West understands that it’s not always easy for brands to tell the wood from the trees when it comes to sourcing of sustainable materials. This is why she says it’s so important to be curious, ask questions and, most importantly, ask for proof.
“I’m lucky I’m a qualified scientist but [my advice is to] break something down to its component pieces to understand how that works, ask for proven or independent studies – that could be biodegradability or compostability studies if you’re looking at packaging.”
Of course, operating sustainability is not just about environmentally friendly packaging. As a certified B Corp, Ethique aims to operate sustainably and ethically in every single way.
“Every decision we make, we factor in whether it’s fair and kind to the people we are dealing with and whether it’s detrimental to the environment. And if the answer is that it’s not ideal, then we don’t do it,” West said.
“One example would be our fair trade policy. We ensure that with the ingredients we buy, people are paid fairly for them and they have ownership of the value chain. We try to work directly with people who produce it, so that they can get all the value out of their product.”
Ethique also has a charitable program – donating 2 per cent of sales to conservation, animal welfare and environmental groups – and Living Wage certification for all teams.
Crowdfunding and solid support
Ethique was equity crowdfunded twice: first in 2015 with PledgeMe, which raised $200,000 in under 10 days; and two years later, when the brand was more established, raising half a million dollars in less than 90 minutes.
“The key to crowdfunding is to tell a really compelling story, and to get as many people interested, before you actually launch. It needs to be something people can really get behind, be passionate about and want to see succeed,” West said. “Of course, you’ve also got to have really solid financials, make sure that what you’re saying is true so you are not misleading people.”
With around 350 shareholders onboard, Ethique had a wide pool from which to get feedback on packaging and processes, but it did add to the pressure.
“It was a massive support and a wonderful feeling having them there, but also I was acutely aware that I had a good chunk of people’s money resting on my shoulders and I never took that lightly.”
In October 2020, Ethique completed “a very large investment phase” and was able to give back to those shareholders who had supported the business for so long.
“Ninety-nine per cent of those shareholders recognised the value of the shares and moved away with an enormous return,” West said. “Although they were sad to leave the company, they were very handsomely rewarded for their support of us, which is amazing. It was really cool to be able to pay off some of our shareholders’ mortgages, which was kind of the goal.”
Ethique goes global
Ethique is now in 24 markets globally, with 4500 stockists around the world. A 2016 Huffington Post article propelled the brand to new audiences and before long, Britney Spears and Ashton Kutcher were sharing the brand on their social media platforms.
West has no idea how.
“That was a total accident. I’ve no idea how they got hold of it. It was a total fluke!”
Today, the US, UK, Australia, New Zealand and Japan are Ethique’s top-performing markets. In some of these markets, the product range is adapted to better meet the needs of shoppers. In Japan, for example, sweet and citrus fragranced products are preferred over woody smells, West explained.
Moving with the market
While best known for products in bar form, Ethique is now experimenting with concentrates, as West believes that’s where the category is headed.
“If I was to bet on a horse, it would be on concentrates, not refillables,” she said.
Ethique now provides naturally derived and sustainably sourced active ingredients in a compostable cardboard box, and the customer adds water to create their own liquid product. There is a tutorial on the website to show customers how it’s done.
“We’re targeting people who don’t use shampoo bars because we’ve already solved the problem there, and I don’t want to cannibalise [those sales]. We have found that people who’d like bars stay with bars, so this is for people who prefer a liquid product.”
While Ethique might not be able to convince everybody that concentrates are the way forward, West believes they’re a more convenient solution for the customer. However, she is glad to see more sustainable choices on the market for consumers regardless.
“Typically it’s very hard to create mass behaviour change. If you can make a sustainable product convenient, then the pick up will be much quicker,” she said.
“If you’re refilling dishwashing liquid, shampoo, conditioner, laundry detergent etc, you’ve got five or six bottles that you’ve got to carry around with you. It’s just not something a lot of people will do,” West explained. “I know a few retailers who find [refillables] very capital intensive and very messy, from a labour perspective, so there are some challenges.”
Real change, not greenwashing
As someone whose whole business proposition has been around sustainability from the get go, West does find it frustrating to see so many businesses talk a lot about sustainability without making genuine change.
“When businesses are greenwashing or completely misleading their consumers, if they put a tenth of the effort into actually doing something, they would genuinely start to change the world,” she said.
But she does understand how difficult it is for bigger companies that have operated one way for so long to shift their core focus to sustainability.
Her advice is: “If you are trying to retroactively put sustainability at the core of your business, do it one thing at a time, and do it properly.”
This article was originally published in the October issue of Inside FMCG.