Stephanie Uwalaka: Inspired by a love of sewing and protecting the environment

I started up by using some of my own unwanted clothes - Stephanie Uwalaka Click To Tweet

Out of style, worn it too long, don’t feel it anymore…. I guess I just need a new one! These are some of the thoughts and reasons we give when we want to get rid of our clothing items. Very few times, if ever do we actually consider a Clothing DIY. It’s not always about upcycling items that are still in good condition, tattered clothes can be used as material to make other items as well. Thank goodness for Stephanie Uwalaka! In this interview, we gain insight on how she uses pre-loved clothing and off-cuts to make lovable tote bags.

Stephanie is a half-Nigerian student from London, who set up her business independently while living and teaching English with the British Council abroad in France. The 22 year old is a features writer and section editor for one of the biggest student papers in the UK, The Gryphon. She has worked freelance for publications both online and in print, such as The State of The Arts, French regional paper and Le Courrier Picard. Stephanie has also volunteered for several charities including Oxfam, Traid and Help Refugees UK in Calais, France

Better World Totes produces completely original hand-sewn tote bags made from recycled fabric off-cuts, aiming to combat the use of plastic bags and reduce the water wastage in the textile industry by upcycling fabrics to create tote bags people will use and love, with a 20% donation from each bag to going to environmental charities; including The Soil Association, Greenpeace, and WWF. 

Introducing Stephanie Uwalaka …

A 22-year-old student from London, and set up her business while living and working abroad in France. Inspired by her love of sewing, protecting the environment and philanthropy, Better World Totes was born.

How easy/ difficult was it to start Better World Totes in a foreign land?

Well, aside from the hard work I put in, especially at the beginning, I would say it was easier for me to start up Better World Totes here in France rather than in London, purely because I had the time and space to finally invest in my own business.

In London, there is this sense that there is not enough time, money and all number of distractions that can make it harder for creatives to set up their own platforms or even businesses, but for me being out of a city and abroad gave me the space I needed to focus.

Also, living abroad changes your mindset in several ways I think, so it gave me the drive to go ahead and set up a business I have been thinking about for years pretty much. And although I am based in London, to start out abroad I think has given me great foundation to be able to continue in the UK.

Stephanie Uwalaka

Recycling fabric is such a cool idea; how do you get your supplies? Like do you receive off cuts from other tailors or do you use pre-loved clothing items?

This is one of the things I am constantly doing, looking for fabric! But I would have to say I use mostly off-cuts, I tend to find kind souls who either give me unwanted materials or from local markets for cheap. Sometimes even at car boot sales or craft fairs I come across an abundance of unwanted fabric that I can use given that its clean and there’s enough of it.

Although I did start up by using some of my own unwanted clothes. For instance, ‘The Paisley Tote’ was a sun dress I bought but never wore, even though I loved the pattern, so I ended turning it into one of my first products!

How will recyclables need to be prepared before they can be reused?

Before I take on any materials or fabrics, I make sure they are clean and something I can work with.

If needed I’ll wash fabrics on an eco-cycle using natural washing detergent, then iron lightly depending on the fabric.

One of your aims is to reduce water used in the textile industry. How do you plan on doing this?

Essentially, my intention is that by using fabrics that have already been produced and have seemingly no further use, can take on a new lease of life as a multi-use bag to prevent people paying 5 or 10p for a plastic bag or having to use paper bags when out and about.

According to WWF, it takes 2,700 litres to produce just one cotton t-shirt. I think that by recycling, or upcycling if you will, fabrics we can reduce the pressure on natural resources and the environment to keep up with consumerist societal habits.

The number of fabrics recycled each year in the UK is just at 25 percent, but 50 percent is recyclable, so I hope that by making original one-off tote bags that serve a purpose and please the eye is a little step in the right direction.

Stephanie Uwalaka: By upcycling fabrics we can reduce the pressure on the environment Click To Tweet

Stephanie Uwalaka

So, is it just going to end with tote bags?

