Ahead of Earth Day (on April 22nd 2019), Starling team member Charlotte Lorimer spoke to three founders of businesses that sell alternatives to plastics. Here, she passes on their advice for starting and running an environmental enterprise.

In the UK, we use around 1.75 billion plastic bags each year and throw away an estimated 264 million toothbrushes and 4.7 billion plastic straws. Too many of these everyday items end up in landfills, in the sea or on beaches.

Beth Williams, founder of Turtle Bags, Rachel Beasley of The Good Brush Company, and Maxim Gellman who sells pasta straws through Stroodles, are three founders tackling the problem of plastic through their environmental enterprises.

Divider 1

Set clear intentions

“In 2001, I decided to set up a business that would do three things: raise awareness about plastic, provide sustainable alternatives and support communities,” says ecologist Beth, 55.

Through her business, Turtle Bags, she has hit all three targets. The bags she sells through her website are a visual reminder that plastic never goes away. An alternative to non-biodegradable bags that often end up in the ocean, they are made by women’s co-operatives in Bangladesh and Ecuador.

Beth Williams, founder of Turtle Bags, in Bangladesh where some of her jute bags are made.

Rachel, 45, set up her own business in January 2018. She wanted to work flexible hours and make a positive contribution to her children’s futures. “There was a project at their school to come up with an invention called Little Inventors. My daughter came up with an idea to help the environment and drew a picture of a sea plastic muncher. It made me think, if my six-year-old is thinking about this, there must be something I can do as a mum that could have an impact,” she says.

A few days later, she had a conversation with a dentist about rising child poverty and the number of children in the UK having their teeth extracted due to cavities, partly caused by a poor diet. “It made me question how I could marry the two - I wanted to respond to the global plastic crisis while also helping on a local level,” she says. For every bamboo toothbrush she sells through The Good Brush Company, one is donated to breakfast clubs and food banks via the Huddersfield Town Foundation, who support local children.

Bamboo toothbrush, The Good Brush Company.

Maxim, 34, founded Stroodles in September 2018 to provide customers and restaurants with an environmentally-friendly alternative to plastic straws. Throughout his career, he has worked as a strategy consultant for several startups but this is the first business he has founded and run single-handedly. “All the commercial stuff was getting on my nerves and I wanted to do something with more impact. Somewhere I saw a pasta straw being used. The Italians have used them for years, often as a joke but not as an environmentally-friendly alternative to plastic straws. All these things clicked in my head and that’s when I decided to start Stroodles,” he says. “Pasta straws are so simple but can solve a big problem. One doesn’t need to be an eco-warrior, but by stroodling your drink, everyone can ’do good’ without changing their behaviours and compromising on drinking quality. I’m trying to make a difference and change the world.”

Divider 2

Source your product

Knowing where your products come from, who makes them and how they’re made is important for any business, even more so for social or environmental enterprises. It’s no good raising awareness for environmental issues if what you’re selling comes from a factory that puts chemicals into rivers or doesn’t look after employees.

“I went out to see the producers in India,” says Beth. “They have a big heart in the way that they employ people and work closely with a programme in Bangladesh that aims to empower vulnerable women. Many of them have escaped enforced prostitution and live in rural areas without many sources of income.” She has also been to Ecuador to visit the women who make bags for her through a similar programme.

Figuring out the details of how and where your product will be made can often be time-consuming. It took Rachel a year to research alternatives to plastic, source and audit suppliers and design her toothbrushes, made from bamboo with nylon bristles. “Until there’s an effective, biodegradable alternative, I’ve had to use nylon bristles - I can’t compromise on dental health,” she says. “But you can pull out the bristles before composting or disposing of the toothbrush handle, so that means the toothbrushes are 95% biodegradable.”

Maxim has also found that it’s taken lots of time and experimentation to craft a product that ticks all the boxes. His pasta straws are flavourless, vegan, biodegradable, edible, zero-waste and can be used in drinks for more than an hour.

Maxim Gellman, founder of Stroodles through which he sells pasta straws.

