The Suffolk women turning recycled seatbelts into handbags
- Credit: From Belo
Charlotte Bingham-Wallis and Maria Costa have been friends since school, where they bonded over a shared love of fashion.
Now their sustainable and ethical handbags, made from waste destined for landfill, help to support members of a poor community in Brazil by providing jobs and donating meals.
As Charlotte explains, she and Maria met at Sudbury Upper School in 2006, when Maria came over from Brazil to study English on the Erasmus scheme.
Around 10 years later Charlotte, by then working as a physiotherapist, travelled to South America and Brazil. It was an eye-opening – and life-changing - trip.
“I was really shocked,” she remembers. “I was working for a charity that worked with children with neurological conditions from slums, and had never really experienced such extreme poverty.”
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She met up with Maria, who had been volunteering in her community in Belo Horizonte since she was 13. After school she had gone on to study economics and set up a company which, as part of its work, donated clothing to women’s charities.
“We were having a catch-up and trying to put the world to rights,” says Charlotte. “And I wondered whether we could help donate meals to people in these poor communities.”
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As they looked into it, it became clear that there were lots of highly skilled people who used to be employed in manufacturing.
“A lot of their work had been taken away because they wouldn’t compete on price with China or Paraguay, so a lot of people with these incredible skills been thrown into poverty,” says Charlotte.
“We wanted to help break the cycle of poverty and not only help people by donating meals, but also by providing employment paying a living wage as well.”
The bag brand From Belo was born.
“Our whole company is centred around fashion and kindness – we really believe that fashion can be kind and fashion is such a great way of communicating who you are as a person and what your beliefs are,” says Charlotte.
“And we thought a bag is something that really represents carrying kindness.”
Charlotte ended up going to London College of Fashion and taking short course in bag design.
Then they started to research materials, which was a huge reality check.
“We started to learn about things actually come from and there was a documentary called The True Cost, which was one of the first documentaries that really highlighted the challenges of the fashion industry in terms of production,” says Charlotte. “It was horrifying.”
It made them determined to find a way of making bags with as little impact on people and the environment as possible. And the way to do that was to use reclaimed materials – including car seatbelts.
“There’s a massive need to work with what already exists rather than add to the materials that we’re throwing away and it also helps the communities,” she says.
“Our first bags were made from dead-stock (surplus) leather, recycled plastic bottles and old fabric,” says Charlotte.
“And then we asked how we could move it on further. We got inspired by a law in Brazil where every 10 years you have to change your seatbelts. We wondered what happens to the material and because you’re not allowed to re-sell it.
“It ends up in landfill and it can take up to 400 years to decompose. And when it decomposes it ends up becoming microplastics, and we are only discovering what they do to the environment and to us as humans as well. So, we wondered if we could use the waste material.
“Since then we’ve also started working with industrial waste, tyres, inner tubes and construction wood to create our products – anything we can get our hands on. It’s something that in the future we see us investing more into developing it further.“
They launched the brand in 2018 and the following year one of their very first designs, the Leka tote, was the named the Best Green Bag in the 2019 Independent Handbag Designer Awards in New York. Their bags and accessories, which also include bucket and clutch bags are named after people they work with.
“I think the sad thing is in the fashion industry is that we forget sometimes that someone has made it,” says Charlotte.
“I think sometimes we think that with all the technology we have now that it’s all computerised and we want to bring the human side back to who’s made the clothes as it’s such an incredible skill.
“So it’s one way that we can celebrate our artisans or the members of our partner charity Casa De Maria, because of all the work that they’re doing.
“Without this incredible team, Maria and I wouldn’t be doing what we’re doing, so we need to honour them in such ways, and talking about them, showing their faces, showing who’s made the products, is really part of building that awareness.”
A great deal of thought and planning goes into the products and they go through rigorous tests to ensure that they are made to last.
“Thinking about the sustainability factor, we invest in creating products that are versatile. Our Ju bucket bag can be worn as a backpack, it can be worn as a crossbody bag and also a handbag as well, so you can wear it in multiple different ways to adapt to what your needs are,” says Charlotte.
“Also, with the paying of living wages, we create a product which isn’t fast fashion, and I think it’s something that’s going to last like an heirloom that you can pass down through generations.
“Our intention is to create a product that has that beautiful feeling and that is an investment, not only into the community, but an investment for the person that’s buying it to wear something that’s really, really special.”
As Charlotte explains, their work has become even more important in the last 18 months, as Brazil is one of the countries that has been hit particularly hard by the coronavirus pandemic.
“When we first started working with Casa De Maria they were supporting just shy of 300 people a day.
"With the pandemic they’ve been going up to 750 people a day that they are supporting. And with the support of our community, we’ve been able to help these people when they haven’t had a furlough scheme or government support. It’s something that I think both of us are really proud of.”
Next month From Belo will have a new look and will be revealing a new way of working with seatbelts. Follow them on Instagram @frombelo_ for their latest news.