What's your sustainability story?
Updated: Sep 24, 2019
Change by Degrees and Dublin City Mum think sustainability really matters. I invited Change by Degrees to write a feature at Dublin City Mum on sustainability and give us their top ten tips on how to get started. We put our heads together and decided to approach businesses doing their best to build sustainability into their DNA. Here are their stories. We hope they inspire you.
What lies at the heart of sustainable business?
Doing business in Ireland today is tricky. Doing sustainable business might seem even harder still. Where to start? How to change? What will it cost me? are just some of the questions you ask when discussing how to build sustainability into your DNA. We talked to twelve company owners determined to do just that: some at the beginning of their journey and some deeply rooted in sustainable operations. All have one thing in common – they firmly believe they are doing the right thing, and the rewards are felt emotionally and financially.
What does doing the right thing look like?
Tight margins and large overheads heavily influence decision-making processes and businesses can feel ill equipped to introduce new operating systems and sustainability policies. However, sustainable business can involve everything from managing your waste correctly, paying your staff fairly or giving back to the community you operate in (and beyond). It could be about producing products that have multiple life cycles, reducing your operating costs without compromising your quality to buying from suppliers who source their raw materials fairly.
Some businesses do this instinctively, and tell no one about it. But this story has impact and really matters to customers. Equally, employees perform better, are more creative and have increased loyalty when they feel the boss is ‘doing the right thing’.
You don’t need formal qualifications or expertise in sustainability to work it into your systems and how you do business. Ian Kelly and Anne Marie Green of DUC (a social enterprise that manufactures a selection of products to help lift children out of poverty) used their desire to do something ‘the best’ way possible, as a starting point. Hazel Kelly and Davy Schmeits from Lille Barn (an online store for sustainable, ethically made children’s wear) says ‘We learned a lot by simply being parents! And research helps a gut feeling into a rationale’.
At The Happy Pear they constantly try to make small changes to be kinder to the environment, moving one degree at a time, closer to sustainability.
"We are a small business with a big heart and we will continue to make small changes to leave less of a footprint and help make the world a better place"— Stephen Flynn, The Happy Pear
Nature or Nurture?
For some companies, family values have informed their desire to run their business sustainably. Davy and Hazel, from Lille Barn are influenced by their Dutch and Icelandic heritage respectively, where buying good quality clothes that lasted, and were then handed down, was a natural choice.
Róisín Scott of Chaos + Harmony (a clothing and décor site for children) was raised in an environmentally conscious home. Her dad, an environmental engineer, even bought a board game called Waste Not Want Not one Christmas!
At Accessories4babies (an online solution based baby products), Eimear’s mum and dad taught her from a really young age how to recycle and the importance of caring for the environment.
"I bring my little girl down to the recycling bank and show her what goes where. I have a keep cup, we don’t use straws. I was just raised like this."
For others, it was the birth of their own children that kick started their desire to live and do business more sustainably. Pat from Reuzi explained how back in 2012, when she became a mum, she noticed her household’s packaging waste increased alarmingly. With her husband on board, they made a decision to change things little by little, which led her to set up Reuzi, a platform for likeminded people to connect and learn from one another, buy sustainable products and share their journeys.
For Michael Sheary of BuJo Burger the light bulb moment came when he held his baby girl in his arms and made a promise to create a business his daughter could be proud of.
For him, there was no other way than to do business sustainably. To that end, along with his business partner (who also had a baby on the same day in the same hospital!), they created BuJo Burger. As the only burger focussed restaurant in Ireland and the UK to hold a 3 Star rating from the Sustainable Restaurant Association they take their environmental responsibility for the local community and the planet pretty seriously. From day one BuJo has only used fully certified 100% compostable packaging. "It's more expensive but it doesn’t cost the earth".
Supply Chains Matter
Michael is passionate about traceability, caring deeply about where his products are sourced. He has covered the country in search of the highest quality he can find for Bujo Burger and he has earned awards for his efforts. When we spoke Michael had just stepped off Stephan McCarthy's family farm in Kiltale, in Co. Meath where he was personally sourcing Irish rocket for an upcoming limited edition burger.
