In the last year, my wife and I started up our own company based in the Lake District, UK. It’s an eco-friendly business promoting travel bags, outdoor gear, and a positive lifestyle. It’s also a company that we’re doing our best to run on sustainable principles. We are learning to manage the challenges of running a sustainable business.
How is it possible to combine such principles with commercial good health? What are the tough choices which any such business faces? Here are our reflections on running a sustainable company. We’d like to lift the veil and describe some of the everyday choices we face.
Challenges of Running a Sustainable Business
We hope that you take away a realistic picture of the possibilities and challenges which any eco-based business faces today.
What materials should we use for our products?
We produce bags and think a lot about the organic fabric in our rucksacks, the vegetable tanned leather in our wallets, and the recycled polyesters in our travel bags.
But it’s worth being clear that 100% sustainability doesn’t exist.
However natural the materials that a company uses, those materials still need to be produced, processed and shipped. And that involves energy, fuels, emissions and a carbon footprint.
We’ve discovered that it’s therefore all about degrees of sustainability. About making the most informed choices that we can, while still running a viable business. We’ve been thrilled to learn that there are always positive steps that we can take.
It’s been an education along the way. We produce bags. We’ve been inspired from the start by old mountaineering bags, traditionally made of cotton, wool and leather. Working with RITE (Reducing the Impact of Textiles on the Environment), we quickly realised that we wanted to use organic cotton rather than its conventional cousin. Organic cotton requires far less pesticides, insecticides and water in its production.
It’s also been heartening to learn of positive choices we can make even with synthetic materials. For example, we’ve used recycled polyester rather than virgin polyester, thereby saving 50% on water, 20% on energy, and 60% on air pollution. That feels good.
However, not all our materials are organic or recycled at present. Our bags can contain as many as fifteen components each. And in some cases, we simply haven’t found a more sustainable alternative yet or alternatives are too expensive at this point in our growth. It’s about balancing the ideal and the realistic. You have to know where your heart is set.
What partners do we team up with?
Running a company is all about making connections and working with other people. You have to ask yourself, “Do you want to work with local or global partners?”
Do you work with an expensive local partner who uses non-sustainable materials, or a cheaper global partner committed to sustainability and good employer practice?
In our case, we work with both local and global partners but always sustainable ones. Take the leather we use in our products. When we started, we had no idea of the extent of chemical use in producing modern leather. Or that in ancient times, vegetable tanning was the norm. Or that a beautifully worn hundred-year old wallet is almost certainly vegetable tanned. Learning this, we knew we wanted to opt for the vegetable tanning route.
The question then was where to access this product. We were thrilled when we found the only remaining traditional oak bark tannery in Britain. They have been able to supply us with leather for certain products. However, we’ve also needed other leather for other products. And for this we’ve had to travel to a tannery in southern China.
The Chinese tannery produces 70% vegetable tanned product, with an initial 30% chemical treatment. It’s not ideal. But they’re developing a new 100% vegetable tanned leather for production. So some of these things are just a matter of time.
Finding the soul in commerce
In all our everyday dealings with partners, we’re also constantly looking for the human face in business. Obviously business is partly about money, but for us it’s also an expression of values. When my wife and I met backpacking years ago in Latin America, we knew that we were committed to the same things — getting out, adventuring and making connections.
So for us, the human element in business is all-important. When we were looking for a bag maker, we found our partner Henry. Henry’s dad originally started their business in Hong Kong. Today, they remain a small family business, now located in mainland China.
We like the family element and Henry’s passion for food, tea and quality of life. We like the fact that he farms and feeds his team and other workers from surrounding factories with high-quality vegetables. Our relationship with him isn’t just based on commerce.
Working from home and managing the work-life balance
Having lived the rat-race, my wife and I both re-thought our priorities a few years ago and settled in the Lake District. We wanted to start an ethically sound company promoting sustainable living and travel. We also wanted to work from home.
Managing work-life balance when one’s always within reach of a ringing office phone is never easy. Our eleven year old daughter, Kiah, is naturally a big part of our home life, and there’s always a temptation to slip into the office when we shouldn’t. But then, there’s also always the option of pushing work aside and heading outdoors for a bracing walk.
With the work-life balance, we’re continually needing to revise our way of doing things. We’re currently debating whether to invest in a shed for the garden and relocate our office out of the house. There are no easy answers. We just have to remain alert to the issues.
What we do know is that our way of life is far healthier and more in tune with our values than it ever was when we were caught on the corporate treadmill. We prize that.
Revising our own consumer choices through running a sustainable business
One of the things that happens running a sustainable business is that your own consumer choices get challenged. This is exciting, sometimes unnerving, and part of a continuing learning process.
Take our car. Our T-reg Ford has just about reached the end of its days. We need a new one for our family. We also need a way of transporting our products to the events where we promote and sell them. So do we go for two different vehicles, just one mega-sized one, or a combo of car and caravan or a horsebox?
That’s before we even contemplate the green issue. Do we buy a recycled, second-hand car using petrol? Or a brand-new, green vehicle which is more expensive? Tallying all the facts involved and making wise, conscious choices isn’t necessarily easy. But we believe that it’s precisely what each of us has to do given the problems of our planet.
This simply isn’t a time to put our heads in the sand. And when one hits on a sustainable choice which is also affordable and practical for one’s needs, it’s such a good feeling.
Running a travel company and the question of our carbon footprint
Running a company promoting travel presents us with a final conundrum. How do we reconcile the travel that we need to do to meet global partners with our carbon footprint? Should we just go local and sever all our ties with overseas colleagues?
We don’t think so. And here we have to go back to our most basic values. My wife and I firmly believe that life is about connecting with other people. With getting out of our self-contained boxes. With following the high road of adventure. None of these things are ever going to happen sitting in our living-room.
We remain very sensitive to the question of our carbon footprint, and we’re always looking for ways to reduce it. But, for us, life is about travel and connecting. And to deny that would be to deny one of our deepest desires and the very foundation of our business.
Great things about running a sustainable business
Because of the challenges of running a sustainable business, it always keeps us questioning, challenging, sourcing, thinking, researching, and changing. It keeps us searching for better earth-friendly materials and processes. It helps lessen the impact our products have on the environment.
There are so many challenges of running a sustainable business but we believe it’s worth it. We remain committed to wise, conscious travel both for business and our own enjoyment. In short, we don’t always find it simple running a sustainable company. However, we do find it hugely inspiring and positive. For us, it’s about making responsible choices in tricky times. We love this journey that we’re on and we welcome you to join us in our adventure. You can find us at homeofmillican.com.
All images © Millican.