On the north coast of Cornwall, England—a half-day ride southwest of London along the Great Western Railway—lies Perranporth: population 3,188. There, behind a wrought-iron fence, within a 1,500 square-foot workshop, is Gavin Christman.
Whirs, scrapes, and taps surround him. The sounds of his craft.
“When I worked at Dyson,” says Gavin, “I used to travel across Asia and North America putting together these massive exhibitions my team and I designed. Things like oversized vacuum chambers so people, sometimes thousands during an event, could experience what it’d be like standing inside one.”
Today, things are different. The scale of Gavin’s former creations, inverted.
Made from up to 75% recycled materials, these innovative “nesting sites” give solitary bees replacement habitats outside homes or serve as substitutes for traditional bricks in walls and buildings.
Though often unsung, Green&Blue is far from alone: across the globe, a new wave of small businesses has emerged.
Amidst the buzz of Earth Day—when big-business PR can feel deafening—connecting sustainability to growth means understanding why the passion, impact, and craft of these “small” businesses … are anything but.
More than ‘good’ business
It’s no secret that sustainability sells. In the U.S., between 68% and 73% of shoppers report that buying from companies that are environmentally responsible is important to them. At the international level, the majority of Gen X, Gen Z, and Millennials responded “yes” when asked if they’d be willing to pay more for eco-friendly products.
As a result, 88% of business-school students say learning about social and environmental issues is a top priority. Among CEOs, more than 90% rate those same concerns as critical to their company’s success.
“Sustainability to me means living, working, and acting in a way that is healthy for all beings and our planet.” —Tippy Tippens, Goods That Matter
Most striking, data compiled from 12 years of earning reports recently discovered that brands with a “high sense of purpose” grow at over double the rate of those with a “low sense.”
All that is powerful incentive to go green.
Unfortunately, when sustainability is treated like an add-on rather than part and parcel of a business’ soul, disconnects emerge. As Brian Millar wrote in Fast Company: “Right now, purpose is often left in the hands of ad agencies. Every second brief begins, ‘In a world where everybody is increasingly polarized, at least they can come together over [insert client’s product here].’”
Backlash follows, undercutting sustainable initiatives as well as a company’s reputation.
The answer isn’t eco-friendly marketing nor placing a layer of sustainability atop production. Even less is it pledging non-sustainable profits to pro-sustainable organizations. Instead, the way forward is marked by a creative process that locates sustainability within the craft itself.
Coming clean: Birds, scents, and soap
Tippy Tippens’ hands move with purpose. A determination that blends with her quick smile and preferred job title: Chief Eternal Optimist.
A lifelong environmentalist and industrial designer, Tippy launched her first product in the wake of 2010’s BP Oil Spill: black, bird-shaped soaps with handmade ceramic birds hidden inside.
“Through the daily act of washing,” says Tippy, located in New Orleans, Louisiana, “you eventually free the white bird, a potent symbol of restoration and recovery. Creating BirdProject Soap was my way to give back in a situation that required scientists, veterinarians, and disaster relief specialists.
“That was the first time I took something all the way to the marketplace: concept, prototyping, production, packaging, marketing, and distribution.”
In less than a year, the birds gave birth to a brand, Goods That Matter; each product created in partnership with a cause.
Notebooks that give to education. Cards that give to animal rescues. Candles in recycled jars whose scents contribute to disaster relief, pollinators, wetland restoration, wildlife, national parks, and more.
“Sustainability to me means living, working, and acting in a way that is healthy for all beings and our planet,” says Tippy. “Many of our society’s current ways are not sustainable, for example, our popular energy sources and the way that we create so much waste that harms our environment and climate. It means for our society to function in ways that can actually go on for eons.”
West of Tippy in Glassell Park Los Angeles, mother-and-daughter founders, Callie Milford and Sandee Ferman, are also using their hands to clean.
“I’ve always been crafty and DIY,” Callie explains. “Back before Christmas in 2013, I came across an article on how to make soap. I sent it to my mom and said, ‘You should make soap for Christmas.’ She did. But she’d also just sold her company and was between projects. So afterward, she started researching and experimenting more.”
