Carl Sagan once said, “Anything else you’re interested in is not going to happen if you can’t breathe the air and drink the water. Don’t sit this one out. Do something. You are by accident of fate alive at an absolutely critical moment in the history of our planet.”
Sagan was one of those people who implements ideas, and even years after his death, his words have a prescience for the surging environmentalism that has defined the late ‘00s.
Social responsibility comes hard to some. It takes time to relinquish the idle habits of a cushy youth, but whether it’s buying organic and fair-trade or recycling bottles, our demand for ethical products and services is growing day by day. Over the past two decades, sustainability has turned from an ideal into an expectation. Businesses have responded by making sustainability a priority, due to both social concerns and self-interest: Whole Foods’ sales grew by 1000 percent from 2009 to 2013.
While global policy and market demands are putting pressure on big business, grassroots innovation is driving the change on the ground. A shift in focus among young designers and entrepreneurs is having a huge influence on materials, manufacturing and general practice. Their presence, along with the ease of the internet, is further altering the way we shop. The tides at Whole Foods have shifted in the past two years, with sales dropping due to competition and changes in consumer behaviour.
Consumers are looking for cost, convenience and good design, but they’re also looking for integrity and a backstory. That’s something that Romain Camus and Alev Lenz, the owners of One Good Deed Today, understand. Situated at the bottom end of Kingsland Road in London, the shop and creative space sells a mix of clothing, household goods and literature made by carefully selected producers from around the world, and five percent of every sale goes to a good cause.
“Transparency is the most important thing to us: transparency with our customers, but also from the suppliers,” says Romain. Every potential product comes under stern scrutiny to ensure it meets their ethical and aesthetic standards. Bamboo toothbrushes with multi-coloured bristles by BRSH Collective share a shelf with stoneware bowls by artist Saskia Pomeroy. Organic t-shirts by Swedish label The White Briefs are hung on one wall. A display of wooden sunglasses, handmade in Tunisia by Vakay, occupy the other.
Romain met Alev after moving to London to improve his English. “We met in the street,” he tells me. “I talk a lot,” Alev says by way of explanation. “I talk a lot and I’m quite friendly. I think if I were an animal, I’d be a golden retriever.” Alev had just moved from Berlin to further her career as a musician and has recently signed with music publishers Manners McDade. “I’d say I make pop music,” she says. “I write everything on the piano, and I guess it’s more Kate Bush than Radio One, but I’d still say it’s pop.” Her need for a good studio was echoed by musicians around her, which inspired the creation of a recording space downstairs. “My favourite thing to do is to write music and then go and have a tea and talk about it,” she laughs. “This place is very much about hanging out with people doing similar things and having that sense of community.”
“We’re trying to show that you can buy good and do good at the same time,” says Romain.
The premise of the business is simple: “We’re trying to show that you can buy good and do good at the same time,” says Romain. And he doesn’t just talk the talk. He and Alev live upstairs with their baby in a flat that is essentially an extension of the shop. The vegan cleaning products by the till also sit on their kitchen counter, the German haircare is in their bathroom and artwork by Saskia Pomeroy hangs in their lounge.
They bought the property three years ago and spent two years renovating and decorating, with the help of builders and a local architect who specializes in sustainable design. “I always dreamed of a passive house,” Alev says. “I saw one on TV in Germany in the ‘80s as a kid and thought, ‘I need that’. A tree in the house and no need for heating. No need for anything or anyone. You’re completely off the grid.” “But unless you build from scratch, it’s almost impossible to do that,” Romain adds. “We did everything,” says Alev. “New floors, new electricity, water filter. We insulated the entire building, so we have very low energy costs, but in these old London buildings there’s only so much you can do.”
The interior was designed in collaboration with furniture designer Dean Edmonds and studio Nice to be Nice. While the upstairs is flawless, the crowning glory of the property is the tessellated flooring downstairs. “It’s all about the detail and the functionality for me,” says Romain. “Mundane things like door-handles and skirting. You can have something that’s well-designed but if there are details lacking, it can ruin the whole thing.”
For Alev, it’s more an aesthetic that she’s interested in. “I remember seeing this William Morris quote while we were refurbishing,” she says. “He said, ‘Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.’” I point to a collection of oversized plastic Kinder Surprise eggs on top of the fridge. She laughs. “I think they’re hideous but Romain got them as a present and mistakenly said he liked them. Now they don’t stop coming. They live here. There are quite a few weird things around. I’m not as minimalist as I’d like to be at all. But then a tidy house is a bit boring, isn’t it?”
The shop itself sits at the front of the ground floor of the building. Behind is the recording studio and out the back is an alcohol-licenced garden area where local restaurant Rita’s took control during the summer. They’ve also held week-long pop-ups by materials consultancy studio Matter and musician Jamie xx. The storefront is still painted in unmissable rainbow colours from Jamie xx’s recent Good Times takeover, which – as well as selling merch and some of Jamie’s favourite records – provided live music events and broadcast radio shows every night on NTS. It’s about as lifestyle as it gets, but Romain has no problem with that. “I started out working in a skate shop back in my hometown of Champagne, and you know, kids would come in who couldn’t afford anything but just wanted to hang out. I used to BMX as well, and that’s the culture I enjoy. I want people to feel like they can hang out here and have a chat. This is a way of life for me as well as a job.”
For the couple, One Good Deed Today was always going to be an experiment in balancing work and life, and that has only intensified since having a baby. But while they’ve taken a big risk, the luxury of being able to make such a lifestyle choice isn’t lost on the couple. “I feel watched,” says Alev. “Sometimes I think, ‘Is this a completely silly idea? Can we justify having this big building in the middle of town?’ I don’t charge for the studio at the moment, but is it stupid to not be making a profit? Am I going to ask myself what the hell I was doing a few years down the line? I don’t know. Really, we’re just trying to find happiness. I think that’s everyone’s greatest responsibility.”
There’s also a desire to make a difference socially, as Romain explains. One Good Deed Today is already collaborating on projects with small companies and artists, but he’d like to take it further. “The next step for me is to make our own products and work with bigger brands. But that’s a struggle. It’s proven that you can make changes and still make a profit. It’s whether you want to do it, whether you want to make the effort. And most of the time with big brands, the answer is no. If we can show them that they can do it and reach more people, I’ll feel as though I’ve done something. I have this constant feeling that I need to do something.” Sagan, if he were alive today, would approve of that.
Good Times Pop-Up Record Shop
Jamie xx and Young Turks taking over One Good Deed Today for a whole week, hosting live radio shows with guests and selling special editions of his album and other assorted gems.
Artists Broadcasting Live on NTS Radio from Good Times Records Pop-Up
Mack + Friends
Melon Magic w/Powell
Sampha & Lil Silva
Oneman & Tic
Benji B & Tic
Young Turks All Stars Shop
Tic and Benji B on NTS – Live from the Good Times Pop-Up shop
Thanks, Romain and Alev, for your thoughts on sustainability and for letting us in on the story behind One Good Deed Today. We wish you all the best with the project.
See more creative endeavors happening across London in our portraits from the bustling city.