Do you want to become a sustainable business owner?
Do you want to own a sustainable business? A business that is related to the change you want to make in the world, that uses your unique experience and turns it into a thriving business that nurtures and sustains you.
If so, our new interview series – SUSTAINABILITY IN BUSINESS - is for you. A golden opportunity to listen and learn as two established sustainable business owners explore what is sustainability in business, and how to create a business that is sustainable for you, the people around you, and the planet.
We want to motivate you to act, by sharing top tips from the people who have been there and done it. These might be mindset tips, practical tips like how to source raw materials or packaging, or marketing tips, or something else entirely!
This is the first of our sustainable business owner interviews, and I'm joined by YogaClicks’ maker Laura Thomas, Founder of Laura Thomas Co -a sustainable homeware and self-care business where everything is inspired by Laura’s love of nature. The brand is home to several much-loved products including a lavender pillow spray which is brilliant for sleep, a range of soy Coastal Candles, and a natural hand sanitizer. Laura also plays host to sell-out candle making courses!
Lucy: So many of the best sustainable businesses are rooted in a desire to make a change in the world. What change do you see as being important and how did it give rise to Laura Thomas Co.?
Laura: I lived in New Zealand for just under a decade, and Kiwis, compared to us Brits were far more ahead in terms of sustainability, living more naturally. Kiwis tend to live much more rurally than us Brits, and everyone's a little bit more spread out, so people really got into being natural and sustainable. And so, living in New Zealand taught me a lot about living a sustainable life, and it really appealed to me because I was brought up on a farm in Scotland - so growing veggies and things like that already appealed to me.
My partner and I separated in 2014, and I came back to Scotland. I took what I had learned about sustainability and living naturally in New Zealand to develop the brand that you see now.
Lucy: What was your first product? You had a bit of a pivot, didn't you?
Laura: When I first started Laura Thomas there was beautiful colourful bedding at the high end of the market, but there wasn't the equivalent of the White Company in New Zealand. I saw a bit of a gap in the market for a British white fabric look. When I moved back up to Scotland the market in the UK was saturated with white textiles and bedding, and I would have been competing with historic brands like John Lewis, and the White Company and so yes, I really had to pivot!
I went down the route of candles - natural candles and scents. My message to market was about burning a candle that was scented with a natural wax soil, with no paraffin mixed in it, and scented with essential oils, as opposed to synthetic chemicals. I wanted to let people know that these candles and scents are better for your health and better for the air quality in your house.
The brand has really expanded from there. We’re now, not only in people’s homes, but very much in the plastic-free boutique hotel market, which seems to be really taking off with boutique hotel brands looking to get natural and refillable toiletries for their bathrooms. This makes me happy because it's my pet hate to go to a hotel and see a shelf full of the little plastic minis. New York City, which is always very much ahead of the trend in terms of trends, is looking to ban single use plastic toiletries by 2024 which is exciting!
Lucy: Fantastic! So, you would provide them with recyclables presumably?
Laura: Yes, but they're bigger glass bottles or plastic - big refillables! Every single product that we make is refillable - our clients can buy a shampoo which is completely natural, it's got no chemicals in it, and they can refill it.
And as I mentioned to you before we're bridging the gap between luxury and sustainability. We find that our clients look for luxury products that can be refilled, and we've made it easier for them to do that. A lot of the bigger, luxury brands are struggling with this now. How do they make their beautiful soaps or hand soaps more sustainable? It all comes down to packaging – it’s all about how to make a refill look stylish.
Lucy: What is your packaging made from currently?
Laura: We have glass, and our refill pouches are little paper pouches, but they have a plastic lining so they can be recycled. I'm so excited that soon our clients will be able to send us back their refill pouches, and they will go off to a special place where they can get properly recycled and we can reuse them again. This will be launching very soon. And we will have an initiative where clients will be able to buy refills and build points - a bit like going to get a coffee.
Lucy: How do you go about finding a packaging supplier who shares your values?
Laura: A lot of Google researching in the beginning! And the longer that we have been in the industry, the more we come across different suppliers. It's fantastic to build up a relationship with a company that you can partner and develop ideas with together. All our packaging is made from paper from recycled coffee cups, and I love the fact that the process that take the plastic film off the inside and then mashes it all down is done in a factory in England, and the print house that we use, uses eco solvent inks. So again, it's not toxic to the environment, and it can be easily recycled. So, everything that we do at Laura Thomas is very carefully thought about.
