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7 things I wish I knew before starting a sustainable business

Green and sustainable businesses often have additional hurdles to overcome, or ethical decisions to make, when starting up and during their journey.

In this article Lucy Todd outlines seven things which would have been helpful to know when she was setting up her sustainable small business.

My name is Lucy and I was a BBC journalist for 15 years before changing course entirely and launching a sustainable baby and children’s clothing website.

My small sustainable business just celebrated its second birthday, and as with any anniversary it’s been a chance to take stock and reflect on the journey so far.

My Little Green Wardrobe is a curated collection of sustainable and ethical kids' clothing brands. It came about after I struggled to shop more ethically for my own two daughters.

And while naivety is an absolute super power when launching your own business, there are a few things I wish I’d known before jumping feet first with my life savings. To say it’s been a steep learning curve would be an understatement.

I’m sure there are plenty of articles that give tips on starting a business, so instead here are some of my learnings from running a sustainable business….

1. Sustainable to the core

For me, having a sustainable business isn’t just about a slightly less damaging version of what’s already there. I want my entire business proposition to be based on more sustainable and regenerative practices.

It takes hours of research to find out whether a brands’ products are right for my site – which was part of the original point of the business: people don’t have the time to research this stuff.

And it’s not just sourcing the products themselves, but solutions for all the other processes too. Buying plastic mailers at 1p each would be great from a financial perspective, but is obviously not going to cut it for a sustainable brand.

Where are the printers sourcing their paper stock from? Are they using vegan ink? Is your sustainable start-up using renewable energy? What method of dispatch will you use?

All of this takes extra time and money, and trying to balance your margin with a truly sustainable offering is really tricky.

2. Sustainability as a co-benefit

In good news, spending on ethical products was up by more than a third (35%) in 2021 compared to the previous year, according to Ethical Consumer’s Ethical Markets Report 2022.

However, much of this spending is in relation to electric vehicles, and financial investing.

Since the cost of living crisis, many have had to make cutbacks when it comes to everyday purchases. Recent research by Deloitte suggests only one in four consumers are willing to pay more for sustainable products and packaging.

Shoppers love the idea of more ethical and sustainable products but are unlikely to pay a premium for it.

3. The intention-action gap is real

On top of this, when it comes to environmental and social consciousness the intention-action gap tends to be pretty wide, so those people who said they would be willing to pay more may actually be answering according to how they would like to behave or how they think they ought to!

So those who are really willing to spend more may be fewer than this number suggests.

This is a tough pill to swallow when your business has had to invest more on ethical sourcing, management and processes – as well as the certification to prove it!

Person holding notepad with trees behind

4. Greenwashing

This is the thing that’s more likely than anything else to send my business into oblivion: bigger brands misleading customers, or over-exaggerating claims of sustainability.

Greenwashing happens all the time, and it’s heartening that the Advertising Standards Authority is cracking down on this, recently updating their guidance on how companies should make claims about environmental impact.

The worst thing is those customers who were actually keen to buy a more sustainable product have been duped into buying something that is part of the problem, and it’s denied support for the brands who are actually acting more ethically.

5. Education, education, education

General knowledge around sustainability issues can be relatively low amongst the wider population. It is a complex topic with a tangle of issues for each sector. And hence why it is super easy for brands to greenwash their products.

Education is key to combating this, but trying to shift mindsets is a slow process, and part of a wider cultural shift taking place within society.

6. More, more, more…

As a sustainable small business, I’ve had to really grapple with whether to discount products or take part in events like Black Friday – the connotations of excessive consumption it denotes are not something I want to endorse.

Neither is the slashing of prices that reflect the fair cost of labour and materials.

Ideally, I want people to buy less and buy better – and look after their possessions.

However, as a small business struggling with difficult market conditions, it’s absolutely crucial to remain competitive and offer good value — or potentially face dwindling sales. And there’s not much good I can do if I go out of business altogether.

These are big ethical questions to wrestle with.

7. It takes time

Don’t be disheartened if after all the blood, sweat and tears it took to set up your sustainable business there isn’t a flood of customers.

Establishing your business, instilling new mindsets and changing shopping habits all takes time – much more than you think.

And don’t be surprised when your mother still buys your children clothes from H&M!

Lucy Todd

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.

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