Tucked away in the spare room of a London flat, cotton grocery bags are laid out neatly alongside fabrics in ruby red and black with white bunnies skipping across the print. Around them are a mess of plants, bolts of fabric and letter stamps with ink. The sewing machine is new, a recent replacement of the beloved 40-year-old machine that Sophie inherited from her grandmother.
Agnes LDN is the creation of Sophie Rist, a project to create beautiful products that help people reduce their waste. Just a year old, Sophie’s business is a side passion that she works on around her full-time job as a sportswear designer.
Sophie’s story begins on her arrival back from the US in 2017 after taking her first graduate job. ‘Living in America, I would go to supermarkets and everything would be packed in a separate plastic bag. I saw both extremes there – people could both be super eco-conscious and super wasteful,’ she says. ‘I was always kind of aware of environmental issues. We all know it’s a problem, but most of us end up waiting for someone else to fix it, which means we don’t take action ourselves.’
Living in her parents’ home again in the UK, Sophie started to take notice of the ‘eye-opening’ amount of waste the family of four was creating. Most of it was fuelled by the amount of plastic packaging they were using as part of daily life.
Starting to read Bea Johnson’s seminal book Zero Waste Home, Sophie realised, ‘the sheer numbers are staggering about how big the problem is. Obviously she’s far along in her story – a month wouldn’t get you there. Not even a year would do it. But it’s aspirational.’
There was one point in particular that stood out for her though, and that she could apply in real life. These were the ‘5 Rs’ – Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle and Rot. Together, they’re a step by step process to eliminate what we send to landfill. ‘That stuck with me,’ says Sophie. ‘Sometimes we feel we do enough when we recycle. Sometimes reusing stuff can be better. It’s possible. It’s normalised zero waste living for me. I’ve made changes in my life and have been talking to my mum and to my family about it. They’ve made changes too. It made me more eager to start afresh when I moved out and to make more conscious decisions.’
With a designer’s eye, though, Sophie also felt that items that could help us reduce waste, and be beautiful too, would be more effective at helping us stick to our resolutions – ‘I’ve had reusable coffee cups in the past that I’ve ended up not using as I haven’t liked them. I think about the aesthetics. The stuff in your life needs to bring you joy.’
This got Sophie thinking back to the leftover cuts of fabric from her Fashion Design degree, material that was unused and going to waste. An idea came to start making grocery bags to use, with extras to give to her friends and her mum. Gaining momentum, Sophie made even more bags with a view to sell. ‘I’m quite impulsive so I tend to just run and jump and do something,’ says Sophie. ‘I’ll figure it out after. In the New Year of 2018 I was feeling like this, so I thought I’d just do it.’
Agnes LDN – Agnes is Sophie’s middle name – began as a simple Etsy shop selling handmade bags as an alternative to plastic packaging. It had been quick and easy to set up, needing only her grandma’s old sewing machine and a camera to photograph the products – ‘I knew I wanted to do something about environmental issues. It’s something I’m very passionate about, so this became my outlet. It was something creative I could do in the evenings.’
When I first came across Sophie’s range, the influence of Japanese styles and prints stood out, as did the minimalism of the designs. This is intentional for Sophie who takes care to keep her designs timeless and attractive so that they can be used all year round. ‘The bento bags are a Japanese-inspired design. It made sense to use Japanese style fabrics for these. Everything else is natural and undyed. These materials come into contact with food so you don’t need much else. They hold their colour in the wash.’ In February, Sophie received her first order – ‘My first sale was actually to my auntie – it was quite exciting! They say that small business owners will do a dance when they get a sale. That’s definitely me!’
At the heart, Sophie is very honest about the small steps and learning that go into creating a business - ‘Many brands start out knowing what they want to become. My journey has definitely been a learning curve. I come up with my products as I go along my own journey to a zero waste lifestyle. I tried making oat milk and I needed a bag to do it with. So I made more bags for people in the same place as me – they’re items that can make the journey easier.’ Creating a business combatting plastic pollution has definitely been a challenge, especially as going ‘plastic-free’ applies not only to the products customers receive, but also to the background work. Sometimes suppliers do send materials in plastic, Sophie laments. ‘We seem to think by default that plastic is the best option. Hopefully by talking to suppliers we can raise more awareness about sustainable practices.’
Over the last year, Agnes LDN has grown as more people have been attracted to her handmade bags, cutlery pouches and tea bags… They’ve seen a place for these items to help them along their own journey to reducing waste. ‘It’s funny when you sell online because you don’t know who your products are going to,’ says Sophie. ‘When I see them again it can be really lovely.’ And Sophie has seen her products in unexpected places. Attending a craft event, Sophie caught sight of a familiar cream and red pattern. It was a visitor pulling out a bento bag to show to her friend. Sophie introduced herself to the woman, who told her how much she’d enjoyed the bag so far and how unexpected it was to be living so close to the person who made it!
What began on an impulse has grown now into an ethical business with a long list of orders – ‘My workshop is a mess! On balance it’s quite hard to cope with the demand I get.’ Still building Agnes LDN around her day job, you’ll find Sophie working away in the early mornings, nights and weekends. Sophie has since taught her boyfriend to sew, which means she gets a little extra help in busy periods.
‘I’m trying to figure out what my long-term plans are at the moment. I have a few ideas,’ says Sophie. ‘My aim is to inspire people to live a more sustainable lifestyle.’ It’s the same sense of purpose that Sophie had at the very beginning, but now there are more ways to achieve this within her growing business. One of these ways is building up a community around Agnes LDN, both online and at events, to bring people together on their journey. ‘Everyone has a different angle on getting into sustainable living,’ says Sophie. ‘They might have started by turning vegan to reduce their impact, or they might have become aware of the issues around fast fashion. When people like this get together, we all start talking and thinking about the future and what we can do. It’s normal for people to feel quite down about the environment, so positive conversations can really help.’
One thing Sophie has noticed in this past year is both how much people really do want simple, handmade products in their lives and how very few people on the whole still know how to sew. ‘Sewing is a valuable skill. It’s easy to pick up,’ she says. ‘The low waste movement really goes back to how our grandparents used to live. They would make do and mend. I had a maxi dress I never wore, so I shortened it. Knowing how to sew gives you the liberty to change things and upcycle what would otherwise go in the trash. It means slowing down and recycling things more.’ With plans for the next year, Sophie’s finding more ways to share this age-old skill with upcoming DIY events to show people how to do their own clothing alterations and repairs. Sophie’s also about to launch an upcycling service where people can send in old clothing to be remade into bags – ‘I want to close the loop and not just make new products. There’s a whole community aspect to think about.’
Thinking ahead of all her plans for growing her plastic-free business, Sophie simply sums it up – ‘I’m excited!’ Agnes LDN is now stocked in several shops and her community as growing, building the conversation around less waste. How can we support more makers like her? ‘Simply understand,’ Sophie says, ‘that our products take time to make and that they are unique and individual. Nothing is mass-produced like with Amazon and Asos. We put love and thought into what we make for you. Recognise this and give that care and attention back when using your product. Look after it.’
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