Money is a dirty word in the ethical sector. If you’re making money, you’re not doing it right. Sound familiar? Because the big corporates such as Tesco and Amazon make billions and pay their unfair share of tax, then profit is associated with being just like these guys. To be honest, I’m calling bull shit.
“Profit over planet” were the 3 words that cut me deep just over a year ago. I was running an exclusively plastic free shop and I’d just made the decision to broaden my range to all ethical foods rather than just the plastic free ones. It was by a business owner in the same sector – and I was mortified that anyone would assume that of me after I’d worked so hard and cared so much.
See, when I started Plentiful it wasn’t with the main aim of getting rich – which I’m sure is the same scenario for many other ethical businesses. But as soon as those doors opened, and overheads started to pile high with rent, staffing costs, my own living wage, bills, stock, you name it.. of course revenue matters. It matters a lot. You need it to survive. Even not-for-profits need to pay staff.
Wholefoods Market, Twickenham. A huge multimillion £ business, selling organic and ethical brands.
The last few months have been devastating for the zero waste community, so many shops have had to close through no fault of their own - and it's so hard to then be in a culture in which you're expected to be in that sweet spot of 'not making money' but also 'not closing.'
Closed businesses trying to make a positive impact are seen by investors and big corporations. This isn’t at all to shame businesses who may have been forced to close due to the last couple of years’ unexpected changes in custom. But in normal times, investors and the big commercial players need to see that plant based, plastic free, eco friendly (hate that term, watch out for the next blog) sectors are WORTH PAYING ATTENTION TO.
Envision this – you’re on the board of a large investment company and they have an application coming in from a promising new business who are trying to make every stage of their manufacture and retail as plastic free, vegan and fair trade as they can. All you’ve seen over the last 12 months is all the plastic free shops, ethical manufacturers, and vegan cafés close due to lack of custom. Tell me why you’d want to invest in this business?
My aim is to make overall big change. I can see that this is the same for most people in the ethical retail sector – but this seems to be lost in the detail of some puritanical and often elitist culture, where unless you're squeaky clean and totally plastic free, then you're not doing it for the planet. I do of course, try and tick the vegan, organic, plastic free, fair trade boxes - but all at once? I'd have a small range at extortionate prices. Even I wouldn't shop with us.
Making change means growth, this means popularity, it means that big dirty word – MONEY. I’m not claiming to be making millions here, not at all. Believe me, I wouldn’t be selling food with tiny margins if I was. But I am passionate about it, and focussing on increasing revenue so that one day we can grow, inspire and reach more customers through either a bigger shop or more Plentifuls. We can’t do that without money. We can’t do that if we stick to one or two very niche items and can’t reach the masses.
One thing we noticed in switching from being a plastic free shop only, to aiming to increase our custom and also offer more types of food was that we reached such a wide variety of people. In this, customers who weren't really environmentally inclined (and might never be) are buying ethically without actually thinking about it, just by buying from us. Even though we now choose to sell some plastic, and some non-vegan foods - there's an overall net reduction in plastic being bought as we reach more people.
The fact that now we are making a wage for 3 staff, means I'm also able to focus my efforts on other people wanting to make a change and open their own ethical stores too. I've had the time and space to create a consultancy business and veg box, to really keep the ethical impact growing.
I just hope that as the environmental business market grows, the divide between commercialism and puritanical shrinks - money doesn't need to be a dirty word, especially for women. We aren’t all perfect, we all love to be comfortable in life, otherwise you’ll resent your business. That isn’t ethical growth, it’s torture.