Any time someone starts a business, they’re 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. But when you get to brands working with sustainability, 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 those challenges more in depth, so that those working in sustainability understand better what they need to do to succeed, and so that those wishing to support them know what challenges their favorite brands are dealing with.
Money, money, money
The first big challenge is financing. Love it or hate it, everything in the current system we live off of revolves around money, so if you’re looking to start a sustainable business you’ll need to cope with the issues around paying for your venture first and foremost. This challenge starts with the initial upfront investments, and generally speaking 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. Two ways around this issue are to work with donations and to work with discarded materials. An example of this is action is Laura Zabo’s brand, who was donated 5000 old tires by Schwab to turn into items such as belts and guitar straps. Securing a donation like this will help free you from the financial pressure to turn a profit immediately, allowing you to work on your own brand at your own pace, gets you the capital to get started, and also providing a Public Relations opportunity for the donor. So don’t be afraid to ask! But even if you can’t secure a donation, working with discarded materials through recycling or upcycling both inherently reduces your environmental impact and is a cheap way to get the materials needed for your product.
Accurately pricing your product 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, even 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 just limited to tech startups, but they’re the most visible currently). But on the other hand, as you need to spend to cover the costs of paying your workers fairly and running regular inspections to insure the factory is environmental, 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.. Your pricing will need to hit that sweet spot between that's both affordable and ethical. So you’ll need to focus very heavily on selling what you’re doing almost as much as the product itself. Which leads to the next two problems.
So the next major issue of education and awareness about the problems you’re trying to solve. If you, like Rust and Fray, are trying to reduce waste by through making upcycled products, you’ll need to spend a considerable amount of time explaining what upcycling is and the differences between upcycling and recycling. If you are a brand that 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 team has to perform this double duty role of education and marketing. All this without the benefit of a giant marketing team or the large scale advertising budget. Luckily the age of social media is helping this issue. Instagram, Facebook, Youtube, and the world of microinfluencers 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. The world of small business in this day and age is a lot more cooperative than the traditional way of thinking about businesses, because both of the small businesses are working towards increasing their brand recognition overall.
But when talking about sustainability, the general culture of how sustainability is viewed can have a negative effect on your brand as well. We’ve all heard about companies being exposed for greenwashing. We’ve all heard about charity organizations that seem to spend more time promoting their organization than actually trying to solve whatever issue the charity was set up to fight. People are getting what’s called charity fatigue, and charity fatigue is made worse by the way news and social media errs away from nuanced conversation. 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. Now, this isn’t an attack on this article or on the BBC, as both are great. It is simply an illustration of how easy it is for a well intentioned think piece to become confusing. 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.
The good news is that people, especially millennials, want to do good. Millennials want to support brands that are championing good causes, so they want to support your sustainable brand, and they want you to do good. They’re just understandably cautious. To overcome this, sustainable brands need to do a couple things. You need to be extremely open about your ethics and extremely clear about how exactly you’re making a difference. Down to the factories and the tangible numbers your 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 most people don’t know of yet, so that you’re social media awareness campaign is spreading awareness instead of simply re-affirming a popular opinion. 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.
Finally, one of the biggest challenges sustainable brands face is again the challenge of marketing. A few short years ago, being a sustainable brand was enough to set you apart. Getting you a product you need in your life that was produced with the environment and the workers in mind was enough to build a brand presence. But those days are gone, as now brands like Everlane are well established as the sustainable basics, and brands like Reformation are well established as the sustainable LA Fashion brands. 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 needs to do something in particular in order to separate yourself.
There are a number of ways this could happen. You could develop a signature look. You could have a particularly unique product, such as vegan leather made out of mushrooms. You could fulfill 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. 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. One of the biggest ways for a brand to be smart is to understand that people don’t just want to support good causes, they want to do good themselves. If you can give people a way to do good that they can incorporate into their lives, such as the #stopsucking campaign, they will appreciate it. 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 work better immediately is a great way to get your customers to understand that you’re really 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 are no easy way out or corners to cut; you have to 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.