Online business

Ethical e-commerce: how I started a sustainable online business

Stéphanie-May Elswood is the founder of Sustainable, a lifestyle brand dedicated to reducing single-use plastics in favor of reusable products.

From toothbrushes and bamboo cutlery to reusable food pouches, collapsible cups and silicone cooking packs, Sasstainable offers stylish ways to protect the planet every day.

Here’s what Steph has to say about the ins and outs of running an ethical online business.

First of all, what inspired you to launch Sasstainable?

In a world where everyday products have a short lifespan but lasting impacts, I wanted to create a brand to do the exact opposite.

I had been looking for ways to be more sustainable in my personal life and wanted to solve some of my own disposable cutlery that is not durable when lunch was my biggest downfall.

I wanted to develop a line of eye-catching, ethically made and eco-friendly products to help educate my audience and facilitate people’s respect for the planet.

Did you get an outside investment to start?

I started Sustainable with my own savings, so no external funding! I have reinvested all the profits since.

What has been the learning curve?

Spectacular.

I made a lot of mistakes in the beginning and had very little business experience in the e-commerce industry. My main experience was in social media, content creation, and marketing.

I juggled all the roles in the company myself, jumping between customer service, fulfillment, product development and social media. It was stressful!

Have a e-commerce business is much more than selling a product and I don’t think I realized it. I have often thrown money at problems to try to solve them quickly, rather than taking the time to find better, more profitable solutions.

One thing I learned early on was to pay attention to seasonality.

For example, the company launched in November 2019, and I massively underestimated the type of demand we would have for Christmas. I under-ordered the stock and did not fully account for postage delays during the holiday season.

How many hours did you work on average and what kind of support did you receive?

It’s hard to say exactly how many hours I put in initially. I ran this business alongside my full time social media business and charitable foundation, but I’m sure it was a lot!

I am very fortunate to have a supportive family, and that was a huge help to me, especially at the beginning.

My mom helped me tremendously with picking and packing, post office shopping, and customer service.

I hired two assistants early enough to help me with marketing and social media, and it was one of my best decisions at this point.

How did you build your customer base?

I was fortunate to have a small online presence on my personal Instagram, and it certainly helped shake things up.

If this is something you can start cultivating now, then go for it.

I also did a lot of research on sustainability influencers and offered them products in return for an honest review. Based on the stories they shared on social media, we’ve received more traction on our site.

What is the biggest challenge for a small business to go green, and how do you overcome it?

Durability means don’t cut corners.

There are so many “easier” solutions that may not be sustainable. But as you grow and your business is in its infancy, you can start implementing these switches early on, so your sustainability commitments increase as the business grows. developed.

There will always be unsustainable businesses that will undermine you and make it harder for you to compete.

But stick to your guns and know that you have a bigger vision of the planet and inspire your customers to come with you.

What can small business owners do to go green if they aren’t already?

There are so many ways to be a more sustainable business. Examine every aspect, from source to consumer, and don’t be afraid to ask questions.

Where are the products made? Who makes them? What materials are used?

Is your packaging environmentally friendly? Can you find a distribution company that delivers products using electric vehicles?

You can also add a carbon offset functionality at checkout, which will compensate for your shipping.

At Sasstainable, we have also collaborated with a brand called “Tree-app” which allows customers to plant a tree with every purchase.

It is also worth looking into recycled or recyclable eco-packaging. It’s about making small changes with big impact and helping your customers to do the same.

What kind of setbacks have you faced and how did you overcome them?

I think the hardest challenge was finding product developers and manufacturers that I could trust.

I never wanted to release a product that wasn’t perfect, but I also wanted to make sure it was affordable for customers.

From there, I learned to never accept the first unit cost given and to speak up even if I felt like I was too demanding.

What was the most important thing you learned as a business owner?

That it is not easy! But seriously, I would say there are four main things I’ve learned that are extremely important to aspiring business owners:

  • Control your cash flow. Having enough cash to fund my growth takes up most of my time.
  • Everything revolves around the customer. The customer is always right and the tone you used to respond to them sets the tone for the relationship you build.
  • Running a business can get lonely. It is important to constantly remind yourself of your vision and motivation behind the project. Encourage your own successes and don’t forget to celebrate the small victories.
  • Build a team you can trust. It’s important to know how and when to scale your business, hire the right people, and most importantly, learn to delegate key tasks so that you can focus on growing your business and developing your products.

Center for sustainable development

Find out how your small business can create a strong sustainability strategy, save money, and attract more customers by visiting the Sustainability Hub.

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