2020 is a year we won’t forget. And, while the world scrambles to assimilate, good business and creative innovation is making its case. Mark Shayler, founder of APE and founding partner of The Do Lectures, picks the businesses that will make you think about the power of doing something different.
Doing good is the new cool. I’ve been working in sustainability since 1990, when I worked for an environmental think tank in Camden. They were the early days of this stuff. Those were the days when carbon footprint wasn’t mentioned, let alone understood; when recycling rates of 2% were deemed impossible; when sustainability was seen as the enemy of business.
Thankfully, things have moved on and now every business is changing. Some faster than others. Partly because they have no choice and partly because the people they want to employ, their customers, and the markets demand better. Eco comes from the Greek word ‘oikos’. It means home and it’s shared with economy and ecology. One means looking after your home in terms of resources, and so does the other.
So where is the heat at the moment? Who is changing things? Here are the ones that have caught my eye.
Hugh and Joe from Ugly drinks envisaged a world with less sugar in it. They started small. Made some sparkling infused water. Stuck it in bottles first then cans. Sold it themselves from Elephant and Castle. Slowly it grew. Now it’s huge. Selling like hot cakes in the USA and the UK. Their purpose is a single-minded focus on health. They believe that refreshment shouldn’t damage the planet or our bodies. Social sustainability is often seen as the poor cousin of environmental sustainability, but is no-less important.
These folk have been around for a while. Making sustainable and beautiful clothing for the cold water surfing brigade. They make stuff to last. They make stuff that is beautiful. They have a fresh lease of life with new designs, a clear social purpose and inspiring leadership. The UK Patagonia. They recently developed a bio fabric for wetsuits and have previously invested in a UK merino equivalent, in the form of Beaumont wool. They have tirelessly led on sustainable apparel for nearly 20 years – this has seen their customer-base grow from cold-water surfers to anyone that cares where their clothes come from.
A small bakery with two cafes in East London. You’d have thought that the last thing they would do is teach people to make bread. But in response to Covid-19 that’s exactly what they did. They launched a set of learn-at-home Instagram lessons that took you from nervous baker to sourdough producer. Sometimes giving is the best way of building a tribe and building a profit.
What do you do with old office kit? Making a business out of its reuse, Daniel O’Connor is motivated to solve problems that help people and the planet. Anything else, he says, is not worth wasting time on. In 2011 he set up his business Warp It. Organisations reuse and donate surplus assets to charities and schools. This activity has saved over £20 million, 11 million KG of carbon, 3 million KG of waste, as well as transferring £3 million of assets into the charity sector.
What do you drink when you’re not drinking? Ben Branson wanted to solve that problem in a way that didn’t involve sugary drinks. He found a book called The Art of Distillation, published in 1651, bought an illegal still off the internet and distilled the world’s first alcohol-free spirit. The rest is history. Ben’s purpose was to provide an alternative to drinking that still felt ‘adult’. On the way he discovered the restorative impact of peas and legumes (they’re used in his recipe) and is now building a business to use legumes to fix soil and give us more than the estimated 55-60 harvests that we currently have left.
Seagulls Paint is an environmental social enterprise. They practise and promote the reuse of leftover and unwanted paint to create opportunities for local people. Not only does this address some of the 80 million litres of paint thrown in landfill or left in sheds and garages, it also creates jobs, enhances skills, and produces beautiful and bespoke colours. They also offer a refill and colour matching service.
Suma is a wholefood collective based in Halifax. It started back in 1977 and supplies wholefood and ecological bulk-supplies. That’s great as it is. But there are no bosses and everyone is on the same salary, regardless of the role. They are the largest equal pay organisation in Europe. No spring chicken, but always doing amazing work.
Natalie Lee is @stylemesunday. She started off as a fashion blogger but when her daughter was diagnosed with a tricky condition her life priorities changed and that included her work priorities. She focused on body positivity, empowerment of women, and social justice. She still talks about fashion because we all want to look great right? Beyond an influencer she is now a business in her own right with collaborations across many sectors, from Dove to lingerie.
