Community and Commerce: In Conversation with EthiCo

Maddie Cava-Beale, co-founder of sustainable brand EthiCo, talks us through the challenges of setting up an eco-friendly company, where to find ethically made products, and more.

Firstly, could you give us a brief history of your company and what inspired you to start EthiCo?

EthiCo was originally made up of four students from the University of Southampton. We came together via mutual friends who had different ideas on how to tackle the plastic waste issue at our University. I had the idea of offering sustainable alternatives to stationery, paper, etc. and the boys wanted to tackle disposable coffee cups. This was two years ago and hardly anyone knew about the dangers of plastic waste, so it was still a new issue that we wanted to raise awareness for but also offer people alternatives to address it as well. I met Maria through the Green Action society who found wholesale prices for a variety of products and we all decided to meet to discuss these ideas. At the end of the meeting, we decided to make a business!

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What sort of products do you sell? How did you come up with the ideas/ designs for them?

We started off with reusable coffee cups as we felt that this was a good first step for people to take that could reduce our customers’ plastic footprint quickly. It was also something that people didn’t realise was not recyclable. This allowed us to open up the conversation with people on why these products were important and get them thinking about other areas of their life where plastic could be reduced.

This moved on to our Essentials Pack, which contains a range of sustainable and ethical items to reduce other areas of plastic waste, such as sustainable stationery, a bamboo toothbrush, a Fairtrade tote bag, and a recycled pad of A4 paper. We have also now moved on to producing our own products and offer reusable bamboo squares to combat the waste of cotton rounds. The zero-waste campaign is evolving at a very fast pace and we are trying to stay ahead of the curve and anticipate where it will be heading next, so we have the products ready to offer.

How do you ensure your production process is sustainable?

We work with companies that have a transparent production line and use certifications where we can. We also use the most sustainable materials that are available, which is why we are moving away from the plastic reusable cups to other materials. Before, these materials weren’t as accessible but with the zero-waste movement, thankfully, these are now becoming affordable. Out of everything, bamboo is the best material to use as it is in abundance and grows back quickly once cut down, as the roots are left behind. We also love the use of recycled materials, so we choose this where we can.

There will usually be a trade off with sustainable decisions, such as do we choose locally made products with less sustainable materials, or the better material with the added carbon footprint of the delivery? So, we put all of this information onto our products information page so our customers can make that decision for themselves and choose what is most sustainable for them.

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What have been the major challenges to setting up the company so far?

We have been very lucky and won funding from our Student Enterprise Competitions at our University, so money wasn’t an issue in getting our products. I would say our main challenge has been keeping up with new ideas of how people can reduce their plastic waste. For example two years ago, the coffee cups did very well as no one had a reusable cup. They still do well now, but not in the same numbers. This is great because our customers are listening to the environmental issues! It just means we have to keep on top of what the next new product will be that will be of use. That is also part of the fun though. It would be boring if we only sold coffee cups for the next 10 years.

We are also a group of students, so we have done this alongside our studies. This has been challenging at times but also a nice break from studying when we want to challenge ourselves in different ways.

What have been the major successes and responses from customers so far?

Our main success is when we raise awareness for why people need to change their outlook on certain disposable items. For example, we started selling reusable makeup wipes this year and so many people have never thought about how many cotton rounds they dispose of. Once they realise, they become very keen to make that change. It’s nice to see a customer excited about these new products and know that they have reduced their plastic footprint even a little more than before. It is these small changes for everyday items that will eventually lead to a great reduction in disposable waste for each individual.

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Why do you think the sustainable living movement seems to have gathered so much momentum in recent years?

I think that children are being better educated on environmental issues, and so these issues are becoming more well known in adulthood. We also need to give a lot of credit to Sir David Attenborough for making the issue of plastic waste mainstream via Blue Planet. Our newsfeeds exploded with information on plastic waste once this happened and it has really been game-changing in making people interested. I think we are also starting to see that the damaging effects of disposable culture is happening now. 100% of animals tested in the UK contained microplastics in their stomachs. Species are dying out because they are thinking plastic is food. People are angry and change needs to happen immediately.

