Ultimate ethical travel experience? Elephant Branded’s bags for schools

CNN  — 

Ethical travel is sometimes just an idle boast – a badge earned simply by swiping a credit card at an eco lodge before jumping in the gas-guzzling limo parked outside.

For James Munro Boon, a Hong Kong-based entrepreneur, it’s changed his life.

And, thanks to inspiration found on the road, it’s also changed the lives of the many kids he’s been able to help on the way.

Boon is co-founder of Elephant Branded, a company that hand-makes bags, wallets and computer cases from recycled materials.

They’re cool-looking items that have been listed as “must-haves” by fashion mags.

But the coolest thing about them? For every bag sold, Elephant Branded donates a school kit to a kid in need.

Boon says his award-winning concept is the product of a restlessness that saw him parlay a nascent career in architecture into a way of helping others via travels through Africa and Asia.

“Something was missing”

While studying at the UK’s University of Bath, he was given the option of tackling a project close to home or traveling to South Africa to build a school.

Boon chose the school and spent four months in Jouberton, a township 175 kilometers southwest of Johannesburg,

“It looked good from a university perspective with all the photographs and for PR, but the bit that made a school a school was sort of missing – the school kits,” he tells CNN.

“It made me think a little bit more about what I thought about the world and my aspirations.”

After graduating, he took a job with a British company in Shenzhen, southern China. Later, while “in a bar in Tokyo” he was offered the job that brought him to Hong Kong.

He used a break while transitioning between the two jobs to travel through Southeast Asia.

“I was very fortunate to meet an amazing family in Cambodia. We got working together and thought ‘why can’t we find some stuff that’s lying around and try to make it into a bag.’”

And so Elephant Branded was born.

The company takes materials such as cement or rice bags found in Cambodia, Colombia and South Africa and recycles them into holdalls, wallets and computer cases.

“Hit the road”

Cool for kids: Elephant Branded's products.

These are then sold in Europe and the U.S. and for every item bought, Elephant donates an “ergonomically designed” school bag and kit to a child in the places where the bags are made.

Elephant has far outgrown Boon’s initial ambitions.

In 2012, aged 23, he was named one of 10 winners of Google’s Zeitgeist Young Minds awards, which celebrates people making a positive impact on their world.

The prize helped open the door to meetings with influential figures such as U.S. President Bill Clinton.

“I thought it would be 50 bags and I would sell 50 bags to my friends and donate 50 school kits to this little school that I helped build in South Africa,” Boon says.

“And that’s all I ever expected it to be. So it kind of just snowballed from there and the rest is history.

“Now we’ve done thousands of bags. Not just in Cambodia but in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania.

Boon credits his travels with opening his eyes to the possibilities of helping others and advises other young people to seize any opportunity to hit the road.

“Elephant Branded is never going to change the world but I want to show that you can do some good and also make a profit.”