How I Started a
Sustainable Backpack Business
Hi! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hi! I’m Sofia Voudouroglou, I’m 23 years old and I founded Sewing with Sofia in the spring of 2019. I design, cut and sew the backpacks myself at home, as well as working with suppliers and sourcing sustainable materials.
My partner, an engineer, helps out with the design for manufacture tweaks and accounting – and emotional support! The business is based around sustainability, and making it available in a stylish and durable backpack that will last years. The materials we use are sourced from small family companies, or bought second hand at charity shops and upcycled.
Our materials are also GOTS certified organic. This is a certification which takes into consideration the wellbeing of humans, animals and the planet at every stage of production.
The design minimises fabric waste and thus lowers both cost and waste, and all fabric scraps are reused. We also offer a repair service to help extend the life of our backpacks. We request they be returned to us at the end of their life so that we can salvage and reuse as much as possible. We’re not perfect, but we pride ourselves on artisanal production, transparency and unique creative designs.
What is your personal story and how did you come up with the idea?
I started my business, Sewing with Sofia, in spring of 2019, while I was working on my Master’s degree. I had just taught myself to sew 6 months prior and had made a couple of backpacks for some friends at Christmas, mainly just as a way to challenge myself and learn new skills.
Soon I was looking for a backpack myself. It became clear that there was a real lack of affordable, stylish and durable options that were also sustainably made, with transparency and compassionate regard for the environment, people and animals. I just dove right in. I designed my own backpack pattern using brown wrapping paper and scrap fabric for the prototypes and then started marketing through Instagram.
My business grew organically as people discovered my commitment to sustainable ideals. A few months later, when I had finished my Masters, I decided to go full time. Since then, I’ve been sewing backpacks at home and building Sewing with Sofia with the help of my partner. I source all materials and work with suppliers, design the backpacks, cut, sew and market them. He helps with ‘design for manufacture’ tips and accounting. Recently we’ve had some big changes, and we can’t wait to see what the future holds!
What challenges did you face when creating your product/service?
The biggest challenges in sustainable production centre around the availability of products that meet your requirements. Mine are high and non-negotiable: from the use of toxic pesticides to modern slavery, traditional supply models are unacceptable.
However, as a small company, it’s not only hard to find suppliers who sell the low volumes you need, but doubly so, when your standards for those suppliers are so strict. I have been lucky to find a wonderful collection of small companies who support my dream and can supply fabrics. However, the costs are still extremely high compared to ‘traditional’ fabrics, and consumers are not yet cognizant of the necessity of those costs. Making a sustainable product affordable at a low volume is challenging, but we do our best.
Who is your target market?
Our customers tend to be adults who have some disposable income – these are artisanal backpacks, after all! They like fun, bright colours and bold prints paired with elegant simplicity. The outside of our backpacks tends to be monochrome, but many love the prints used for the lining, a small surprise for the wearer. This also makes the backpacks adaptable to many situations, from work to travel/leisure.
Our customers tend to be UK-based and sustainability-conscious, leading a lifestyle in tune with nature. However, we are hoping that, as the sustainable fashion industry grows, more and more people are made aware of its importance and are given access to the wonderful products that are available, including our own.
How do you market your business and which approaches have been the most successful?
We have generally relied on social media and word of mouth for our marketing. Instagram has been the most powerful tool, although we do not use paid ads since we try to keep our overheads low. At the end of the day, we don’t need every person in the world to have heard of us. A small collection of loyal customers is enough.
Past that, word of mouth has been wonderful for our small business. Whether from friends, family or other customers, and we are growing every day.
Since you launched, what has worked in not only attracting but retaining customers?
Our customers love our ethics. Particularly the fact that the entire business hinges on compassion for humans, animals, and the planet. They are attracted by our outlook, drawn in by the aesthetic of our products, and once they have felt and seen one of our backpacks in real life, they are hooked. We pride ourselves on high quality and unique, practical design, and our customers love owning a product they can be proud of!
What kind of culture exists in your company, and how did you establish it?
Honestly, most of the work is done by myself, and if not, by my partner. It’s difficult to speak of an established work culture in our own home! But we both value the same ethics, which include compassion for ourselves. If we need breaks, we take them, if we need advice, we ask for it, and we praise each other’s achievements, no matter how small.
What software, services or tools do you use within your business?
I’m not a person who thrives from using software. I tend to prefer pen and paper! But of course, some basics are necessary. We mainly use Excel for accounting and bookkeeping, pricing etc. Otherwise, I use Canva every day for our branding and marketing. And that’s it! We keep it simple and keep costs to a minimum.
What are the most important lessons have you learned on your business journey?
Especially as my business is coming up to a big pivot point, I have been looking back at my journey. It’s been less than a year and already I feel as if I’m a different person. I think the biggest lessons I learned were about myself. I wish I had more confidence in myself and my abilities when I started, but I’m glad I had the opportunity to test those and build resolve.
I’m not sure I would do anything differently. As we now move away from me producing the backpacks, we are simultaneously making changes towards supporting the sustainable fashion industry in other, maybe even more powerful ways. I don’t feel that any day of work has been lost.
There are ups and downs and it’s a slow process, but I think what I’ve learned is to see every step as a step forwards. Every ‘mistake’ or ‘failure’ is a stepping stone to your final goal. This is why I am happy that my business is based around a value and not a product. In everything we do, sustainability comes first, and so every move we make is a move in the right direction.
What is your favourite aspect of being an entrepreneur?
Being an entrepreneur really suits me. I enjoy working from home to my own schedule, setting my own goals and working uninterrupted. I appreciate the availability of outside opinions, whether from friends and family or from my customers or followers. What I value the most is that, in my own business, I can set my own standards, and I don’t have to compromise.
Traditional business and economics may value profit over everything, but in my business I can choose to value other things more.
What is your LEAST favourite aspect of being an entrepreneur?
There is a long, long period of time when you are making no money (I’m still in that period!). Then there are days when you have no idea what the next step is and you wish you had a boss or a colleague to tell you what to do. And, naturally, there is a great deal of self-doubt and comparison with others in similar positions (but don’t worry, they’re feeling the same).
At the end of the day, you may ‘fail’. Your business may not work out. That’s just a reality. But how I deal with that is to think of this business as a step in my journey, not as my entire journey. If this has to fail so that something else in the future will succeed, then all i can do is give it my all and making a valuable step in my journey.
What books, podcasts or other resources have inspired and influenced your business journey?
Most of the books and resources I have turned to have to do with sustainable fashion. Over anything else, I wanted to truly understand fast fashion and the traditional business model, so that I could change it to suit my own ideals. Climate Justice: A Man-Made Problem With a Feminist Solution by Mary Robinson, is an amazing book that I’ve found humanises climate change like no other. If I had to recommend one book to someone to get them on board the sustainability movement, it would probably be that one.
I also enjoyed This Is A Good Guide – To A Sustainable Lifestyle by Marieke Eyskoot as a very basic, entry-level how-to for personal sustainability changes, and Fashionopolis by Dana Thomas for a more in-depth look into the fast fashion industry.
When it came to marketing or selling, I didn’t read any books on that. I just learned about the industry I was in, figured out what I wanted to avoid, and struck my own path.
Where do you see your business 2-3 years from now?
My sewing business is in a period of transition at the moment, so it is really hard to say. I would like to think that in 2 or 3 years I will have a dedicated work space outside of my home, and one or two employees. I would like to be making enough money to add to my savings rather than taking from them. But most of all I’d like to be making a tangible dent in the fast fashion industry and raising awareness and support for sustainability.