An interview with Choi Yi-hyun (Ian Choi), CEO of Morethan,
which was selected and nurtured as a Star Social Enterprise by SK Innovation in 2018
Morethan’s homepage: http://wecontinew.com/
Q1. We’d like to know the background and motivations of Morethan. How did you establish this social enterprise?
When I studied in the U.K., I saved money to purchase a second-handed car. It was my first car and precious to me. But a hit-and-run car accident turned it into scrap metal. However, it seemed so wasteful to throw it away, so I retrieved the car seat and used it as a sofa in my living room, and everyone who set their eyes on the seat marveled at the quality of leather. That was the point when I became interested in the use of leather car seats. Since then, as I investigated for my master’s thesis, titled “Sustainable Social Responsibility Activities by South Korean Automobile Companies”, I came to realize that landfill wastes from scrap cars may do more environmental harm than automobile exhaust fumes. The realization has led me to start a business by linking leather car seats from scrap cars with corporate social responsibility. After completing the graduate course, I went back to Korea and strove to make samples by paying visits to wrecking yards day and night and invested a huge amount of money and time to make our products free from any prejudiced label of “recycled goods.” Driven by my resolution that I should not make wastes out of wastes, I have never stopped pondering and practicing the ways to improve product quality. The result is, as you know, the birth of CONTINEW, the brand of a social enterprise Morethan in World Environment Day, June 5th, 2015.
▲ Morethan’s practices for the environment
Q2. What is the philosophy and values that are most important to Morethan?
The founding philosophy of Morethan is to ”Turn the Useless into the Useful.”
In the past, we utilized scrap car seats but now we use the remnants from leather car seats to make a range of fashion items. We still strive to assign a new value to useless things that can be just thrown away as garbage, and make something useful out of them.
In fact, the very essence of Morethan’s mission lies in the “people.” We believe it is important to help those are particularly facing difficulties in getting a job despite their talents, such as the North Korean defectors and career interrupted women, to find jobs and prove their abilities in society. This is corresponding to our business practices in that it rediscovers values in people and empower them. Our founding philosophy is to add values not just to resources but also to people, and that is also the direction to which we steer our business.
Q3. That’s really meaningful. Moving to the story of Morethan’s products, what kinds of process do you use to make “the useful” out of “the useless”?
Morethan manufactures bags and accessories from the waste pieces of leather car seats, airbags, and seat-belts under the brand name of CONTINEW. The collected waste materials are cleaned up by our 6 stage-cleaning processes and antimicrobial coating treatment before being reprocessed as desired products.
To be more specific, all waste material pieces will go through the processes of collecting – cleaning – drying – heat coating – assortment – waxing. We apply no chemical detergents but natural detergents developed by Morethan. Also, we do not dye our products and keep the collected leather colors as they are. Most of all, we make special endeavors to mitigating the environmental impacts of our business in the production process. The types of leathers used in car seats are excellent in resisting high temperature or moisture and particularly robust as they withstand hundreds and thousands of frictions against the human body. Therefore, they make awesome materials for accessories. As we mainly use the covers of the back seats, the leathers almost look like new ones. What matters here is how to eliminate odor and stains. We completely remove 99.9% of any bacterium, odor, stains with our six-stage cleaning process. After undergoing all stages of processes, the leathers are transformed into useful products through 100% handwork of our craftsmen with more than 40 years of experience. As all the products are manually produced, they take a long time to produce (at least 4 months for a bag). Nevertheless, we are keen on ensuring outstanding quality superior to so-called luxury brand items.
▲ The upcycling process of the materials used in CONTINEW products
We are also creating environmental values with our upcycling products manufactured in this manner. We contribute to the reduction of un-recyclable scrap vehicles for landfills, which amounts to 4M tons a year and usually save 1,624L of water for each bag. As long as our system reuses the discarded leathers, we practice animal-free ethics despite using natural cow leathers. Morethan will not cease to create the useful from the useless, but continue to make effort to generate new environmental values.
Q4. Recently, we’ve visited Morethan’s eco-friendly factory. It was amazing! Please tell our readers a bit more about this special factory?
In celebrating World Environment Day, on June 5th this year, we opened a Morethan eco-factory in Paju, Gyeonggido, Korea, and it is characterized by an entirely eco-friendly operation from material preparation to water and power consumption for cleaning. As Morethan is an enterprise that takes the environment into account, we believe that it is compulsory to be fully equipped with an environmentally friendly strategy in all its production processes.
Founded on this philosophy, we benchmarked leading foreign companies and applied a rainwater based-wastewater reclamation and reusing system to our eco-factory. As a result, we are 100% self-sufficient in water in terms of the entire processes from production to disposal. We collect and use rainwater for leather cleaning and the wastewater generated from the process is filtered and reused as rising water. After 14 months of the long journey, we eventually succeeded in developing the necessary system. Consequently, we attained a remarkable performance – Zero Water Footprint.*
(*) Water footprint: Total volume of water consumed for an entire process of commodity production, use, and disposal.
Furthermore, our factory is 100 percent self-powered by solar photovoltaic panels on top of our factory’s roof. In an effort to take a step closer toward our goal of realizing social values, we set a target to produce 50% more power than necessary for factory operation and become an environmentally friendly power provider. It was a very proud moment for me to celebrate World Environment Day in a way Morethan excels.
▲ (Right) Water circulation system in Morethan’s eco-factory / (Left) Solar panels installed on the roof of Morethan’s eco-factory
Q5. Could you share with us the most memorable experience since you started this business?
Ever since I stepped into this field, I had chances to meet many great people and spend valuable time with them at various places, so there are lots of memories. But if I have to single out one, I would like to talk about the time when I made a presentation on what Morethan does as an accompanying businessperson of President Moon’s overseas tour in 2019.
In an event called Conversation for Korea-Sweden Social Ventures held in Norrsken House in Stockholm, Sweden, on behalf of Korean social enterprises and social ventures, I gave a talk under the theme of “End is New.” There, I unfolded Morethan’s Triple Bottom Line (TBL) strategy in which environmental value is created from the discarded materials, social value is brought about by providing the underprivileged with jobs, and economic values are generated by selling products. Many officials showed enormous interest in our case in environmental value creation and asked about more detailed corporate growth history and future coop-possibilities. Also, in a proud moment addressing the point that South Korea offers an excellent environment for social enterprises and ventures to grow, I cited the supports our company received and how our success was credited to Accelerating by the Ministry of SMEs and Startups and the marketing and PR backups from SK Innovation.
After the presentation, I was honored to give a CONTINEW bag to Carl XVI Gustaf, the King of Sweden, as a token. I was brimming with pride as it provided me with an opportunity to internationally promote Morethan’s bags and our brand identity. Such experience motivated us to keep on paying greater effort to make more people sympathize with Morethan’s pursuit of social value, and empower us to make a better world.
Q6. Thank you for your stories. Last but not least, we would like to know your future plans and goals.
We want to be a luxury brand. If Hermes stands for luxury bags, we want Morethan to be described as a luxury environmental brand. We do not just monopolize the materials we use but offer them to our competitors that produce bags. Because we believe that we can create a synergistic effect by re-creating environmental values through turning our competitors into our customers. And we would like to transcend beyond the national boundary and take an initiative in tackling environmental issues with the continuous ESG generation through collaborations of global automakers. I guess it would be the time when such plans are materialized then we could finally complete the formula: “Morethan, an Environmental Luxury Brand.”
▲ Morethan’s CONTINEW Store that has more than 90% of the construction materials made from reused resources.