Karen Clarey from NeNe & Bop writes about her story of creativity verse sustainability in decision making as a creator and maker.

Abbreviated article originally published in The Lunch Mag, Issue 1, March 2024.

Sustainability is the current buzz word in the business world and in my opinion long may it buzz.

Now look, when I started NeNe & Bop six years ago I had a very different view on what that word meant and looked like for my business.

I was at home on maternity leave with two small children, lost in a bubble of making small runs of bags for myself and selling at in-person markets. I loved nothing better than a trip to Spotlight and an idea of colours and patterns colliding, to get sewing when I got home.

Fun fact, although I have a degree in Textile Design, I successfully avoided touching a sewing machine until I had children and now I’m hooked.

What drives your creativity?

In my case its creative problem solving in life and business. I love a good puzzle, working my way through a range of ideas to reach a solution.

Starting my business as a hobbyist I had a very different approach to making, I made small runs and bought small quantities of fabric and fastenings when needed. This in turn meant I wasn’t creating a huge amount of waste, to be perfectly honest I was totally oblivious.

Having small children, I ventured into using PVC to make a range of robust, easy to wipe clean bags. At the time this wonderful material solved a problem I was encountering, laundry! The constant Vegemite fingerprints, split drink bottles, sunscreen explosions – the list went on.

This range grew and became incredibly popular with others with similar needs. My business expanded online and I started my wholesale journey. Things were on the up as they say.

Oh boy, it was a time of late-night hustles, cutting, sewing, sleeping, mummying, repeat.

At this time, I was sewing bigger volumes and started to have a more conscious understanding of the amount of waste my small business was creating, much headed for landfill. If I’m brutally honest I didn’t have the mental capacity to work out a better solution. At the same time, I started adding some sparkle to my pieces using glitters and sequins, light weight with a big hit of dopamine to boot – I was so proud of myself….at the time.

It started as a little thought. And then grew into a big concern.

Having my eldest come home from prep to tell me she was learning all about reduce, reuse and recycle in class hit a nerve. It was at this point that I consciously stopped and thought about the impact my little business was having on the future of my little girls world.

It’s all too easy to dive into a business and focus on the here and now day to day running and bottom line but forget to look at how it could be impacting the bigger picture, economically or environmentally.

It was a time in my business journey where my heart and my head were clashing – my head was saying “you’ve got a profitable business here, a product that people love and use and it lasts for years” and my heart was saying “Yes Karen, years! Can you hear yourself? It won’t break down and leave the planet for a few lifetimes, if ever!”

What would you have done?

On one hand I was making products that were in demand, I loved my designs, the making process but on the other hand it was not sitting well with my conscience.

I spent hours deep diving into alternative approaches that wouldn’t impact my business growth. I found the best place to start was to look at the immediate things in my control. This began with changing out existing packaging from plastic mailers and bubble wrap to biodegradable options including paper Hex wrap (I would highly recommend this product if you’re looking for a bubble wrap alternative). I even went as far as reducing the size of my business cards and tape.

kangaroo-leather-earrings
kangaroo-leather-clutch
kangaroo-leather-earrings

Knowledge is power

Next I needed to tackle my biggest pain point: My core materials. I found leather to be a fantastic alternative to the fabric/PVC. It was during this time that I fell in love with its qualities. Not only is it a quality biodegradable material, but properly sourced hides are also a bi-product of the food industry. By working with leather I was not only solving my concern but also saving the hides produced by another industry. Win – win right?

I inadvertently entered the very controversial, ongoing debate of leather versus vegan leather. Now that was a rabbit hole I fell down, and boy did I learn and unlearn ALOT. This is a whole new topic for another time.

There is no denying leather is a polarising topic when it comes to personal opinions. It is a conversation that can highlight very strong views, for or against using hides, especially in business. And it’s my opinion, you can only be guided by your own views.

Its all about perspective

With my goal of reducing my contribution to landfill and also continuing to make my business profitable I knew my offcuts were valuable and a missed opportunity. Making time to explore solutions can sometimes be put in the too hard basket but it’s a vital part of growth. Looking at a problem from differing perspectives, in my case making offcuts purposeful and profitable, led me to introduce a line of lightweight leather earrings. This line has subsequently expanded my business, bringing in a new customer base and allowed me to stock my work with more wholesale stockists. Something that would not have been the case if I hadn’t taken that time to address my concerns.

Community

It’s my mission to understand all areas of my business, including where the hides come from, the processes and impact using hides has on our environment. It’s been a time to connect with local makers and my local tannery to really delve deep and have those two-way conversations. I have been working with sustainable leather for the last two years and feel I have gained valuable knowledge through my business relationships, these are priceless.

It’s all too easy to drift away from goals when submerged in the day to day running of a business but taking time to review, learn new skills and assess your impact will ultimately lead to a passion project that is profitable and will continue to grow. There’s no quick answer, it’s taken many years, trials and errors galore, but I can now say I am on the right path for my business. It’s important I say ‘my’ business as although our goals could be similar, finding the right pathway for your business is what will make it work.

Financially and ethically made is possible but it takes time.

In my opinion, staying true to your values and opinions builds the strongest foundation in business. Being transparent and authentic. Knowing that you cannot meet everyones expectations and appease all viewpoints without seriously impacting your own values has cemented the belief in my designs and the path I am on.

Have I reached my goals? Not yet.

Have I more to learn? Always.

Karen-Clarey-leather-artisan
NeNe&Bop-owner-Karen-Clarey

ABOUT KAREN CLAREY

Creativity is an integral part of her being.

She believes that creative problem-solving is a vital skill that needs nurturing.

Entering teaching after a period of self-development, she embarked on a journey of travel and learning following university. Immersing herself in diverse experiences and cultures broadened her perspectives, preparing her to share them widely.

Teaching high school students, specializing in the upper years, allowed her practice to evolve from art skills to mature idea formations, significantly enhancing her own creativity.

During maternity leave with her first child, she began creating accessories that she felt were missing in the current market, reflecting her personality.

She aimed to blend functionality and personality using bold colors and versatile designs.

All her creations draw inspiration from her personal journeys, including travel, teaching, and motherhood to two energetic bundles of beautiful craziness.

Her designs possess a quirky edge and explore color and texture, offering a tactile and practical experience.

Each piece serves multiple purposes, whether it’s reversible for a quick bag change or a clutch that doubles as an iPad case.

She crafts her pieces to be both pretty and practical, ensuring each element contributes to the design aesthetic profoundly.

A passionate creative, she enjoys working with textiles, ceramics, and canvas, always swimming with ideas as a professional daydreamer.

To get in touch or Follow Karen Clarey on Social Media:

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