethell has been a leader and pioneer in the post-consumer textile space for over 20 years.

He has dedicated his work life to innovative and relevant solutions to the crisis of stuff. Bethell and his team have travelled to over 30 countries working extensively amongst the robust second-hand markets of the world. Taking post-consumer waste and transforming it into relevant products, he works with big brands to help them bring their sustainability platforms to the next level.

Steven Bethell BVH

Where does your drive for sustainability come from?

In my childhood we would spend the weekend at estate auctions and that...moment of discovery and understanding the beauty in heritage items and clothing really inspired me to live my life more consciously and considerately. Of course, that eventually helped give me direction with my businesses but those core childhood events are really what started it all - it's a passion that has never gone away.

Tell me about the key areas of business you are involved in at BVH?

To break it down more simply: Bank & Vogue focuses on reselling wholesale, Beyond Retro focuses on the resale of used garments, BVH Services focuses on recycling and component manufacturing, and Beyond Remade focuses on manufacturing new products from used garments.

We have a wholesale business - we buy and sell containers full of used clothing. In that trade we have seen an uptick in volume of stock; there's more being collected and there's more being given a second-life. The fact there's more activity in the space is really hopeful to someone like me.

On the Beyond Retro side - we have have our retail locations across the world. What really gives us hope with Beyond Retro is the fact that we are now tenants of some incredible estates and areas. I never expected that there would be a demand, or perhaps the right attitude, for a Beyond Retro store on The Crown Estate in London! When we first started we were in back avenues and we've grown to be on some of the best retail locations possible - it's a sign that the landscape of fashion has changed.

How do you leverage your experience to build products and manufacture from discarded textiles at scale? What is the starting point?

We sell over 3 million garments of used clothes a week - 5% of which is denim. If a brand came to us and said they want to produce a product out of denim, I already have access to millions of pieces of denim that are graded by shade, weight, texture, colour - which we can then deliver at scale.

How is it possible? Through creating multiple lines of businesses and consistently focusing on every important aspect of sustainability and production, we essentially have a catalogue that we (or other brands) can look at and give an almost instant quote. It's taken a long time and a lot of effort to build the multiple businesses we have but they now operate almost as an ecosystem - things work because care is taken in every step of the cycle. Our starting point is always buying the materials but the circle of sustainability and innovation never stops.

In your sustainability journey, what revelation has shocked you the most?

I found out very quickly that clothing manufactures and brands have no real concept about the amount of product they have made. Nor do they realise how much can be remade. I've also learnt that brands don't have a clear understanding of how many products they need for each size. I do however think habits are slowly changing as businesses have a bigger focus on supply chains, given recent global problems.

Looking at the consumer side - I discovered that Americans buy 450 million pairs of jeans a year, with the average garment life expectancy around 2.5 years. There's often a common misconception that their jeans can't be repaired or remade into something else - they focus on either a worn out area or a broken zipper and don't look at the bigger picture, such as...could its fibres be recycled?

It's a really big focus of mine to educate both the brand and consumer about how we can reduce our impact on the planet and how we can make better use of what we're producing.

I feel like they Beyond Retro now seen as the go-to retro retail environment in the UK. How incredible it must have been to see the business grow, but what’s next for the business?

There's lots of avenues for growth, such as with our Beyond Remade collections. Beyond Remade is a redesign atelier and direct-to-consumer e-tailer that showcases a model of low-carbon apparel. The products are different from the products found at Beyond Retro - they are expertly designed, unique, simplistic and fashionable.

I do want to change the perception of the stock we have at Beyond Retro - it isn't randomly selected from a big pile of clothing. There's a lot of math that goes into our selection: size, category, material. Each product has a unique barcode that helps drive our business plan once a sale is made, directly helping us make decisions on what we need to buy into next and interweave that with what we think fashion trends are going to be. Beyond Retro's secret to success is its data collection.

Should sustainability be at the core of every business in the 21st century

We need to change the way in which we are making, selling and remaking things - our behaviour as manufactures and consumers needs to change. I'm excited about what that change could look like, and no doubt it is scary... but I see it as our collective critical responsibility.

I've had some really great conversations with our brand partners and it's a common conversation that we need to go beyond being sustainable and look at how we can be regenerative. It is not enough to just be carbon-zero, we need to regenerate the planet and dial that clock back to create a better environment for future generations.

Every business should go beyond sustainability. It's expensive, it's time consuming but it's vital. At BVH, Beyond Retro and all our other businesses, we are looking at what we can do to reduce our impact to zero and beyond.

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