Lucy: Inks can be a particular problem for pollution. With our Breathe t shirts and sweatshirts we use eco-friendly inks. Some people claim that they're a sustainable t shirt maker but then they forget the ink - you've got to really look at all the different elements in the supply chain.
Laura: We try and be as plastic free as possible so we use cardboard boxes to actually ship our products in, and we secure and pack the boxes with eco-chips made out of corn starch. We had a bit of a bet once in the office. I lost the bet and I had to eat an eco-chip! It tastes a bit like a Wotsit without the cheese!
Eco-chip tasters aside, we have very little waste as a business. The rubbish that we throw out is very minimal and we re-use whatever we can. For example, when we work wholesale we reuse the plastic wrap we get with our deliveries – so we put a little note into the package asking the wholesaler to reuse it as well. So, we're just trying to minimise the waste that we as a business have, as well as helping our clients reduce waste as well.
Lucy: That’s great. We go to our local department store and pick up cardboard boxes from them and then use them to send our packages on to our customers. To begin with they weren't quite sure what to make of us hanging around at their unboxing point but now they're glad to be able to provide them to another local business.
Did you have experience in creating candles? How did you go about bringing your idea to life?
Laura: I have always really been into natural beauty and alternative beauty products but as an industry it has moved light years in the last decade. If 10/15 years ago you’d bought natural deodorant, it was average; it didn’t really didn't work. Now you know the products that are out there are good. You don't have to have some hippy thing that may or may not work. I am an absolute candle fanatic! I'm quite obsessed with creating a beautiful, sophisticated scent – when you walk into someone's house it says a lot about them. I have been able to bring sophisticated products for natural living into the mainstream.
Lucy: You're doing some candle workshops during September and October aren’t you?
Laura: It started when COVID hit us back in February last year. I flipped my real-world events online and that's been hugely successful; it's been fun to get a whole bunch of people (I think with 53 people one night), all making candles from various areas around the UK. It was brilliant and felt so good.
Lucy: How did you go about creating the look and feel of the brand itself?
Laura: I'm slightly creative myself. Originally, I did a lot of the design work - created my logo and printed them off but then it got to the point where I wanted to take it to the next level and I knew I couldn't do it on my own. So, I put it out on Facebook to a lot of my Kiwi friends. “Does anyone know a really good designer? "I was looking for someone who understood the Kiwi colourful vibe and was really lucky to be pointed in the direction of a Kiwi who is based in Copenhagen in Denmark. He has taken on my design work and done a fantastic job of it - analysing the ethos of the brand and getting that brand feel across, picking the right colours and other design elements. We won bronze recently in a very highly accredited London international design award, and we were up against design packaging from Seedlip and another brand in New York. We were delighted!
Lucy: Did you just have a chat with him, or did you need to fill something in or give him a formal brief with your values, your personality?
Laura: We had various WhatsApp video calls and then Zoom meetings and I just really conveyed to him that I wanted to keep the Kiwi vibe; that bright, sunny, happy, relaxed, barefoot vibe. He really got that. Interestingly, he came to me with a few different designs, and when I picked one, he said to me, “Actually I chatted to my colleagues about this, and we feel that that is not the right one for your brand.” So, I was a good client… I said “Okay, you are the professional; I trust you. Let’s roll with the one that you feel it’s best to go with.” And so, we went with that and I'm really glad we did!”
Lucy: I worked in advertising for over 20 years and it was a very rare client who would say, “You're right!” Normally they would say, “I've asked my husband or wife or my children, and this is what they think, so that’s what we should do!” It’s good advice you’re giving - if you're going to employ a professional then take their advice!
Laura: I've been very lucky, but I think the best advice would be to shop around and work with someone that you feel is right in your gut. Someone you can really work with. I've been working with Mike for about two years, and we just keep going with him and for any new products we have coming out - he will be our chief designer.
Lucy: I am sure he will be glad to hear it! Have you got other people working with you now on a full time basis?
Laura: I've had part time staff up until about a year ago where there was a real need for full time staff. At this moment in time, the team is two full time staff members. We will be expanding the lab towards the end of the year; we've just invested in semi-automatic filling machines for the production side of things which I felt really important to get in place before getting another actual man or lady on board to try and quicken up the production process. I think it will be worth the investment moving forward because we can produce a lot more within a shorter timescale than we have been doing.
Lucy: So you have your own workshop for most of your products?
