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3 unexpected questions for small ethical businesses

Lucy Todd of My Little Green Wardrobe explores three unexpected ethical challenges she overcame when starting her ethical business.

Running any business is a balancing act.

And navigating a business start-up is a particularly tricky balance.

Immediate priorities are set against medium and long-term hopes, plans and dreams.

As a founder, your business’ glittering potential stretches before you, to be fulfilled as your venture grows and gathers momentum.

But when establishing a sustainable business, there is an additional set of sometimes unexpected challenges founders must face: those relating to ethical and environmental criteria.

This goes from major decisions like choice of brand partners; the bank you use; whether the website is hosted by a green provider and who provides your broadband; if you should run a Black Friday promotion… right down to smaller decisions like the envelopes the company uses; or the coffee beans you choose to buy.

When setting up my business, I found myself getting to grips with a range of seemingly trivial issues most business owners - and customers - would never have given a second thought to.

So if you are in the initial stages of launching a small ethical business, here are just three examples of unexpected questions I had to ask myself during the start-up process.

1. Is this ink vegan?

Printing. It’s something most businesses have to do at some point - even if it’s simply for internal purposes.  

But while exploring which print companies to use, I learned that many mass market inks contain high levels of carbon, heavy metals and animal-derived products including glycerine, gelatine and even beetles (shellac).  

Settling for standard printing services just wasn’t going to cut it.

So, I began asking suppliers if their inks were vegan-friendly. Cue many raised eyebrows (or at least that’s how it felt over email) - and it made me feel like I was crazy to be even asking the question.

Until I found a fantastic supplier who uses water-based inks, with a range of materials including organic paper, cotton or jute (scraps from the textile industry), and recycled, compostable mailers too.

Yes, the latter are way more expensive than plastic mailers, which cost about 3p per time, but I would just rather have as much to do with circular solutions and as little to do with single-use plastic as possible. Which brings me onto…

2. Polybag or not to polybag?

Practically every clothing brand in the world sends garments individually wrapped in those clear plastic bags you tear off and discard as soon as you open the item.

Just think of the mountains of plastic…shudder.

So not using these seems like the obvious more eco-friendly answer to this one.

But even the ethical kids clothing brands I retail use them in some capacity - and to pretend otherwise would be misleading. So, I had to think about the best way to approach the problem.

A number of brands have experimented with removing polybags altogether - including outdoor brand Patagonia. In a trial, the eco-pioneers discovered if they got rid of them, the number of garments damaged as a result meant the emissions saved from the plastic were outweighed by the fabric waste created.

So polybags appear to be staying for now.

By way of concession, at least the majority of brands I sell use compostable bioplastic bags, eg. made from cornstarch, although there are a few that still use recyclable and/or recycled LDPE plastic bags.

But even despite the more eco-friendly credentials of bioplastics, some can only be composted in industrial conditions - and not all councils offer food compost collections. The LDPE plastic bags are not usually recycled at kerbside at all.

Therefore I took the decision to remove all polybags - compostable or not - when we despatch orders. I see it as our job to take care of that waste issue for our customers.  

It’s not fair for businesses to create plastic waste and then put the problem onto the consumer. We recycle all the individual polybags that items come in, so it’s one less thing for customers to worry about.

3. Is it OK to ship abroad?

Shipping port with cargo containers

Most large businesses ship internationally - using hubs in key locations, or even in each individual market.

Most small businesses, however, are clearly not in the position to do this. But what’s the issue with a small business shipping internationally?

Each year billions of tons of cargo are transported around the world by lorries, planes, ships, and trains.

Inclusive of warehousing and ports, this sector is responsible for as much as 11% of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the International Energy Agency.

Textiles was one of the first globalised industries and is still the most globalised industry.

Although the clothes at My Little Green Wardrobe are made at the forefront of best practice for the environment, biodiversity, human health and worker conditions, they are all products of a globalised economy. Even items manufactured in nearby Portugal are likely to have been grown elsewhere.

According to some estimates, one single t-shirt may have a footprint of nearly 40,000 miles before it arrives in the UK.

To pack it back up and send it off on its travels again… maybe back to Europe or to the US via air freight (by far the most damaging method of transport), in my mind at least, seems to lie in direct competition with the desire to run a business that is truly more sustainable.

For that reason, I’ve opted not to ship internationally.  

However, it might be that as a small business you need to look into other distribution solutions that can satisfy both these points: your desire to be a flourishing, successful business weighed against the carbon emissions associated with your business operations.

Doing the easiest thing is usually not synonymous with the most socially and environmentally responsible thing.

Walking your own path as a small ethical business

The important thing to remember is that there is no fixed path in business and each of us has different priorities. As a small business, this is super exciting because it means you will tread your own unique path.

Core to any business success is setting out your mission statement: … what is it you want to achieve with your small business, and crucially, how?

Do you simply want to make as much profit as possible, or do you want to use your small business to change your corner of the world for the better?

Having your aims and values clear in your mind - and set out in your company vision - is important to refer back to as you walk your path and encounter obstacles on the way. For there will be many of them.

It really is true that business is a balancing act, and getting that balance between profit and purpose can be tough when you’re just starting out.

The above are just a few examples of the questions I faced when setting up my ethical business, and undoubtedly yours will be different.

In the beginning, I thought I could figure it all out on my own, but my advice is to surround yourself with a great network of other small business owners from different industries, as well as professionals in a similar space. The power of sharing a problem cannot be overestimated.

Look for nearby small business networking groups, go to industry conferences and events, get yourself onto WhatsApp groups of professionals and make sure you use LinkedIn to find your village. If you still think of it as a website primarily to find jobs, then you need to think again! It’s been one of my greatest sources of information and community.

Similarly, websites like Ethical Consumer are fantastic resources when it comes to business, sustainability and lifestyle insights and trends. As a small business owner, the landscape is ever-changing and keeping on top of innovations is paramount.

Lastly, congratulations on starting - or even considering starting - an ethical business! Remind yourself regularly why you have chosen your business and what makes it awesome.  

Share that joy and passion with your customers, I'm sure they'll treasure the ethical goods and services you provide knowing they came from a more conscious place.

About Lucy

Lucy Todd is the owner and founder of sustainable children's wear site, My Little Green Wardrobe.

She set up the business after struggling to shop more ethically for her own children and vets each brand stocked on the site to ensure it is truly acting more sustainably.