We constantly blame businesses for not being sustainable enough, or tell them to be more sustainable, but how simple is it in reality?
Businesses are the first to be blamed when it comes to sustainability. It’s easy to point our fingers at them and tell them to use more sustainable materials. But at what cost? In reality, how easy is it to use sustainable materials? We must consider the accessibility of these materials, particularly for small businesses. I spoke to some small business owners on the challenges they’ve had sourcing sustainable materials; the pros, cons and what they think the future will bring.
Hortense Julienne, founder of gourmet nuts and seeds snack brand Miss Nang Treats, says that when she started her business, she intended to use sustainable and environmentally friendly materials and limit the toxic ink on the labels. However, only recently has she been able to do so: “I was forced to use plastic…as that’s what didn’t need importing.” As a result, however, although she was still using plastic, she sold her snacks “without increasing [her] production’s carbon footprint.”
In addition, founder of independent bamboo sock brand Bare Kind, Lucy Jeffrey, explains that she started the business with bamboo rather than cotton socks due to them being more sustainable. “The bamboo plant itself is fast growing, and doesn’t need irrigation or pesticides to grow. It can be chopped down without removing the root and can continue to grow over and over again”, she explains. She adds that bamboo also makes great socks because they are soft, thermo-regulating and sweat-wicking.
A for Katie Fairbanks, marketing manager at nail and waxing salon Mooeys, when we first spoke to her, she explained that MOOSKIN didn’t come in sizes smaller than 200ml. However, since then, Katies tells us that 50ml products are “now ready for retail”. They use aluminium packaging due to its “drastically higher recycling rate”. “Any plastic-based packaging is more than 80% likely to end up as landfill in its repurposed form, unlike an aluminium can, which is already composed of around 68% recycled materials”, Fairbanks explains.
Sustainable materials are becoming more readily available, but they are by no means abundant and are unfortunately often not very accessible. Fairbanks goes on to say that Mooeys’ founder, Amy Lewis, chose aluminium bottles because she wanted to create a circular economy for their products. “The bottles are easily cleaned and refillable, which was another marker on our company roadmap: to create refill stations that would lessen the carbon footprint of our products”, explains Fairbanks. As well as using aluminium, Mooeys uses recycled tape and their own shredded paper and cardboard to create protective packaging for shipping. Despite always following their key business aim of using sustainable packaging, Fairbanks addresses the challenge of achieving fully recyclable packaging, admitting that theirs isn’t due to the pumps, which “require specialist recycling plants to do so due to the complex make-up of various components in the pump design”. She explains that as a smaller company they wouldn’t be able to afford this. As a result, they encourage their customers to “hold onto their pumps and clean [them] thoroughly before reusing [them]”.
Moreover, Julienne says that in July 2021, she found plastic imitation food grade bags, which are home-compostable, biodegradable and made of wood pulp, from NatureFlex. She goes on to say that she made this switch immediately to educate [her] followers on sustainability and the debate around climate change. The challenges she’s found include that “NatureFlex is still not widely available in the UK. Their price per 100 bags is three times that of the plastic version”. Her premium range is now in jars, which are returned to her against discount or used for refills. She addresses that using both NatureFlex and jars are more expensive; however, she hasn’t passed this cost onto her customers because “I really want them to come on the journey with me”.
Jeffrey explains that she uses the bare minimum packaging, of which is all plastic-free and recyclable to avoid waste – the socks come in a cardboard sleeve. Acknowledging the challenges though, she explains that “bamboo…still requires a chemical process to turn it into fibre, and the chemicals have to be disposed of correctly”. However, since “these fibres are now used more regularly in mainstream fashion, we are seeing improvements being made to the processes, and the factories are being audited to a higher standard”.
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It is evident that despite their many pros, the use of sustainable materials come with challenges too, particularly for small businesses. It is therefore essential that we consider the future, notably what can be done moving forward. Julienne addresses the importance of this being discussed on a larger scale by public figures, including “politicians, celebrities and business leaders who practice what they preach”. She also feels responsibility on a personal level to educate her followers on sustainability. She does so by practicing what she preaches herself; for many years she has reused, repurposed and replanted. She lists the following examples of changes that people can make:
- Buying second hand
- Candying orange rinds
- Using Olio – a free sharing app to fight food waste by sharing with neighbours
- Freezing extras
- Eating less meat and dairy (one day at a time)
In relation to changing eating habits one day at a time, she stresses that all of this change can be done one day at a time, as long as we’re doing something: “Greta Thunberg says the UK makes noise, but aren’t doing much. I agree.” Addressing climate change, she highlights the importance of analysing the global goals, particularly goal number 12, which is ensuring sustainable consumption and production patterns. To achieve this, she says: “[In] the food industry… we are asked to use paper towels in food production, that is a lot of waste, washable fabrics are much more sustainable.” She also recognises the use of plastic rather than wooden utensils, which is “again, not very environmentally friendly”. Finally, she acknowledges the government’s role in this, referring to the accessibility of sustainable materials such as NatureFlex for her food grade bags, which are three times the price of the plastic version. Recyclable packaging in general is around 30% more expensive than plastic. “[I] am not sure how the UK government can help make such packaging much more accessible, but I hope they find an easier solution for small businesses, to avoid us having to import from mainland Europe.”
Furthermore, Jeffrey addresses the challenge she has with bamboo requiring a chemical process to turn it into fibres: “factories need to be held accountable for how they create such fibres; there are various charities and organisations that audit factories for responsible use.” She encourages people to buy second hand or not at all, but “when you need to buy new”, she says, “buy quality that will last, buy from a company where you understand their ethics, and why not buy from a company that gives a little back to charity?!”
Finally, Fairbanks recognises that there isn’t a clear-cut answer concerning a solution. “British Manufacturing is renowned for being world-class and so should our stance be on sustainable manufacturing.” To achieve this, she says: “I would like to see some cost transfer schemes initiated by the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy to assist non-competing brands to meet their sustainability targets as manufacturers and retailers.”
All in all, we all have a part to play in making businesses more sustainable. We must speak up and encourage those in power to act and create change. As individuals, we must support smaller companies that have sustainability at their core, as well as make changes in our daily lives – one day at a time. Businesses must do what they can to be as sustainable as possible and transparent in their practices. We must all do what we can and keep pushing for change.