Sustaining the dream

Starting a new business is a stressful challenge. Starting a new sustainable, ethical business, even more so.

What’s your purpose? Is there a market for your product or service? How much can you afford to commit to the new venture? What if…etc

You might imagine that, with concerns about climate change and environmental degradation, the time is rife for businesses wanting to make a positive difference. Well yes, it undoubtedly is the right time - consumers are increasingly discerning about their choices. However, there’s no guarantee of success simply because your business idea has good intentions.

There’s a lot to be said for running your own business when it reflects your values, but that won’t ensure take-off and certainly won’t pay the bills. You need to have a clear and effective marketing strategy, having done your homework to establish that there’s both a need for your product or service and a willingness to pay for it, too.

Visiting and engaging small business owners can be rewarding work, but is no guarantee of a lasting client relationship. The challenging economic climate means that many are reluctant to make a financial commitment, even if they see the logic of your argument.

Visiting and engaging small business owners can be rewarding work, but is no guarantee of a lasting client relationship. The challenging economic climate means that many are reluctant to make a financial commitment, even if they see the logic of your argument.

So, why is it that so many small sustainable, ethical businesses struggle to get off the ground, grab a share of the market and then establish a firm foundation from which to grow. Sometimes I wonder whether owners of such businesses actually wish to compete and grow; instead, many appear to want to step away from the conventional profit model. Do they prefer to bask in the feel good factor from operating in a sustainable and ethical manner? Sure, it feels good…at least for a while. But then reality kicks in.

During a recent trip to the Greek island of Corfu, I learned about a young couple producing honey and related products, with a strong commitment to looking after the environment. I decided to go and meet them, up in the hills of northern Corfu, above the coastal resort of Roda. I walked!

Making honey, the sustainable way. Plato’s Products is driven by a desire to offer consumers a natural product that reflects the biodiversity of the habitats in which its produced.

Making honey, the sustainable way. Plato’s Products is driven by a desire to offer consumers a natural product that reflects the biodiversity of the habitats in which its produced.

After an hour-long walk through olive groves and up into the tiny village of Platonas, I stumbled across the little roadside shop for Plato’s Products (a golden honeycomb sign was swinging gently in the mid-morning heat: the only clue that I’d arrived in the right place). The door was open, but nobody was about in the little shop, crammed full of jars of beautiful honeys, ointments, oils and a large glass vat of honey-infused raki.

I called out and Evi appeared from the rear of the shop, three-month bay over her shoulder. We were both equally excited about meeting, soon to be joined by husband, Alex, the beekeeper extraordinaire. What followed was so inspiring. We talked about pollinator decline, the damage being caused by over-zealous use of insecticides by local farmers, restoration of floristically diverse semi-natural habitats, and the process of making artisan honey. I was dealing with a seriously committed couple in Evi and Alex. A couple who have put everything into this business and are devoting every waking hour to making it work.

Their honey is unbelievable: chestnut, oak, orange, herb, clover. So diverse, so tasty. But how much are they selling and how? They’ve got a Facebook page alongside their little shop. But that’s it. They have an amazing story that needs to be heard, and a fantastic product that would appeal to many consumers across Europe. Given their principles and the obvious hard work they’re putting in, I want to see them succeed.

Honey-lovers, look away…unless you’re planning a trip to northern Corfu. Some of the many varieties of honey produced by Plato’s Products. I can vouch for their quality!

Honey-lovers, look away…unless you’re planning a trip to northern Corfu. Some of the many varieties of honey produced by Plato’s Products. I can vouch for their quality!

My visit to Plato’s Products, meeting Evi and Alex, has got me thinking. It’s not enough just to be thought of as one of the good guys, doing the right thing. Maybe you’ll never become rich out of it, but your business must at least pay the bills. Far too many small businesses fail within their first year of operation. Or the dream has to be put on hold while you get a real job (well, that’s been my experience), because you’ve not been able to build up a sufficiently large client base. There’s only so long you can carry on paying money out while nothing’s coming in.

