From trash to cash – the entrepreneurs who waste no opportunity
The small businesses using rubbish as a revenue stream aren’t always on the lookout for waste. For Simon Wright, founder of independent drinks company Hawkes, the rubbish found him.
With his successful line of ginger beer already turning a profit, the entrepreneur saw an opportunity. “When I found out about a load of apples that weren’t being used from community orchards around London, I came up with the idea for Urban Orchard cider.”
With around 200m tonnes (pdf) of waste produced in the UK each year, resourceful small business owners like Wright have found innovative ways to turn the trash into cash. They are helped along by events such as World Environment Day, which has spread public awareness about the need to shop responsibly.
Fiona Humberstone, a branding expert who works with eco-friendly businesses, says consumers are savvier than ever about sustainability. In the 2015 Nielsen Global Sustainability report, 66% of consumers said they were willing to pay more for sustainable brands – this was up from 55% in 2014 .
Hawkes allows anyone to trade their unwanted fruit for bottles of cider at the company’s base in Forest Gate, giving Wright a plentiful supply of ingredients (roughly eight tonnes last year, which he intends to double in 2016). These donated apples are blended with premium quality fruit to create a consistent brew each time.
More than 100 apple donors play their part in the cider-making process, each helping to spread the word about Hawkes’ products via word of mouth. The company also donates 10% of its profits to eco-focused social enterprises such as Father Nature, which carries out community growing projects, and Cultivate London, an urban farm which trains unemployed young people.
Wright’s approach has helped him forge valuable business connections, including with London restaurant chain Honest Burgers. He’s also secured listings at Harvey Nichols, Greene King pubs and Claridge’s hotel.
A positive ethos can be powerful for building brand awareness, but Humberstone says product quality is still the most important factor for consumers. One of her clients, Gray’s Farm, which produces gelato, prides itself on animal welfare and sustainable business practices. Humberstone says: “It has good green credentials and a great story, but first and foremost it’s about the delicious gelato.”
Women’s swimwear brand Auria is also focused on customer tastes, while running a sustainable production process. Founder and designer Diana Auria uses Italian firm Econyl to create her garments. The regenerated nylon fabric is made by melting down discarded fishing nets and other marine debris, extracting the pure polyamide (proteins) and weaving it into a new material.
Auria says: “Making a difference to the environment is incredibly important to me, but I also knew that people wouldn’t buy something for the beach that they didn’t feel good wearing.”
She learned about the devastating environmental impact of textile manufacturing while studying at the London College of Fashion. Most environmental damage created by the sector comes from the use of energy and toxic chemicals (pdf). A 2011 report by Wrap (the Waste and Resources Action Programme) found 5% of the UK’s total annual carbon and water footprints result from clothing consumption.
With this damage in mind, a class upcycling project drew Auria’s attention to the possibilities of reusing old fabrics to create something new and attractive.
Debuting at London Fashion Week’s sustainability-focused show Estethica in 2012, Auria attracted high-profile stockists including Urban Outfitters and Yoox. By collaborating with other ethical brands such as EMG and Dr Noki, Auria has become a recognised name in the growing backlash against fast fashion, which produces roughly £140m (pdf) of waste every year in the UK alone.
It has incorporated its sustainability credentials into its brand. During a visit to the Econyl production facility in Italy, Auria documented how the material is made by posting video snippets on Snapchat.
Helping to tackle the waste epidemic is an admirable goal for a small business, but it usually comes at a price. Whereas competing brands can shop around for the cheapest materials, green businesses are restricted to sustainably sourced goods that often come at a premium. Wright and Auria spend more on manufacturing due to their unusual supply and production processes.
However, both believe that their businesses would be less successful if they had chosen more straightforward production routes. Wright estimates that it costs 15% more to produce Urban Orchard cider, but investing in a sustainable supply chain has ultimately paid off due to increased customer interest in his product, setting his company apart in a crowded industry. He says: “Our volume of sales has grown 250% year on year, so it seems to have worked for us.”
From a branding perspective, Humberstone says the key is to win customer interest by demonstrating the appeal of products beyond their environmentally-friendly assets.
She says: “Often I’ll see brands with really strong, important eco credentials alienating customers because they are too sanctimonious about their beliefs. You can communicate both, but you need to put your customer at the heart of what you’re doing.”
Five other businesses using waste in interesting ways
A Somerset-based enterprise that creates paper and stationery products from waste including denim, bananas and bank notes. Its most popular product, Ellie Poo Paper, uses dried elephant dung from zoos and wildlife parks around the UK to make 100% recycled paper.
Not content with just selling their fair trade coffee to consumers and business around the UK, GreenCup also collects the used grounds and turns them into fertiliser for gardens. A percentage of the profits from this fertiliser is then donated to causes such as Trees For Cities and Coffee Kids.
Mobile phones, CDs, wellies and yoghurt pots are all used in Smile Plastics’ high-end recycled plastics. The Powys-based company has worked for Selfridges, Liberty and Paul Smith, creating bespoke plastic panels for architecture and design projects.
Billions of items of fresh fruit and vegetables are discarded every year, a problem that London entrepreneur Jenny Dawson is helping to tackle with her business. Rubies in the Rubble turns surplus produce from farms and markets into jams, chutneys and pickles. These preserves ensure that oversized, undersized or aesthetically ugly food is eaten rather than thrown away.
Upcycling (turning old junk into useful items) is a trend that enterprising crafters can capitalise on. Remade In Britain, an online hub for all things upcycled, allows consumers to browse for furniture, homeware and clothes, sourced from materials that might otherwise end up in landfill.
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