“The pasta straws are made in Italy from water and durum wheat semolina. It’s a very difficult shape to make, it takes 20 odd hours to dry and then they need to be cut. When I receive a batch, I often call the factory to ask to make them smoother and stronger. They obviously laugh at me - until I pay the bill.”

Divider 3

Decide on pricing

One of the biggest challenges for Maxim has been finding the right approach to pricing. “My background is tech so I come from a high-margin environment, but with this I need to try a more affordable price point, especially so that I can sell to restaurants and bars, as well as individuals,” he says.

Some of the straws he receives from the warehouse break during the manufacturing process or from delivery. So he has built this damage into his cost. All the broken straws are donated to food charities, which can then cook and eat them like normal pasta.

He sells a box of 50 pasta straws through his website for £9.99. For each sale a share of proceeds is donated to charities working to clean the oceans or land of plastic. “I plan on changing the charity each month and I want to support smaller charities as well as large ones,” he says.

A share of the proceeds from Stroodles goes to charities cleaning beaches and the ocean.

When Beth launched Turtle Bags back in 2001, for every bag sold, she donated 30p to the Marine Conservation Society. Over the years, this structure has evolved and she now donates £1 to the Marine Conservation Society for every e-coffee whale cup sold.

A big part of her mission is supporting initiatives through information, not just donations. Customers also receive information on the adopt-a-turtle scheme, encouraging further engagement with her cause.

As with all enterprises, cutting down overheads and business expenses can improve your margins so that more goes to a chosen charity, or back into growing the business. Starling’s mobile business accounts have no monthly fees and customers have access to tools that help them manage incomings and outgoings. Maxim decided to use Starling for his business account after a friend recommended it to him: “I wanted something purely digital. The app is easy to navigate, the notifications are good and I like that the account sorts the outgoings by the type of expense.”

Divider 4

Align your branding with your message

Once you’ve defined your mission, such as ’no more plastic,’ you need to find an effective way to communicate it through your name, logo and website.

When Beth first decided to start her business, she felt that turtles were a compelling example of how the environment could be impacted by human waste. “When leatherback turtles come to British waters, they mistake plastic bags for jellyfish,” she says.

Jute bag, made by a women’s cooperative in Bangladesh, Turtle Bags.

Rachel’s key message is ’Clean Teeth, Cleaner Sea’ - a concise way of explaining both her product and her cause.

Stroodles is a one word, quirky name that Maxim has found to be memorable and engaging for his customers. When you get this right, your customers can become even bigger advocates for your business, especially if they believe in your cause. He’s been contacted by a liqueur company, who are going to use Stroodles for tasting sessions instead of plastic straws, and a DJ in Italy who offered to wear a t-shirt or cap at his gigs that advertise Stroodles: “It’s been very rewarding, people want to help.”

Divider 5

Look into funding to grow your business

Both Rachel and Maxim have launched their ventures in the last six months and are currently self-funded. “If you manage to get external funding, it can make a big difference and enable you to achieve what you want to achieve,” says Rachel. “Crowdfunding and support from venture capitalists can also mean that your business is taken more seriously and you can gain more media attention.”

That said, timing your funding round is key. “You need to be careful about weighing up how much more you need to take the business into a better position,” says Maxim. “If I fundraise today, I’ll be giving away lots of the business, but if I hold on for another few months, I might be able to keep more control.”

Pasta straw, Stroodles
Divider 6

Keep your ideals in sight

Starting a business takes time, money and dedication. It isn’t easy but when you’re feeling low, remind yourself of the positive impact your business can make and find inspiration in the businesses that have stuck at it.

Unlike Rachael and Maxim, Beth has been running her business for almost twenty years: “Don’t take shortcuts or compromise. Stick to your principles and hold tight to your ideals, it runs through in the end. Bring integrity to your business - people will recognise and respond to it.”

Find out more about the featured businesses at Turtle Bags, The Good Brush Company or Stroodles. Maxim will also be selling his pasta straws at Greenhaus in Shoreditch as of the end of April.

Subscribeto blog updatesarrow-rightGrow your businessHelpful free business guidesarrow-right

Related stories

Latest posts