Posted: Wed 22nd Jan 2020
You can change the world. Building a business with a conscience means multiplying the impact of your desire to live sustainably. And consumers are keener than ever to shop with small and purpose-led businesses.
We spoke to founders of sustainable businesses about the opportunities for entrepreneurs that want to launch businesses. They shared their inspiration and ideas on how to get started.
David Attenborough's Blue Planet II was a turning point in the public's awareness of the environmental impact of plastic packaging.
"I don't think the original design resonated with consumers, partly because it was in a plastic pouch. Blue Planet was a defining moment for consumers. As soon as we saw that we thought: 'shit'. We were nine months in and we knew we were in the wrong place," he said.
Sir Hans Sloane Chocolates' pouch product now uses a wood pulp solution. It has helped them land national retail listings with companies like Waitrose, but costs 40% more than the plastic alternative.
Sustainable or recycled materials are often more expensive. That means environmentally conscious entrepreneurs need to think creatively.
Rishi Gupta founded Zero Waste Club to showcase environmentally friendly products and estimates it has helped stop over 100,000 single-use plastics being thrown away.
"You have to ask and push to find out how to do it. The status quo isn't the most sustainable way. There's always some point in the supply chain that you have to deal with businesses that are 100 years old. You have to work with businesses that don't work the way you want to," Rishi told delegates at Enterprise Nation's StartUp 2020 event.
Rishi added that entrepreneurial founders can find off-cuts that would normally be thrown away. For example, by going to big brands that have tailors on site.
Speaking at the event, Abena Poku-Awuah, managing director of sustainable events brand Legacy, had more suggestions:
"There are loads of products everywhere. Make friends with students, carpenters, people that have waste. Think outside the box. If you can find a bespoke 3D printer you can use it."
Natalie Glaze founded premium sustainable swimwear brand Stay Wild Swim. The brand uses regenerated nylon created from unwanted waste such as fishing nets pulled from the ocean and fabric scraps left over from industry.
She advised entrepreneurs to focus on the elements of the products that are key to the brand. This helps to maintain the balance between cost and making the most environmentally friendly product possible.
Bristol-based Boston Tea Party made national headlines when it decided to stop offering coffee in takeaway cups. Sales fell by £250,000 - about a quarter of its takeaway revenue. But its founders remain determined about "putting their profits before the planet".
Even coffee giant Starbucks knows that consumers want to reduce single-use items. It offers customers a discount when they bring reusable cups and is campaigning on the issue.
The desire to move away from single-use items creates an opportunity for reusable products that ranges from coffee cups and straws to shopping bags.
Curating environmental products is another opportunity, whether it's through ecommerce or bricks and mortar retail.
Enterprise Nation member Karen Riddick launched Second Nature after a career in the Scottish Environment Protection Agency highlighted the need to increase the market for products made from recycled materials.
"Second Nature now has over 500 product lines, but I don't focus too much on the profitability of individual items. I know what my most and least profitable items are, but I look more at the bottom line of the business. I sometimes sell things because I like them and want to support the concept or an individual seller, even if profit margins are not great," Karen said (read more about her story).
Fashion causes considerable amounts of pollution, from carbon emissions and chemical runoff during production to the fast fashion products that end up in landfills.
"There's a myriad of problems to solve in fashion," By Rotation founder Eshita Kabra explained. "On both the production and consumption side, I believe there's a lot of disruption already occurring - from digital clothing to fashion rental."
By Rotation is a peer-to-peer fashion rental app. The inspiration for the idea came during Eshita's honeymoon in Rajasthan, India.
"I became very upset about the amount of textile waste I saw everywhere. It became clear to me that the poor choices we are all making in our quest to dress with the 'outfit of the day' were affecting others more than us," she said.
The ethos of the brand has helped them get PR in publications from The Telegraph to Vogue.
Environmentally conscious consumers buy into brands that care. Stay Wild Swim's Natalie said that the team leaned into that from the beginning, building a following by sharing their start-up story.
"From the offset we got our customer involved in every way. Everything from colourways to open casting calls. We show them the factories. That's allowed us to create a really unique relationship," said Natalie.
Investors are increasingly looking for environmentally focused small businesses that leverage consumer trends and demand for technology to reduce pollution.
Innovate UK's grants are a good indicator of the areas of interest. The government uses the organisation to provide research funding for areas of technology it believes will create opportunities for the country. Current grants include:
A £30m fund for advanced, low carbon propulsion in the automotive sector
A share of up to £1m for early-stage projects in smart and sustainable plastic packaging
A share of up to £700,000 to develop solutions that create a "more circular economy for plastic packaging"
"Clean tech and sustainability are a key trend," Seedrs associate David Houghton said on a funding panel at StartUp 2020. "If you're looking to raise funds and you have an environmental aspect, I recommend you really play up to that."