The local leather goods darling is on a mission to become the world’s most responsible handbag brand. But why now? Reweti Kohere speaks with owners Liam Bowden and Steve Boyd about Deadly Ponies’ push to be more transparent.
Deadly Ponies creative director Liam Bowden admits he isn’t the kind of person to throw things away.
Does that make him a hoarder? “Yeah, I mean probably not [so] much that I’d go on a TV show about it,” Bowden says. Steve Boyd, his husband and business partner, chimes in: “it’s because I put things in boxes.”
The pair behind the New Zealand-based leather goods brand are speaking with me over Zoom. I had tried to rein in my unruly lockdown locks with hair wax just minutes before we connect virtually, in an attempt to look somewhat presentable in front of two well-dressed, well-groomed men. The result: I look less dishevelled, but they appear chicer. Quelle surprise.
We’re on the call to talk about Deadly Ponies’ declared commitment to be “transparent, considered, accountable and innovative” through a company-wide programme that includes “zero excess, zero waste” initiatives, corporate philanthropy and ethical labour practices. Think of it as the company collecting pieces of paper along the way confirming they’re reducing the business’s carbon emissions, balancing profit and purpose as a “B Corp” business, or that their leathers come from environmentally conscious suppliers.
So what is it about this moment that has made Deadly Ponies want to get a piece of the sustainability pie? In short, it’s nothing new. Being sustainable – or back then, thrifty – has been intrinsic to the business that Bowden founded out of a garage in 2005 and which Boyd joined in 2010 from a career in government communications. Bowden recalls how, in the early days, a nearby tannery’s free offcut bin was where he found the leather scraps to make the patchworked pieces that were then crafted into high-end accessories.
Since then, Deadly Ponies’ growth has been “measured”, says Bowden. As well as standalone stores in Auckland and Wellington, its bags, wallets, belts and other accessories are stocked at boutiques and department stores throughout New Zealand. The brand recently opened a store in Melbourne, and its e-commerce store ships worldwide. The slow and steady approach seems to be working: company revenues have increased an average of 10% a year for the last five years.
Now it’s time for its next big move, this time to becoming zero waste. Deadly Ponies is far from the only New Zealand-born company making a big sustainability play. Emma Lewisham, for example, recently claimed to be the world’s first “carbon-positive” beauty brand, removing more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than it emits. And footwear company Allbirds, seen as the poster child of profit-and-purpose businesses, recently listed on the Nasdaq stock exchange to huge success.
The operating environment is shifting too, helped by a base of consumers that are more discerning, regulatory frameworks giving companies some structure to their aspirations, and innovative technology helping mitigate the effects of climate change. For Deadly Ponies, it was a matter of waiting until the timing was right. “Like so many things that we feel like we do, there’s a certain perfection that we try to meet,” says chief executive Boyd. “And that’s about us being able to speak about things really honestly and be really deliberate about everything that we do.”
Every now and then during our conversation, I notice the duo stealing glances at what I presume is a sheet of talking points about the initiatives they have implemented. One such example is their work in Chiang Mai, Thailand, to build a factory that manufactures all the products that Bowden designs in Aotearoa. Over the past decade, he and Boyd worked with international factories that, compared with Deadly Ponies’ more established competitors, viewed their brand as a minnow lacking leverage to demand they operate in line with its values. So, instead, last year Deadly Ponies’ built their own “eco-atelier” in Thailand, complementing other partnerships with manufacturers in China, Italy and New Zealand, most of which have signed up to the company’s code of conduct on labour practices and environmental standards (signing up the homegrown factory is a work-in-progress, they say).
When it comes to creating a sustainability-focused brand, one-line slogans won’t cut it anymore, says Bowden. Consumers want to know the size of a company’s carbon footprint, the amount of waste it’s dumping in landfills, whether its buildings are running on renewable energy and whether its people are being paid a living wage. Deadly Ponies has given them that information.
In doing so, they’re setting themselves up for future success, says associate professor Sara Walton, who teaches sustainability and business at Otago University. Increasingly, a business’s profitability will turn on its commitment to demonstrating environmental and social values – not just as part of a time-limited marketing campaign, but in the long term. And judging by Deadly Ponies’ website, the business is “spot on” in positioning itself in front of communities that will be interested in its push for greater transparency, and will be prepared to pay more for it.
But she says there’s something more fundamental at stake for businesses: simply put, the ability to operate in a world affected by climate change and other eco threats, which mean “you’re going to have to consider all of these different aspects, which is interesting when you stop and think about it because it’s a real tipping point.”
A rising number of consumers are expecting more from businesses. Regulatory changes are highlighting the rewards of decisive action and the risks of empty “greenwashing” words. Innovative technology is enabling different solutions to help lessen the severity of climate change, says Walton. The outcome? An environment where companies’ proactive sustainability efforts are proving well-founded – and behind-the-times organisations are facing pressure to pivot or else jeopardise their future viability. As Walton puts it, “You can’t hide away.”
Delivering greater transparency comes with an expensive price tag – Boyd discloses it’s cost Deadly Ponies “every ounce of profit from the last three years” – but Bowden knows costs are falling as they make changes to wrest back control.
“We need to have it in our own hands to be able to get even close to what we want to achieve,” says Bowden. “We’re not a conglomerate, there is not a board, it is us that own it and it can be in our hands. There are no excuses.”