The struggles of a small, green business

brand journey ethical business outrage and optimism raw materials small business sustainable business the cost of things

 

Ellie Good Illustration organic cotton tea towels: ducks, Aland and sea creatures designsAmong many of the podcasts I've gobbled up like PAC-MAN recently is one called Outrage + Optimism. I highly recommend it for anyone concerned about climate change, as it allows for a rant, but also highlights positive ideas and projects to champion.
Anyway, I wrote the makers of the podcast an email with a suggestion, based on my experience as a creative business owner. After I sent it, I realised that it's something I should also be sharing with my customers because my brand IS the journey I am on, and YOU are all on it with me. Without you, there would be no business! So thank you for your support, whether that's buying from me regularly, liking a social media post, or anything in between. 
I'm not looking for sympathy here. I set out on this road, knowing it would be tough, but not openly talking about why. I am a designer and illustrator, which you know, but now I plan to share the nuts and bolts side of things with you as well. Plus, these are very real issues for everybody, of course, not just me. And if you have any thoughts or comments on the letter, please let me know; I'd love to hear them.

Ellie

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Hello you clever bunch.

I firstly want to thank you for producing a podcast which I find educational, inspiring and a place to nod my head in frustration with others. It is a RELIEF! I am a creative and have worked in publishing / design / branding for over a decade now,  with a focus on encouraging sustainable living. It's wonderful to hear other people around the world talking about issues that I've also been banging on about to my friends and family for years!

This is a long email - sorry - but I would love to make a suggestion for your podcast. I have a big, two-part frustration from the view of a small, ethical business owner, which I'd love to hear you guys tackle, if you see fit…

As I mentioned above, I've been working for years to encourage more purposeful living habits in people. In 2009 I launched an independent, printed magazine (EggMag) which encouraged people to 'Live better, without living less'. I am very much of a mindset that we are all important drops in an ocean, and, like Greta says, no one is too small to make a difference. 

My little magazine lasted 2 wonderful years, and due to the simultaneous recession and digital boom, I struggled to finance it. I approached various places with a partnership offer, but no-one wanted to take it on - partly due to the the hard time print was having but also, I think, because the ideas inside were not seen as mainstream back then. (Much to my frustration I now see these same ideas popping up everywhere in printed and online media - but that’s a rant for another day!)

I spent some time working on branding and marketing projects for ethical businesses, and now have my own range of charitable, sustainably produced, USEFUL, meaningful and lasting products. I give my customers positive environment news and eco tips in my emails and I also made a free resource called We Are The Shift (some of the text needs an update, I know). 

When addressing environmental issues, I always try to approach the topic with a quick fact, an uplifting visual and ALWAYS in a way that the reader / consumer can act on the issue. There's no point doom-and-glooming if there are no ideas for action that come with it. (And, as you know, there are always ideas for action, however small). 

SO - I'm finally getting to the point! Through all of this work, what I have found is that the topics that get most engagement (whether on social media or in conversation etc) are the ones that DON'T involve climate change. My question to you is: How is it best to communicate the urgency and importance of sustainable living to people? How do we get people to stop waiting for the government to do it for them, or hoping it won’t be too late for the next generation to clean it up? How do we get them to engage? How to we get people to stop going to Primark and leaving with 73 bags of crap clothes that will be worn 4 times each? 

I have always felt that horrifying images and statistics will totally turn people off (although they are needed in small doses). I agree that optimism is a big part of the way forward. But it's not enough for some people. Do I give up and just accept that it will be those of us who care NOW that will make the difference, and that the other 'drops in the ocean' will just have to be carried along with the current? Have you got any experts up your sleeve that could shed some light on this? I am fortunate enough to come from an accepting and open-minded family, although I do find it hard to understand the reasons that so many folks aren’t engaging. There must be reasons that people bury their heads in the sand.

Of course, I worry about the wider implications of the above, but to narrow it down and explain it from the perspective of someone running a genuinely planet-friendly business, this communication and awareness issue is only one part of the difficulty. Yes, I need my potential customers to have engaged with the climate crisis to realise the full value of my products. But before I've even converted a sale, I have to deal with the fact that making a profit from truly sustainable products is really hard. 

The raw materials are a lot more expensive, because taking from nature correctly - i.e, whilst also giving back - involves no corner cutting. (Otherwise, what are we doing to ourselves? It’s like taking parts out of a computer and still expecting it to give us our emails.)

Secondly, it might be cheaper to produce many of my items in China. But I would rather take the hit and lessen my profit margins to also lessen the carbon output of my business.  

To top it off, I am competing with companies claiming to be 'eco' by selling products made from natural materials but perhaps not understanding why, for example, standard cotton is often produced with terrible impact on the soil and substandard conditions for the workers. They may also be printed on the other side of the globe, or by a printing company with less than desirable eco-creds. If I had been using standard materials for my goods, I reckon I would have made a fair amount more cash than I have to date. And if I’d been using cheap, uncertified materials, well, I’d be better off again…

I’m not saying that how I do things is perfect, but I work incredibly effing hard to get it as close as I can, whilst being able to offer relatively competitive prices. 

Essentially I know the unsustainable version of my business is far easier, and far more profitable. This is what I know to be true, and therefore must also be true for many others. And possibly even harder for those businesses that are trying to green-up their existing models and supply-chains.

There is definitely a shift happening. Over the few years that I’ve been making things to sell, I have built up a wonderfully supportive and accepting community around my brand, and I only have them to thank for getting this far. I just hope that the shift can continue and that we can engage the public, big business and governments fully, to support a truly sustainable economy in the future. What is your view? How can things change?

Let me know what you think. I'm really keen to hear your thoughts and if you might do anything around this, please let me know if I can help with it.

THANK YOU!

Ellie


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