Not at all! I like to think that this is just the start, I am hoping to produce cushion covers, bunting, and maybe even yoga mat bags in the future!

Also, I will be getting in some Better World Totes logo bags for our launch later this summer so that will be something to look forward to.

Are there any negatives to your business or your industry at large?

I think in the growing ‘green fashion’ and beauty industries it is easy to, what is called, ‘green-wash’ a business or product. This means that products are either not as ethically, environmentally or ecologically friendly as they make out to be or advertised.

Recently, the Soil Association, a charity that Better World Totes makes donations to, had a campaign about the organic beauty industry and the mis-labelling of products that may mislead customers to think a product is ‘greener’ than it is. This I think sums up one of the greatest industry challenges.

In terms of the negatives to my business, aside from practically doing all the work myself and numerous other little things I’m working on, I think the hardest thing is getting my products out there and inciting sales.

Sometimes I think taking a break from social media is necessary but having a business means you need to be quite active online to make sure you’re putting your brand and idea out there. And although it has strengthened my self-promotion skills, something I was not previously that good at, I learnt that it is necessary to take a step back sometimes, acknowledge your own achievements and be proud of them too.

I also think that audience is a big challenge too, it’s quite easy for people to think bags are aimed solely at women, but I chose to make tote bags specifically because they are unisex and useful!

OK, so with that said. What gave you the confidence in the first place  that your Tote bags will sell?

I have always loved bags, and tote bags in particular. I think I have a healthy collection of tote bags from artists, events or brands that I like or have been to! So, I think this where my belief that my bags will sell comes from.  That is if there is someone out there who loves bags as much as me!

I also think that people like things that are unique yet useful, with a potential wider impact. As each tote is a one-off, there will be no other bag like it, which is attractive to buyers. Recently, I saw a video of a discussion with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

In it, she said Nigerians are brought up with a kind of ‘arrogance’, particularly of their own work, so I think there’s some truth in that too! At the heart of it though, I am confident and self-motivated, I think its these two qualities that allow me to believe in myself and my product, with the knowing that things take time and hard work.

The articles I read on SLA inspire me with the reminder that it takes hard work to create what you want Click To Tweet

Stephanie, what’s the best lesson you have learnt from SLA so far?

The best lesson I’ve learnt so far from SLA is to keep going! There are still times when I think to myself maybe it’s not worth doing but the articles I read on SLA inspire me to push through, with the reminder that it takes hard work to create what you want.

Also, just knowing there is a community of women that I can relate to, doing similar things in business, makes all the difference and encourages me to continue to put the work in. I think another is that you can succeed in doing what you love too.

Stephanie Uwalaka


You also write articles for The State of the Arts. What inspires your writing?

I wrote a couple of articles last year for The State of The Arts and have written for other publications too. I chose to write for them because I find culture and art of all kinds very interesting and highly important. Creative expression is something special and that not everyone is in touch with.

So for me, writing is a creative outlet. Albeit via reviews for events like AFROPUNK London, it was my subjective experience of the event but I had to write in such a way for others to experience it through my review. What inspires me to write is an exploration or a search for truth, joy and even beauty and to express that as much as possible through words.

If you were to write a book what would it be all about?

I thought of this recently, as I do enjoy writing. I would write a recipe book because I love cooking! Or maybe something more of a biography because everyone’s life experience is different and unique. Yet it is not always something everyone knows about, only you know all the things you have experienced and the value that they may or may not hold for you.

So, having said this, I think to share that with others, may inspire, enlighten or encourage people on their own life paths.

If you’d like to share your story with She Leads Africa, let us know more about you and your story here

About Rumbie Muzawazi

Rumbie is pursuing a career in Information Technology. She says being in an industry where the gender ratio isn’t in her favour is an opportunity to prove that IT CAN BE DONE and this has been her mantra. After travelling, she is most passionate about fashion and personal development. If not volunteering, the tech savvy lady can be found scouting around for gastronomic experiences.

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