As soon as you decide to start any business, you are fighting an uphill battle. The world is unfortunately not an even playing field of ideas, and so any new brand that enters the market will be competing against companies with decades' worth of a head start. Then when you add going sustainable and ethical into the mixer, brands that are not only trying to carve out their place in the world but actively trying to use less resources, reduce their overall waste output, ensure the dignified employment of their workers, and lesson humanity’s burden on the planet, you run into even greater challenges. This article will explore some of the challenges faced from the get-go more in depth and enlighten consumers to increase awareness about how tough small businesses have it when trying to make a positive impact, so those wishing to support them know what challenges their favourite brands are dealing with.
Money is what makes the world go around, so of course this is the first stumbling block for all start-ups… but especially those with sustainability in mind! A sustainable business will need to cope with the issues around paying for the new venture first and foremost. This challenge starts with the initial upfront investments for product development, sampling, marketing, ordering stock, and various other overheads. To add to this, it’s a good idea to remain as independent as possible. If you as a sustainable start-up are relying on other peoples' money you will be directly exposing yourself to the top-down pressure to make more money, and with one wrong move you lose your brand vision and ethos making you the same as 99% of brands just with a different logo.
The second issue relating to money is how to accurately price your products. This is another big challenge in the sustainability world. Just by nature of the industry no sustainable supplier is going to ever be able to directly compete with the bottom of the barrel level prices that industry giants can, and if they appear to be… then beware… they probably aren’t quite the sustainable and ethical company they claim to be! Before you get into the business and investor practice of companies intentionally losing millions of dollars in profits to gain their initial foothold, this is not limited to tech companies, plenty of clothing brands use this tactic. But on the other hand, as you need to spend to cover the costs of paying your workers fairly and running regular inspections to ensure the factory is environmentally friendly, you risk raising the price too much and you end up competing directly with the beginnings of luxury brands. And unless you’re actually working with a luxury product, it means that many of the people thinking about your products will be comparing you to much “shinier” products, and you don’t want luxury to be an indirect competitor. So, pricing will need to hit that sweet spot between what is both affordable and ethical. So, it is vital to focus very heavily on selling what the brand is doing around its mission and goals almost as much as the product itself. Which leads to the next two problems.
So, the next major issue is education and awareness about the problems you’re trying to solve. A considerable amount of time will need to be spent explaining what sustainability and ethical practices encompasses. For example, if a brand is removing ghost fishing waste from the ocean and recycling it into plastic textiles, you’ll need to explain what ghost fishing is. So, before you even sell your first product your marketing has to perform this double duty role of education and marketing. All this without the benefit of a giant marketing team or a large-scale advertising budget. Luckily the age of social media is helping this issue. Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, and the world of micro-influencers means that brands focused on sustainability can pinpoint their target audience while working with other small businesses and individuals in collaborations to build each other up (although this can also be tough as everyone wants something… usually free stuff or money).
Another issue is, sustainability, people hear it all the time nowadays. This can have a negative effect on new brands as people don’t want yet another lecture on what they should and shouldn’t be doing. Not only this but there is also mass confusion with who to believe, as we’ve all heard about companies being exposed for greenwashing. The we have charity organisations that seem to spend more time promoting their organisation than actually trying to solve whatever issue the charity was set up to fight. Then when we look at the media, they exacerbate the issue for consumers with misleading headlines. Take a look at this article by the BBC. This article has a slightly confusing headline, because while the article is about how we need to be smart about fighting plastic pollution, the headline could potentially give the impression that all plastic fighting is a problem. Media in the pursuit of readers and listeners pull people in with headlines, which is rarely nowadays conducive to much positive it seems, only to help themselves (Yep, I am having a dig, sue me). These pieces may be we intentioned somewhere along the line, but the line is certainly blurred, and so it becomes blurry for consumers too, who are the ones with the power to make change. Mass media has always had the problem of having quick summaries replace nuanced opinions, and our current internet era has accelerated that problem even worse than the television and newspaper eras. This means it’s extra important for talented marketing teams to explain the issues surrounding their sustainable brand in a clear, easily digestible way.
Sustainable brands need to do a couple things. Be extremely open about ethics and extremely clear about how exactly you’re making a difference. Down to the factories and the tangible numbers you’re producing. People, especially millennials will do their research on your brand to make sure you’re not greenwashing them. Secondly, people will want you to show that you're doing good for its own sake. Donating to charity. Supporting the local community in a tangible way. Using your platform to champion a cause. Take a clear stand on a current hot-button issue. People always trust action more than words, so if you as a company are doing good in ways they can see, people will see that you really are as committed to doing good as you say you are. However, we go back to money, this requires early adopters and buy in from consumers, to allow small brands to give back and prove themselves.
It is now a seemingly crowded market! Or so it seems at least…
A few years ago, being a sustainable brand was enough to set you apart. Providing a product that people need in their life that was produced with the environment and the workers in mind was enough to build a brand presence. But those days are gone. This is a good thing for the world as it means that sustainability is growing more and more mainstream, but it creates a problem for you as the sustainable brand. It means that the sustainable brand market is starting to become oversaturated, so you as the sustainable brand need to do something to separate yourself.
There are several ways this could happen. You could develop a signature look. You could have a particularly unique product, you could fulfil a very particular niche, such as sustainably made outdoor gear. If you have a particularly compelling story to tell you can make a PR piece. But whatever you do, it needs to be unique (Something like a Scandinavian inspired gym-wear brand perhaps…) In a world full of voices shouting for your attention, sustainable starts up can’t compete by being the loudest, so they need to be smart, or smarter at least. The world is a scary place right now, and so giving people a way to be a part of the solution and help make the world better immediately is a great way to get your customers to understand that you’re there to make change.
Of course, some of these challenges around visibility are challenges that any brand faces, but that’s just the way the sustainability industry works. There is no easy way out or corners to cut; you must be both a brand and committed to your sustainable, ethical practices, and you will run into the hardships that both worlds face. But at the end of the day, we chose this career because it is difficult. Making a change is never easy, but it is the right thing to do.