Part 1/6: Sustainably Ethical: Business Not As Usual at Out of Eden
Out of Eden: Business not as usual
“Business as usual” just isn’t what it used to be.
Once it was about the personal touch of smaller businesses offering impeccable service and products at honest prices, whatever the weather or circumstance. Now what we get from some companies and corporations is empty promises and a cynical tick -boxing approach to sustainability and social responsibility while they carry on much as before with Business. As. Usual.
But what if a better kind of business could become the norm? Here at Out of Eden, we’ve been carrying out business not as usual for more than two decades, doing what we can on-site to green our operations by reducing waste and electricity consumption, encouraging employees to walk to work or car-share with innovative schemes that reward those who do with extra holiday for the sacrifices they make, answering our own phones when customers call through for information, advice and support or with complaints, and giving back some of our profits to communities, whether locally in Cumbria or further afield in Africa.
Quietly, we’ve gone about the business of doing business differently, taking our cue from the small but increasing number of great British businesses placing value on their workers, community and a more sustainable bottom line instead of simply “following the money”. Ethical businesses which – in the words of Anita Roddick, founder of the Body Shop – “prove that you can be successful and still keep your sense of soul; you can make a profit and still be a force for social change”.
We’re wondering now though if the time has come to make a little more noise. Whether it is time perhaps not just to walk the walk, but to talk about it too. To talk about why we think it’s worth the effort to stand up for good business being usual. To talk about the how and why of what we’ve done that has worked, in the interest of sharing best practices, but to talk also about what’s left to be done to make our business more sustainable. If, as some contend, sustainability really is being hijacked by fat cat corporations masquerading as man’s best friend, then perhaps it’s time for the sleeker cats among us to reclaim it. Because yes, sustainability sells but it’s what it serves that’s important and that’s something, surely, that we should all be talking about.
At Out of Eden, we’ve kicked against talking about sustainability partly because it isn’t always exactly clear what it refers to – sustainability at its most simple being about our duty as individuals, organisations, businesses, societies, countries or even as a species to minimise the negative environmental and social impacts of our activities, to ensure that future generations will have adequate resources to meet their needs – but also because we know there’s still so much left to do in making our business sustainable. Perhaps, though, it’s the journey that’s important, not just the goal – the means that have meaning, as well as the ends. Janet Hartley, our co-founder, puts it this way:
We’re not yet where we want to be but we’ve come a long way from the starting line, just being mindful, and doing what we believe we should be doing. Perhaps that is something we need to share.
A values-based approach to business
So just where did Out of Eden’s journey begin?
When Ian and Janet Hartley bought a small Cumbrian business supplying the hospitality industry from a converted milking shed in Hartley in Cumbria’s upper Eden Valley more than twenty-four years ago, they wanted to build a business with people and the planet at its heart, as well as profit; a business based on good service not only to their customers but also to the community, future generations and the planet.
Janet – in Ian’s words, quite simply “my conscience, my feet of clay” – grew up on a “tidy” farm in rural Kenya, where the path from the rubbish pile out the back was well trodden by the community finding a use for things that had been thrown away. This is why the bin we use today for rubbish destined for landfill is not much larger than a bin for a family of four – its modest size a tribute to a lot of hard work separating office, food and product-related onsite waste for composting, reuse and recycling.
Ian’s values, too, infuse what we do: his passion for engaging with customers, the people at the heart of our business, driving our efforts to first understand our customers’ needs, then source or develop the products to meet those needs – be that with a washable pillow that stays plump, a zipped pillow protector to save on washing, or a muddy boots tray to protect carpets. Mirroring our values through our business practice is what we’re all about.
It’s why from the first year Out of Eden turned a profit, Janet and Ian have ensured that at least 10 per cent of our profit is donated to a wide range of charities and community projects – a commitment to tithing that is rooted firmly in the couple’s shared Christian faith.
The maxim of people and planet as well as profit is if anything more important to our business today than it was twenty four years ago, now that we’ve grown from a small family business to a company with 80 team members and a 5 acre site, selling more now in a day than we sold in our first year.
After our first managing director joined us in 2015, we set out to create a Vision and values statement that formalises who we are and what we stand for.
It’s important to our vision that profit is mentioned not first but last: yes, performing well financially is the bottom line – a company that is trying to do the right thing still has to do alright after all – but it’s a line that underscores rather than overwrites our larger commitment to our customers and the environment.
This vision keeps faith with the three pillars of sustainability – economy, environment, and society – without mentioning the word sustainability even once, and for MD Mike Gannon:
It’s about a vision for our business which measures success by doing things the ‘right’ way. By treating team members and customers well and ensuring that our business offer is attractive enough for us to make a profit and be able to reinvest in the business and do some good for others as a result of those profits. I was attracted to join Out of Eden by the business ethos I could see running through it and I haven’t been disappointed.
Story so far, story to come
So much for today’s big picture. In a series of blogs to come, we’ll be talking more about how we do things. Why orders placed with us after 3 pm on a Friday afternoon are dealt with first thing on Monday morning, rather than Friday night. Why our new trade showroom sells posh Clipper teas and coffee and why it doesn’t stock bleaches and cleaning products that harm the environment. We’ll be looking at procurement and product development – talking about how and where we source some of our more sustainable products, while reflecting honestly on what more perhaps we could and should be doing to purchase and market more sustainable product lines, as well as the barriers to doing so.
We’ll show you around our site to give you a glimpse of what we’re doing to green our operations, and we’ll introduce you to new and longer serving members of our team, talking about those aspects of our business culture that make us rather different.
We’ll be talking about what we have done to give back to the community, locally and globally, and past and present, as well as sharing our hopes to do more for rural Cumbria in the years to come.
And throughout all of this, we’ll be asking questions. What does it take to truly green a business? What does it cost, in terms of lower profit margins, time, or productivity, and who or what benefits – the worker, the community, the environment or the company itself – in a world where investors, consumers, and even job seekers are becoming increasingly aware of and concerned about the social and environmental responsibilities of businesses and corporations?
Sustainability is many things: a process of questioning as much as a set of answers, a journey as much as a goal, a moral imperative, and a vision of a better way forward for businesses, society, individuals and communities. Above all, it is a dialogue and a story that grows in the telling. In trying to stay true to a sustainable bottom line, we believe our business has a lot to share with other businesses – especially those small ones within our core customer base – not only about what should be done, but what can be done.
For all it’s far from ordinary, nothing we do is exceptional and there’s little we do that can’t be done better. With our journey far from over, then, we’re hoping you’ll join us in a journey that all of us can share, whether you’ve been with us for some twenty years, or found us more recently through our online site. Together, we can build sustainable alternatives to business as usual wherever we are, in our homes as well as workplaces.
We might not get there in a day, or even in a decade. We might not get there at all. But it’s how far from the start line we can get, that might yet make all the difference.