Tom Benford, founder and managing director of up-and-coming eco-business Plastic Phobia, tells us about his experience starting up a zero waste shop and wholesale supplier.
Plastic Phobia: introduce yourself!
Describe what you do: Plastic Phobia is an online retailer dedicated to providing products that are totally plastic free, even down to the packaging.
Instead of just focusing on reducing plastic from a business-to-customer perspective, I want to reduce plastic from factory to consumer, and ultimately become the dominant zero waste wholesaler in the UK. I want to be someone the consumer can trust; a brand that is making an effort to eliminate plastic.
How long have you been up and running?
We’ve been trading for 12 weeks, I started working on Plastic Phobia in May 2018 while procrastinating from exams! My lecturers told me to wait until the end of my degree to focus on the business but the issue of plastic waste is too pressing.
A product can be damaging to the environment in so many different ways that there’s a real need for eco-friendly alternatives, and businesses have to take a role. The customer is always right but they don’t know everything and businesses need to take that responsibility.
What spurred you on to create Plastic Phobia?
I’ve always wanted to start a business but I think it is essential to find something you’re passionate about. I’ve also always been eco-conscious but when I started researching plastic, I found a business opportunity and it all went from there.
It is so difficult to find plastic-free suppliers. We’ve gone from an online shop to wholesale as we found suppliers will send products individually wrapped in plastic. It’s important to build trust with customers that you’re committed to zero waste throughout the supply chain. It’s comparable to the situation with child labour and Primark; customers want to know the real story about it.
You’re a student… How do you work the business into your daily life?!
I just quit uni to focus on the business! I struggled with time. I just tried doing the first week of lectures this term but ended up having to sacrifice all parts of uni life for the business. I’m taking a year out so I have the option to go back next September. I think it’s a great opportunity to grow the business.
How did you decide which products to sell?
I looked on Facebook groups about niche markets, like zero-waste Facebook groups, and saw what products they were looking for and which they recommended in the comments sections.
But I want to move away from traditional plastic-free products like shampoo bars and steel straws. Customers want to replace everything with plastic-free alternatives, so you can really make your own market. For example, for Christmas we’re bringing out an organic bamboo phone holder because customers are already thinking of what they can get for Christmas that is eco-friendly, but gift receivers might not necessarily be interested in plastic-free so it has to be useful to them too.
How did you go about sourcing your plastic free products? Where are you finding them?
Our main supplier is in China, his business card has a symbol which means ‘no plastic.’ I’ve met him and we’ve worked closely, he sent us bamboo toothbrushes with no plastic whatsoever except for the strip around the packaging. We looked for every steel straw manufacturer in China before settling with our current one.
At first I did look for Sheffield suppliers because it’s known as a ‘steel city’ but after contacting many steel manufacturers it turns out they can’t make straws because they are so small. Everything is made in China – that makes things easy and affordable, and affordability is key.
Who is your main market?
We’re not selling to many students, probably because they don’t have much disposable income. Our main market seems to be women of about university age, around 18 – mid-forties.
We noticed that you’ve clarified which products are vegan, cruelty free, or palm oil free etc… How important are the wider ethics of the products to you? Will this continue to be a priority as your business grows?
I think it’s very important because it’s what people want these days: there’s a demand for ethical and plastic free everything e.g. getting rid of plastic lunch-boxes, flasks. However getting rid of single-use plastic is more important than reusable plastic items because replacing all plastic comes at a cost with the energy needed to dispose of the plastic. Minimalism is the way forward.
Customers generally want to be as eco-friendly as possible. Bamboo is fantastic – it can be grown organically without pesticides or herbicides with only water, and can grow in around 3 or 4 years. Some can grow 4 feet in just a day, so it’s very important in the future.
Reducing plastic use is really difficult to put it into practise. It’s a step-by-step process, you can’t do it all at once. As more people start reducing their plastic waste, companies will take note and realise it could be part of their branding and they will react to that consumer trend.
What has been the response to your business so far?
It’s been brilliant. At the moment, we’ve got 2 types of customer; individuals who make their purchases via the online shop, and actual shops that we supply. Both love PP, it’s been overwhelming. We’re actually suffering from uncontrolled growth, so we’re trying to control it now and take it more slowly so that quality isn’t sacrificed.
Do you have a business plan?
Planning more than a few weeks ahead is mad because you’re just guessing. I first applied for a business bank account and projected £3000 revenue for the year but we’ve already gone over that. I’ve got a vision but not a plan.
Other than the plastic-free or zero-waste suppliers, I’m mainly running the business on my own.
I will eventually have to take on employees in the future. Our student house is a warehouse at this point so the next step is to move into business premises.
Are you optimistic about the probability that plastic free alternatives will enter the mainstream market?
Very! And I think they already are. Supermarkets have almost everything wrapped in plastic of some kind, but on social media customers are complaining – there was recently a petition going around to get Walkers to ditch their single-use, non-recyclable crisp packets, which has since resulted in the company announcing a recycling scheme. Plastic is everywhere, even cardboard glue uses plastic. But in the future companies will take note, and it will happen very soon.
What wisdom can you share with students who might now be inspired to create something like Plastic Phobia?
Find support. For example in Sheffield, the council offers various services, and the university provides mentoring and advice for business plans and marketing. I’m planning to approach Sheffield University newspapers and media (for more exposure).
People want to help you; they won’t steal your business ideas. At first I didn’t want to tell people my business idea but I’m glad that I did. When customers, suppliers and even competitors are all passionate about the environment, everyone is on your side.
Check out Plastic Phobia’s online shop here. You can also see what they’re up to on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. For more tips on how to reduce your plastic waste in everyday life check out our Lifestyle section. Tell us how you go plastic free in the comments!