Hazel and Davy of Lille Barn only stock a brand if that brand can tell their story, about their impact on the environment, the working conditions for staff and the entire supply chain. They are deeply invested in doing business only with those who have shared values and that operate close to home with shorter supply chains. They aren’t afraid to ask questions of their suppliers and only work with those with a sustainability story.
Sooby Lynch at Mutiny Kids (an online magazine for concept stores and kids fashion) explains how they make a conscious decision every day to work with and promote brands that also share their values. This extends past work and into her everyday life. She tells us we ‘absolutely have to talk to BuJo Burger!’ for this feature. This speaks to the very core of sustainable business where like-minded people seek one another out and are happy to advocate for one another when they see great work being done.
At DUC they partner with The Christina Noble Foundation and operate a One-For-One business model, where like Toms (the international shoe brand), every product purchased directly creates a benefit e.g. every DUC sports bag sold givesa child in Vietnam the opportunity to learn how to swim.
For Ian and Anne Marie, the founders of DUC, working with trustworthy manufactures is key. All products are made in Vietnam by a factory that pays a living wage and treats its employees fairly.
"When you’re dealing directly with small brand owners, it’s easy to have these kinds of conversations"
— Roisin Scott, Chaos and Harmony
At Chaos + Harmony, Róisín makes no bones about asking brands straight up about whether they pay their staff fairly and how they source their materials. ‘When you’re dealing directly with small brand owners, it’s easy to have these kinds of conversations’, she explains. ‘It’s harder obviously to get the same information from bigger retailers’.
Waste Not Want Not
Mutiny Kids Co-founder, Sooby talks passionately about the magazine being online with a far-reaching audience that creates no waste, only impact. Her interest in sustainability spread from how they live into how they work and became a very natural fit.
"Sustainability has become a part of our lives as a family which transcends to the core values of our magazine."
- Sooby Lynch, Mutiny Kids
At Moobles and Toobles, Nadia creates zero waste out of necessity. Operating on an extremely tight budget means everything is repurposed. Mistakes are kept to a minimum and nothing ever gets thrown away. Spoiled goods go on sale at a reduced price and are snapped up.
She even inherited her father-in-laws print screens; ‘Live Aid t-shirts were made on these (screens) 25 years ago! They’re discolored and rickety but they work. She also uses a twenty-five-year-old sewing machine. ‘Why would I buy a new one?’, she laughs.
At Planet Susti, a company specialising in sustainable party wear and bags, all their products are compostable so the waste can at least be collected up in the composting bag they provide and deposited into a serviced composting bin. Claire and Roisin, whose friendship spans 25 years, watched the excesses at parties where ‘plastic tat’ made up the majority of party bag items, with growing despair.
‘We identified a gap in the market for people like us’. They strongly believe in the power of their products being ‘returned to the earth’ through composting and feel 'it’s simply the right thing to do’.
For Michael at BuJo Burger food waste is a massive priority, so there is simply none of it. ‘Everything that is on the plate is there to be eaten, not to be throw away,’ he explains. Similarly, David and Stephen Flynn of The Happy Pear, use any ‘unsellable’ fruit and vegetables from their stores in the employee lunches in Pearville and their cafes donate any surplus food to local charities through FoodCloud. ‘Even our coffee grinds from our cafes are used by local gardeners’.
Rachel of Salt and Stove (a neighbourhood grocery & coffee shop in D8), tried to create a low waste store. To that end she has no plastic bottles in her fridge, all her takeaway packaging is compostable and she has wine on tap (this reduces the carbon footprint of the wine by 25%). ‘Volumes are tricky to judge at the beginning. We’re only open 10 months. Getting the balance right on ordering is hard’, she explains.
Eimear at Accessories4babies, used to over package all her products when she started out first.
"I just decided I’m not doing it anymore! I reuse old boxes and ship off all my products that way. And none of my customers complain."
- Eimear Fahy, Accessories4babies
The Packaging Challenge
‘Packaging is a pain in the ass’, laments Michael from BuJo Burger and he’s not wrong. Sourcing packaging that fits with your values, and your budget, is a challenge. They opted for compostable wear and pay €12.00 per week per bin verses €3.00 per week if they’d gone for recyclable. ‘But it’s worth it’, he adds, and you believe him. They’ve traced the compostable bins back and were told that they are turned into renewable energy within twelve weeks.
