By Jung Joo-ri and Yoon Sojung
Photos = Choi Taesoon
Seoul | Nov. 28, 2018
In 2012, Choi Ian, a student at the University of Leeds in the U.K., loved his car so much but later had to scrap it because of a hit-and-run accident.
Deeply saddened, he took the driver’s seat from the car back to his place. His friends asked him why he had brought the seat home, saying it did not fit in his pad. Yet one friend said, "It has good leather, though, you could make a bag with that."
The idea gave Choi a eureka moment. His senior thesis was titled "The Sustainable and Social Responsibility of Korean Carmakers" and he eventually began a new business, Morethan, which manufactures bags from genuine leather, air bags and seat belts from scrapped cars.
Choi, 37, founded Morethan in 2015 and launched his brand Continew in 2017 after two years of R&D.
The company started out with three workers but saw growth to 16 full-time staff a year later. It exports about 180 items to 15 countries including the U.S., Germany, France, Spain and Japan with an estimated monthly turnover of USD 180,000.
Upcycling and innovating products
Upcycling is the first keyword used to explain Morethan.
Choi said whereas recycling means collecting used resources or materials to reuse them for their original purposes, upcycling means using such materials to transform them into new materials and create new uses for them. He stressed that car seats, air bags and seat belts are categorized as safety products and thus not recycled for that reason.
Under a contract with Hyundai Motor Company, Morethan collects approximately five tons of car seats, air bags and seat belts every week that undergo a six-step procedure before being used to make premium leather bags.
"The quality leather used in car seats doesn't get dirty easily but the procedure involves washing and drying as the leather can have an unpleasant smell," Choi said.
Pursuing win-win cooperation by hiring underprivileged
The other keyword for Morethan is social responsibility shown through its progressive hiring practices.
The company has hired as bag designers women who had to stop careers of 10 years or longer due to giving birth and child care. A flexible workhour system allows them to handle both their jobs and childcare and also work at home instead of commuting to the office.
"Isn’t it nice to be able to go to the office after sending your kids to school?" Choi said. "Staying at the office for eight hours doesn't guarantee coming up with a good design idea. Companies in the U.K. make employees work at home once a week to save energy."
Morethan also actively hires North Korean defectors. By doing so, the company hopes to help them better adapt to life in South Korea through more chances to meet people face to face.
"A high proportion of (defectors) tend to be isolated from South Korean society, but once they have more chances to meet people at the office, they’ll gain confidence," Choi said, adding that he hopes to offer various job opportunities to them.
Morethan has wooed customers with a social value-based concept by transforming scrapped material into new, high value-added products. Many people saw photos of K-pop artists RM of BTS and Wendy from Red Velvet wearing Continew bags on their Instagram accounts and customers promoted this Morethan brand on their social network accounts, earning the company free advertising.
Morethan now exports its products to 15 countries and has even set up a branch in the U.S.
On his company’s goals, Choi emphasized the need to build a new ecosystem in the economy.
"We hope to supply leather to every bag company in the world interested in upcycling leather. If we do this, everyone can use upcycling products," he said.
"The final business model for pursuing our goal is creation of a new ecosystem in the economy based on upcycling so that more people can use upcycled products easily."
Through its vision of innovative growth, the government seeks to build a people-centered economy by fundamentally changing the country’s social and economic structures.
Choi said Morethan’s process of producing socially beneficial products should serve as a model for what direction Korea should take to lead innovative growth.
"A great company should offer benefits through products rather than just show fancy designs to customers," he said, underscoring his company’s philosophy toward social innovation.