To Sandee’s surprise, many of the natural bath and body products she found were full of harsh chemicals. “I can make something a lot better than that,” she recalls. “Not only that, I can help other people not have to put that stuff on their heads. If you’re using products, you’ve got to be able to trust they aren’t going to hurt you.”
On Earth Day 2014, No Tox Life came into being: first, at farmer’s markets and online; then, through a retail storefront. True to its name, the brand specializes in non-toxic, 100%-vegan personal care products. For Sandee, opening day had special meaning: 44 years prior she’d participated in the very first Earth Day.
But something was missing. “A lot of our customers are zero-waste,” says Callie. “They’d ask, ‘Can you do this without plastic or in glass or maybe without a label?’ The tipping point came when I discovered the stats on recycling. I had no idea that 91% what you put in the bin doesn’t get or can’t be recycled. We’re just passing on the problem to someone in the future.”
That’s why, earlier today, Callie and Sandee relaunched their storefront with two-thirds dedicated as a refilling station.
Here’s the twist: those same sustainable principles hold true even when your business is the opposite of clean.
Hands in the dirt: Planters, farms, and poop
Given Odi Reuveni and Chris Wong’s shared passion—and that they both operate in online gardening supplies—you might expect the two to know each other. They don’t.
The shape of their businesses is likewise miles apart: Odi, an award-winning, one-man show whose catalog contains a single product; Chris, at the helm of an online-to-offline organization poised to generate half-a-million dollars this year through e-commerce alone.
“Sustainability also means living up to your principles and not compromising if there is an easier but more wasteful solution.” —Chris Wong, Young Urban Farmers
What unites them is the willingness to get dirty.
“Starting Young Urban Farmers was the perfect fit in allowing me to combine my passions for healthy eating, gardening, and entrepreneurship,” notes Chris. “At times, it literally is a hands-on job where we get to plant, grow, harvest, and share the joy with our customers.”
Chris’ definition of sustainability echoes Tippy’s, with an added warning: “It means leaving the world a better place than how you found it. For us, that’s following organic gardening principles that work to build and improve the soil for the long term. Sustainability also means living up to your principles and not compromising if there is an easier but more wasteful solution.”
For Odi, inspiration came when he discovered a basic self-watering pot while traveling overseas: “I thought, ‘Hey, this is a great idea, let’s see if I can improve it to appeal to the Australian market.’ After a six-month period of developing the product, website, and business, I was ready to launch in Sept. 2014.”
Still, perhaps no one embodies the passion of getting dirty to get clean more than Susan Millingen of Muskoka, Canada.
“I’ve always danced to the beat of my own drum,” says Susan. “Twelve years ago, I read about a park in Chicago that was lit using power generated from dog poop. Ever since then, I knew that’s what I wanted to do.”
To realize her dream, Susan began working for and then bought Poop Patrol Canada Inc. The pet-waste service uses oxo-biodegradable bags, washes all its tools with anti-microbial solutions, and turns the collected poop into electricity.
In addition to growing from one truck to seven, Susan’s company has disposed of 64.52 tons of waste, eliminated 7.59 tons of CO2 from the atmosphere, and powered the equivalent of 151.49 homes for a year.
A craft that sustains: ‘Getting there’
Late last year back in Perranporth, Green&Blue became a Certified B Corporation—a rare honor awarded to businesses that “meet the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability to balance profit and purpose.”
With it, the company entered the ranks of other global brands like Patagonia, Ben & Jerry’s, and Kickstarter.
To celebrate, Green&Blue released a three-minute video shot on location in their workshop, which Gavin voiced himself:
“Ultimately we just want to make a difference. To make a change in the way we provision for our wildlife. It’s definitely a process; a lot of grit and determination. But we are getting there.”
For people like Gavin, or any unsung leader, sustainability isn’t just “good” business.
It is the business. A throughline between what a product is, how it’s created, and why it exists.
Large organizations certainly have much to contribute, but it’s the love of the craft that inverts what is “small”—bees, soap, dirt, or poop—and transforms it into something beyond its proportions.