Hazel and Davy of Lille Barn also describe packaging as a ‘mine field’ and feel they could definitely benefit from advice on it. ‘Packaging must be sustainable, protect the product and look good’, says Hazel. This can be a difficult, but not impossible, thing to accomplish. They also feel many businesses ‘are not shouting about their sustainability.’ They strongly encourage companies talk about the social impact of their business.
At Happy Out, the only café on Bull Island in Dublin, Brian explains that waste segregation is a major problem. ‘People are still confused or doubtful and second guess themselves all the time when standing in front of well signed bins’. Until recently there were no other bins on the island at all. ‘We have to deal with every bit of rubbish we give out, and a fair bit from others too’, he explains. ‘We try and get people thinking about what goes where’.
At Happy Pear they concede that packaging is a problem. ‘We are trying our best to be kinder to the planet but we’re not perfect. We are continuing to look for sustainable packaging solutions for some of our products.’ Currently, all their cafes and take away food containers, cups, cutlery, straws and napkins are fully compostable.
The challenge for all those who invest in compostable wear for their customers is that in Ireland, on-street waste management of compostable material is more or less non-existent. Customers may feel very happy with themselves for purchasing a product in compostable wear but has no choice but to bin it in a regular rubbish bin unless they are conscientious enough to bring it home to their brown/food bin. It is a hopeless flawed system that councils and government are slow to address.
At Salt and Stove, Rachel finds the back end packaging a big challenge. ‘Everything comes in such heavy packaging and we don’t have that much space to store it. A lot of our stuff is from Irish Health Foods and they’ll take it away afterwards though’.
CloudPicker, who stocks her coffee, now have all their packaging fully recyclable though which she says makes a big difference.
Nadia from Moobles and Toobles would welcome sustainability advice but feel it’s ‘thin on the ground’. It’s difficult for her to access that kind of help and even know what the right questions to ask are. At Lille Barn, they would welcome a system that measures and certifies sustainable actions.
Róisín from Chaos + Harmony feels battling against the Irish consumers ‘bargain mentality’ is a big challenge. She’s asking people to in invest in slightly more expensive items that will last and sometimes customers may be shocked by the price. ‘The thing is, it might be more expensive up front but they definitely save money in the long run as the clothes will last so much longer.’
We love Róisín’s commitment to clothes that will ‘stand the test of PLAY time’. She even encourages her clients to buy up a size, so that they will get longer out to the item and ‘get their money’s worth’.
Like Róisín, Eimear from Accessories4babies feels it’s really important to sell products that speak to your own values. ‘I don’t mind taking the hit (on margins)’, she says. ‘I want to do something better’. To that end, all her products can be recycled and customers can reuse her boxes and bags that they come in.
Another challenge Róisín identifies is the impact Influencers are having on the public. She wonders if Influencers knew how some of the brands they are affiliated with treat their staff, the environment or compromise on quality, would they be as quick to lend their support. ‘Influencers could be doing such a better job of telling people about good, sustainable brands so people can make better buying decisions. They have clout! They could influence the high street brands if they wanted’.
Rachel at Salt and Stove is currently the owner, manager, cook and everything else in between! ‘Our aim is to meet the demand in our local area for a neighbourhood grocery’, she says. ‘It makes sense’.
"We want to pay all our staff a living wage. All businesses should work towards that"
— Rachel Flynn, Salt and Stove.
How Change by Degrees can help?
Change by Degrees is creating a movement for businesses and consumers to change the conversation on sustainability in Ireland from ‘Do I have to? to, ‘Where do I start?’. It provides expert advice, solutions and workshops to help businesses create and tell their sustainability stories. See our top ten tips below on how to get started.
Top Ten Tips on how to get started
In conversation with:
Anne Marie Green and Ian Kelly of DUC www.duc.ie
Brian Hanratty of Happy Out www.happyout.ie
Claire O'Caoimh of Planet Sustie www.planetsustie.ie