Consumers are increasingly conscious of where their dollars are going. Whether it's purchasing less wasteful toilet paper or buying toxin-free, vegan toothpaste, people care about what’s going into their body and how their purchase decisions impact the world around them.
While the term “sustainability” has been around for decades, only recently have more businesses embraced the concept by becoming more eco-friendly in their business models. And even though studies show that nearly 80% of Americans are more likely to purchase a product that is clearly labeled as environmentally friendly, many businesses are still playing catch-up—if they are playing at all.
This creates an environment that is ripe with opportunity for small businesses across virtually every industry to develop products and practices that are more sustainable. From fashion to consumer packaged goods to tech and beyond, “sustainability” is neither an industry nor a buzz word, but an ethic that should be embedded into all businesses for the greater good.
When it comes to creating more sustainable businesses, there are some entrepreneurs who’ve gotten it right. We talked to three Black business owners and thought leaders about how they’re harnessing the demand for sustainability within their respective industries and how aspiring entrepreneurs can do the same.
64% of Americans are willing to pay more for sustainable products.
“I think in the future, sustainability is going to be a base requirement. It’s not a fad or trend, it’s just how business is going to conduct [itself].”
—Derin Oyeka, Co-founder, Reel
78% of Americans are more likely to purchase a product that is clearly labeled as environmentally friendly.
Brian Mays started Smile Natural Products, a toxin-free and vegan essential-care company, out of necessity.
Mays, 32, went vegan in 2016 after his father was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. As he searched for ways to eliminate animal byproducts and harmful ingredients from his diet, he struggled to find plant-based oral care products at his local convenience store.
The California native started researching functional ingredients such as fluoride alternatives and began making his own natural toothpaste using ingredients like coconut oil, peppermint oil, cacao, and activated charcoal in his Brooklyn apartment. After receiving positive feedback from trusted friends, he launched Smile Natural Products in July 2017 with the brand slogan “We’re not just good for the environment, we’re good for you.”
In addition to using natural, plant-based ingredients in their oral products, Smile also reduces its waste by selling bamboo toothbrushes over plastic ones, which are tossed into landfills yearly. Smile is also in the process of transitioning to using plastic tubes derived from sugarcane, which are biodegradable. And their antibacterial mouthwash comes in a glass bottle, which Mays says is more expensive, but is another way to decrease their waste. They encourage customers to repurpose the glass bottles.
“We tend to put our purpose before profits in terms of how we navigate our business,” Mays says.“ [The decisions that we make are] largely geared towards how we can be impactful...not necessarily how we can sell as much toothpaste as possible.”
For their give-back model, Smile recently pivoted to focus on affordable access to dental-care, an issue that Mays and his team realized impacts several demographics—especially millennials, who often don’t have great dental coverage, if any at all. One dentist has committed to their new, developing program, and the Smile team is working to build a dental network in major metropolitan cities around the country.
When asked what excites him about entrepreneurs prioritizing sustainability within their business models, Mays says: “As we see [that] impacts of plastic waste really have global impact, I look forward to innovation and different bio plastics.”
He adds, “I hope that industries that are producing waste also find ways to repurpose some of the things that they currently have if they aren’t recyclable or can’t be reused.”
For the past two decades, Derin Oyekan has helped bring several diverse businesses to market ranging from a cat litter company to a Latin cooking brand. But it wasn’t until his now business partner, Livio Bisterzo, presented him with the idea to start an eco-friendly paper company that Oyekan found an opportunity to create a business that not only was good for the environment, but also provided a positive impact on the global sanitation crisis.
Reel launched in March 2019 selling tree-free, 100% bamboo-made toilet paper and paper towels. It started out with a direct-to-consumer strategy, but can now be purchased on Amazon or at select Target stores.
The company was built on the sustainable practice of using bamboo for its paper products instead of trees. Bamboo is the fastest-growing plant in the world and because it grows so quickly, it can be replenished instantly after being harvested. Using bamboo for paper products is prevalent in Asia, but it’s a relatively new concept for Westerners.
“We weren’t the first to build a bamboo toilet paper brand, but we feel like out of all the competition out there, we are probably the most elevated in terms of our brand messaging [and] our positioning,” he says.
All of Reel’s shipping materials are biodegradable and their packaging is plastic-free. Reel also includes a give-back element in their business strategy. For every package of Reel products someone purchases, fifty cents is donated to SOIL, an organization based in Haiti, to help provide clean toilets and remove waste from communities.
When asked about the future of sustainability within businesses, Oyekan says that as consumers start to demand eco-friendly products, smaller companies will likely be the game changers.
“Even though a lot of the big CPG (consumer packaged goods) brands are investing heavily in sustainability across the entire supply chain, it's a little harder for them because it’s just a bigger wheel to turn,” he says. “So I think smaller, scrappier brands can innovate and kind of force that conversation and force those changes.”
He adds, “I think the future of sustainability is going to be a base requirement. It’s not a fad or trend, it’s just how business is going to conduct [itself].”
For aspiring entrepreneurs, Oyekan recommends that they find a product that they’re passionate about and research ways that they can make it more eco-friendly.
“Whatever business you’re in, there’s always a better way. A more sustainable way to do it,” he says.
“It’s not product-category specific. It’s just looking at, ‘OK, within this category that I’m passionate about…how can I make the experience be better for the earth, better for people, and eliminate or just make it have as little negative impact on the earth as possible?’”
It’s no secret that electric vehicles are in a boom period. In August 2021, the Biden administration announced a new national target for electric vehicles to make up half of all new vehicle sales by 2030 in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Kameale C. Terry and Evette Ellis were ahead of the game when they launched ChargerHelp!, an on-demand repair mobile app for electric vehicle charging stations, in January 2020.
Terry, co-founder and CEO, started ChargerHelp! after recognizing a need in the industry. While working in customer experience at EV Connect, an electric-vehicle-charging management platform, Terry received calls from drivers who complained about charging stations being broken. And when technicians were called, they often didn’t know how to fix the problem.
Terry decided to leave her job and file the business license for ChargerHelp! shortly thereafter. A month later, she teamed up with her co-founder and Chief Workforce Officer, Evette Ellis, to launch the company. They now have 20 technicians who service stations in 11 states, with plans of hiring more technicians and expanding to additional states in 2022.
Ellis says that the boom happening within the electric vehicle space represents a major shift in the world’s economic infrastructure—similar to the shift that occurred when other major innovations such as the train, car, and internet were created. The current shift toward electric vehicles is something she says aspiring entrepreneurs should pay attention to.
“This is one of those shifts where it’s like, ‘I wish I had invested some time, energy, [and] effort into clean energy, into the EV infrastructure,” Ellis says. “So I’m really excited to see what this really, really transpires into.”
The views and opinions expressed in the articles and quotes on this page are those of the speakers or authors.
INSIGHTS & OPPORTUNITIES
Consider these ideas to help make your business more sustainable.
Give Some Thought to Give-Back
One accessible way for most businesses to dip their toes into sustainability is by implementing a give-back program—a business model that includes a direct community impact. It also incentivizes customers to support not just a brand, but a cause.
Make the Switch
Even if you’re not looking to launch a green business, you can still do your part to save our planet. Begin by swapping out your non-eco-friendly personal and household products for more sustainable ones. You can start by browsing BLK + GRN, an all-natural marketplace by Black artisans that connects Black people with natural lifestyles to high-quality, toxic-free brands that share in their mission of health, wellness, and community cultivation.
Go Green to Get Green
Going green is good for the planet and your business, but did you know it can also be good for your taxes? Check out this article from Intuit Turbotax on the top 4 tax breaks you can take advantage of by going green at work and home.