Two Fields Zakros
When Harry met Elena on holiday in Zakros it was love. He moved there. He and his brother (a student at the time) bought two fields and became olive farmers. They wanted to follow farming principles that upgraded rather than degraded the soil. They wanted to do things the long, hard way. And they did. They make the best olive oil I’ve ever had. Small batches, big flavour, repaired soils. The old boys on the island are moving over to the Two Fields methods. You can teach old dogs new tricks.
STALF was set up by Paris Hodson when she dropped out of university. Her aim was to make beautiful clothes that fitted every body. It was a way to channel disappointment with an industry she thought she was in love with. STALF makes clothes that people love and cherish. Her customers put the clothes on and feel like themselves, rather the person they thought they wanted to be; they say they find a version of themselves that they hadn’t seen before.
Becky Okell and Huw Thomas started Paynter Jacket Co. in 2019 and quickly grew a cult following, proving there is huge demand for sustainably-made clothing and a radically transparent customer experience. Paynter Jacket Co makes jackets, three times a year, in limited edition batches that have sold out in under three minutes. The couple started Paynter as an experiment into how a company could trade on just three days each year, whilst keeping zero inventory and creating no waste.
We all have harm in our pockets – the rare earths that are used to build the components that fill our mobile phones. Some of these materials are known as conflict minerals. They come from countries such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo (if you have to add the word Democratic to your country name you can be pretty certain that it isn’t), Fairphone wants to change this. They source fairly traded minerals from non-conflict areas. Furthermore they design their phones to be upgraded and easily repaired so that it lasts longer. The greenest phone is the one that you already have.
Ecover pioneered phosphate-free cleaning products at a time when no-one knew what was in cleaning products. The pioneered refillable bottle systems in the 1980s. They struggled in the 1990s but are back leading the way again. After the acquisition of Method they are found in most houses in Europe and North America.
An untapped resource viewed by many as a nuisance, Haeckels has harnessed the power of seaweed – combining it with the thalassotherapy practices their hometown of Margate is historically known for and promoting the benefits of open water swimming with their community bathing machine. Bringing connection and communion to those who need it most. They have created a range of personal grooming products based on seaweed and natural scents and beauty products stocked in Liberty, amongst other stores.
Frustrated by poor PR skills of farming, Will Evans wanted to dig into the human stories of farming and highlight the innovations, the challenges, and mental health stories of farmers. So he started a podcast. 1,000,000 downloads from 100 countries and a proliferation of similar podcasts later and he moved to create a portal for food and farming related podcasts and content. The real stories of people producing real food. He is not just growing his business he is helping grow farmer’s businesses around the globe.
Frustrated by the inability to get a great bag for using on his bike Alex Farmer made his own, whilst at University in Glasgow. So began Trakke. It makes sustainable and long-lasting bags with all UK (and mainly Scottish) components, offers a reproofing and repair service, and the bags look great and work great.
Every year, millions of nappies find their way to landfill or are thrown into the natural environment. Baba+Boo is on a mission to change that. Founder Eve Bell has built a business. They combine an absorbent, washable insert and a waterproof outer nappy. Super convenient and sustainable. All great eh? During the coronavirus issues they provided 3,000 free nappies to the NHS. This is a great example of doing good at a business’ core, not empty CSR.
‘What?’ I hear you ask. Yep, Microsoft. They recently committed to be carbon negative by 2030, to remove all their historic carbon emissions by 2050, and have created a $1 billion climate innovation fund. They will remove all historic carbon by afforestation, reforestation, soil carbon sequestration, and carbon capture. This is climate leadership. This is innovation.
That’s my round-up of people to watch in 2020. I know there are a couple of old-hands in here. That’s intentional – these people have been leaders for years and even decades. That doesn’t make then any less relevant; in fact, it makes them more relevant. The challenge I had was choosing just these. The rise of B Corp, the growth of the purpose-driven consumer (this stuff is measurable now), the need to move beyond a circular economy to a regenerative economy, and the entry of Millennials and Gen Z into the workplace means that if you don’t have a bigger purpose then you will soon be history.
Mark Shayler is the founder of APE, a founding partner of the Do Lectures and author of the books Do Disrupt and Do Present.