So, what’s to be done? Well, the many people who want your advice or your products free of charge could start paying, and paying according to what they’re worth. I’ve had so many comments along the lines of “Yeah, of course we want to go green, but it’s the cost. We just can’t afford the outlay right now”. Now that’s strange given the hours I’ve invested on behalf of some of them. No more loss leaders for me, I’m afraid.

Having a compelling story and being able to tell it is crucial. Why you do what you do; how you got into it; why it will benefit others; how creating the waves of change gives you a competitive advantage. To get that story heard, you need to express ideas in an engaging and relevant way, using various media to present your ideas imaginatively. After all, it’s about persuading potential customers that this is something they can’t live without and that you, alone, are the one to deliver it to them.

Whether you’re bringing to market an eco-friendly product, forging innovation within a manufacturing process in order to reduce environmental impact, or providing services that allow your customer to adopt more sustainable lifestyles; it’s essential that you tie in a real world issue. Don’t shy away from tying your offering directly to the environmental issue it addresses.

Being clear about what you stand for and what you’re trying to achieve is vital. Inviting potential customers to hear you outline your offer and how it benefits them can generate constructive dialogue and build the trust that’s needed for the relationship to grow.

Being clear about what you stand for and what you’re trying to achieve is vital. Inviting potential customers to hear you outline your offer and how it benefits them can generate constructive dialogue and build the trust that’s needed for the relationship to grow.

For Evi and Alex, it’s about sustainable agriculture, free of pesticides and with flourishing biodiversity. For Earth Matters, it’s about nudging business to act in ways that deliver net positive outcomes for natural capital, in order to restore ecosystems, their processes and biodiversity. Unpacking that a little, it can mean sourcing raw materials in a sustainable manner, ensuring that any negative impacts on natural systems are offset through restorative management; or ensuring that supply chains minimise CO2 emissions, offsetting any that do occur.

It sure as hell won’t happen overnight. It’s a slow burn, particularly in such turbulent and unpredictable times. Businesses have got a lot on their collective plates right now. You’ve got to compete with Brexit uncertainty, for example. So, bear with them, take time to build rapport, and reel them in gently! Position your product or service as a solution to a problem, bolstering your argument with current and credible research. Explain why your offer helps to protect both the environment and the customer.

A key part of the marketing effort is about being genuine, and allowing potential customers to get to know you and what makes you tick. Be professional, of course, but don’t take yourself too seriously. Customers need to feel positive about working with you and your values.

A key part of the marketing effort is about being genuine, and allowing potential customers to get to know you and what makes you tick. Be professional, of course, but don’t take yourself too seriously. Customers need to feel positive about working with you and your values.

It’s important to acknowledge that delivering sustainable products and services may come at a higher price to your customers. However, when you’re dealing with environmentally-minded customers, marketing the value brought by sustainability is likely to win out over price. So, emphasise all environmental benefits in your marketing, and - where it exists - flag up ethical and social value as well; not every potential customer is swayed by environmental benefits alone.

In order to reach these new conscious consumers, there are a number of emerging approaches:

  1. using on-pack eco-credentials - communicating that specific environmental or societal certification has been met, using visible labelling of products and packaging;

  2. adopt cause-related marketing and promotion - openly support a cause and actively communicate this, to raise the profile of both the brand and the cause;

  3. ensure complete transparency - look to build customer trust, with detailed sharing of product and service impacts. Be honest about issues which your business faces and explain how you seek to overcome them;

  4. campaign for consumer behaviour change - drive and inspire positive change by influencing behaviours and perceptions, i.e. encourage, educate and nudge consumers to do things differently, restoratively for the planet!

  5. change the status quo - realise your power to solve social and environmental problems, if only in small steps, and seek alternative ways to build the relationship between you and your consumer, making them feel part of the solution to addressing a particular problem;

  6. be driven by a core purpose - demonstrate this in every aspect of your business: supply chain, product impacts, consumer engagement. It’s essential you live your purpose and that your consumers know, understand and buy into this.

Stick at it, believe in what you’re doing and get out there, creating the waves of change.