Another important shift in the issue of plastic waste is the change from focusing on recycling to using reusable products. We have been told that recycling was the answer for a long time, however, we now know that two thirds of what we recycle ends up in landfill anyway and other countries have stopped taking in our recycling as there is too much piling up. The sustainable living movement acknowledges this and encourages people to stop this problem at the source and stop using disposable products.

As well as running the business, you also run campaigns tackling issues such as homelessness, could you tell us a little more about these?

We see three main areas that we focus on in terms of environmental issues. The first is the individual. We provide reusable products, so the individual can reduce their own plastic footprint. The second is the local community. There will be a greater impact by providing local services and events that will help their constituents to reduce their waste. The third is society. There need to be laws in place to ban disposable plastic and force manufacturers to produce sustainable packaging.

We believe that these three are all linked. By being part of the movement and helping individuals reduce their own plastic waste, this will create a momentum of people who are fighting for environmental issues. We acknowledge that one person buying a coffee cup won’t solve the issue of plastic waste. However, having a significant portion of the population making this change will force manufacturers and government to listen and make these changes.

We are a small company and our aim is to improve our local community as much as possible to make it easier for our customers to make changes, and to be a part of this global momentum for change. This is why we started working with other issues of waste. So many clothes go to landfill every year, which are perfectly fine to wear. We organised a clothes collection in student halls to collect these unwanted clothes and stop them from going to landfill. These then went to the Society of St James homeless charity in Southampton, where the clothes go directly to the people who need it. This addresses the issue of clothes going to landfill, and we are able to do something positive for the people who could use a helping hand in our community. We hope this also raises awareness of the disposable culture within the clothing industry and encourage people to donate at other times of the year as well.

You’re also passionate about giving people ideas to live a more eco-friendly life; what are your top three sustainability tips that people can incorporate into their everyday lives?

  1. Reuse! There are reusable products for pretty much everything now , enabling us to address this problem and the source. Everyone is different, and some may go through 10 coffee cups a week and another person may use 20 cotton rounds every week. My advice would be to make a list of what your main disposable items are and look for alternatives for those. Also, this includes reusable wrapping paper. Everyone uses this and it’s an easy change to either use brown paper or reusable fabric.
  2. Use locally made products. This will have the greatest impact on your carbon footprint and will support local businesses.
  3. Buy better quality clothes that will last longer. We shop too much and throw away too many clothes as a society. We need to buy less and buy from ethical companies. Follow them on social media so you have a list of places to choose from when you need a new product, rather than buying impulsively at the high street.

Aside from your own company, what other sustainable brands are you fans of?

Although there are some great ones around the world, I prefer to use UK based companies. Some of my favourites are:

  • Rapanui– these guys have amazing plastic waste designs and use sustainable clothing from the Isle of Wight.
  • Big Wild Thought– they are based in Sheffield, use plastic free packaging and donate 10% of the profits to the relevant charities!
  • Outside In– an amazing company based in Belfast that donates a free blanket or beanie with every purchase. Their clothes are amazing too!
  • Descended from Odin– they are based in Newark and have Viking style clothing in sustainable fabric, and also donate 10% of their profits to environmental charities.

These are our personal favourites but I would encourage everyone to search for local businesses in their area. Every day new businesses are coming along that focus on sustainable materials so keep searching!

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What are your plans for the future for EthiCo?

EthiCo was built by students for the benefit of students at our University. We are now graduating and are looking to expand in our own local areas. From next year we will be focusing on selling a greater variety of products from small manufacturers in our local areas to reduce the carbon footprint of our products and promote local businesses. We will, of course, continue with our campaigns and look for more ways to help our local community. We will be sad to leave Southampton but will continue to stock our products in the local shops and attend market stall events over the Summer and Christmas periods.

You can check out EthiCo’s products on their website, and follow them on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

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