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With sustainability at the top of consumers’ minds and the effects of climate change becoming clearer day by day, it is no wonder that so many food businesses are keen to launch sustainable products or open brand new retail establishments stocked full of environmentally friendly products.
What does it take to open a dedicated eco shop or launch a sustainable range of products today? We speak to the entrepreneurs making it happen.
Paula Alcalde and Anderson Caicedo decided to start GreenBay, a plant-based grocery shop in London, in 2016 because of how “dull, inconvenient and time-consuming it was to find plant-based products,” according to Paula. “We both switched to a plant-based diet in 2014 for ethical, health and environmental reasons. At the time, we struggled to find suitable alternatives for our lifestyle. I remember having to go to different retailers, looking for different products and reading all labels; a total nightmare,” she said.
The pair wanted to make it easier for others to eat a vegan diet. “We wanted to create a one-stop place for all plant-based needs, making it easy, fun and convenient for everyone to try plant-based products by connecting them to new and innovative brands that are positively impacting the planet, inspiring people to make positive changes every day.”
The response from customers – most of whom are flexitarians looking for better alternatives to what they see on supermarket shelves – has been “overwhelmingly positive,” Paula said. “People are becoming more and more aware every day of the environmental impact of our choices and are increasingly concerned about the companies they support and where they spend their money.”
And sourcing vegan products – something which may have been a challenge a decade or so ago – is always exciting thanks to the huge numbers of brands launching vegan products. “The only trouble we have is finding storage space for all these new products!” Paula said.
However, Paula and Anderson found that bricks and mortar retail can only go so far, and their vision to help Brits around the country eat more sustainably pushed them to open an e-commerce arm in 2017. “Customers can pick between thousands of positive-impact products to be delivered to their doorstep across the UK on a carbon-neutral next-day delivery service, or they can choose to collect their order from the store if they are local. Over the years we have seen the biggest growth coming from our online presence.” With the numbers of Brits eating a flexitarian diet ever-expanding, there’s never been a better time to be a plant-based retailer.
While retailers can make changes to their shops by swapping products, offering sustainable delivery options and offsetting their operations’ emissions, brands looking to make sustainability a bigger part of their business may decide to launch a sustainable range or a revamp their products entirely.
“The impact of the food industry on planetary health is shocking,” said Richard Turner, founder of Ombar, an ethical chocolate producer. “With the UK’s food choices alone leading to the deforestation of four trees per year, per person, that’s 272m trees lost every year. Global food systems are also responsible for a third of greenhouse gas emissions and 70% of biodiversity loss on land.”
While vegan, organic and fair ingredients have always been important for Ombar, as Richard explained. “We realised that there was more we could do to have a positive impact. The scale of the global climate crisis is something that is deeply affecting us. In whatever way we can, we feel we must be doing something that is constructively part of the solution.”
So Ombar set out create a bar of chocolate that would be as sustainable as it could possibly be. This involved experimentation and new recipe developments. “Oats are the perfect replacement for dairy milk as the growing and production emits far lower emissions than milk,” Richard explained. “However, simply adding oat powder to chocolate doesn’t create a quality product as the oat flavour is too strong. Instead, we selected a particular variety of oats and put them through a germination process to develop the creaminess that works so well in our Oat M’lk chocolate. It’s been an intense period of development, but we’re really happy with the result.”
Different industries face different challenges with adopting sustainable practices. For Sofia Javed, founder of The Singing Spice Company, sourcing organic ingredients remains a constant challenge, “given organic farming produces lower yields than conventional farming, and organic spices have to go through rigorous processes and testing to be certified organic. This can result in one or more spices being readily available one minute and then suddenly in short or out of supply.”
These fluctuations mean the business faces a constant juggling act logistically managing supplies and price changes. “However,” Sofia said, “as we continue to work with and build stronger relationships with our farmers, producers and suppliers for the betterment of our customers and for the planet, it makes these challenges worthwhile knowing our patience and perseverance will allow for improved systems and procedures to develop for the sustainable food sector.”
While shifting to more sustainable products and business systems can be challenging, as Sofia explained it is also rewarding to know that your business is leaving a positive impact. It may also help to know that your first steps into sustainability don’t have to be huge leaps. “Our advice to any small business looking to increase their sustainability credentials is to start taking small steps towards becoming a sustainable brand,” Sofia said, “Those steps will pave the way for greater change, awareness and innovation at both industry and consumer level.”
Image courtesy of GreenBay