Laura: Yes, I feel really passionate about not outsourcing our products. One - because we have absolute quality control on them. Two - because I feel that the UK needs to produce much more in this country. Really interestingly I was on a Zoom call with Boris Johnson's business adviser, with a panel of founders at grassroots levels. We talked about how we have navigated through the COVID era and one of the things I wanted to stress to the PM’s advisor was that manufacturing is so important for the UK. I'm really passionate about creating jobs in our country, keeping my money circling around the UK, and so when I increase production and production capacity I would never ever go off into Europe or over to China to produce our products. They will always be made in Scotland. Made in the UK.
Lucy: Do you have a production manager to help you?
Laura: At the beginning it was a “mom and pop” situation - or just mum in my case! Having done the whole slightly cliched thing of kitchen table to taking on staff to increasing the size of a workshop – I’ve just slowly expanded that way. At this moment in time, I'm not going into the investor route. Any investment has just been sales money reinvested in the company - year on year trying to keep growing it.
Lucy: Most sustainable businesses don’t have a big marketing budget to begin with; you've got to do it on a shoestring. What works for you and how did you get the brand off the ground initially?
Laura: Word of mouth is the strongest marketing any brand can do. I started selling products to friends and family members, and word has spread slowly but surely that way. Instagram is fantastic for us. People really enjoy our vibe and the content that we're putting out there and we seem to have picked up a lot of new followers that way.
For us it's about growing our market base slowly and powerfully, rather than exploding it, and then having people leave our Instagram page. We want people to buy an authentic product and stay with us for life, as we grow. We'd love for them to try our new products and we want to keep our customers happy, as much as we can.
Lucy: Do you have do paid for advertising or do you pay for PR or anything like that at all, or is it all just done through organic growth.
Laura: We've been doing a lot more digital advertising this year. The marketing side is tough because you don't know if you should spend money on this, or that, and what the return is going to be. The paid advertising we do is Facebook and Instagram, which seems to work quite well for us. I recently took on a full-time marketing manager. Ellen oversees all that side of things, and she's put a few things in place in the last few months, and they are working well.
I did have a PR agency at one point; I trialled it for about six months but I felt it was quite hard to see the return. Maybe I didn't give it a long enough shot - they do say that you really need to give it six to twelve months but it's a very expensive gamble and at that stage I wasn't quite ready for it.
We're lucky enough to have lots of tools we can use without paying. And there's other platforms coming through like TikTok, and LinkedIn is another one that people are shouting about at this moment in time. The algorithms are fair, whereas platforms like Facebook and Instagram are getting more and more about the paid side of advertising, so if you want to be known on those platforms, you've really got to pay for it.
Of course, it all takes time, but I feel it's worth it. It's worth it to get an engaged audience, and for people to enjoy and learn from you. For them to be inspired. For us to help them solve problems that they may have in their life. And the problem that we are really helping to solve for people is how to be more sustainable at home.
Lucy: So please talk a little bit more about that. I think that you have some tips you'd like to share on how people can be sustainable at home. Aside from using a Laura Thomas candle of course!
Laura: Top tip number one for being more sustainable at home, is to ditch clingfilm. I think clingfilm is not a good thing. We use butter boxes, plastic boxes and other little containers that you get when you buy your food. Just wash them out, keep them in a cupboard and pull them out when you need them.
Top tip number two would be to have separate bins to separate waste - so you've got your plastic bin and your paper bin. I use Brabantia recycling bins which are fantastic and they come in really nice colours – you can fit these bins to your wall and they look quite pretty.
Other sustainable tips would include buying products that can be refilled - for example hand washes and hand sanitizers. In the last six months we’ve started getting milk delivered in old fashioned bottles, which is brilliant. I remember that as a child, and it's great things like this are coming back. The milk arrives on our doorstep every Monday and Thursday and we get Harry's organic cow's milk for our coffees. It's just looking at different things like that; supporting the local bakery and butcher and just trying to support local where you can.
Lucy: So, what are your three tips for creating a sustainable business? What are the three things that you wish you had known when you first started out, that you'd like to pass on to this community?
Laura: The first point would be that, really, the customer is the hero, not the bank! It's all about solving problems for clients and the first one would be solving any external problem.
And the second point it to solve an internal problem - you want someone to feel good about themselves by using your product or service, whatever that may be.
And the third thing is to deliver or produce a product that has a deeper meaning. And in our case that is about all about sustainability and natural products that go further than just the client using them.
It's about the waste of that product going down the sink, for example ; going into our waterways which affects the fish and you know the bigger knock on effect. Had I known this right at the beginning when I started my brand, I probably would be maybe further ahead to where I am on my own sustainability journey, and sustainable journey. But I think it is very much thinking bigger picture and how you as a brand can help people make themselves feel better and help to make life easier for them, as well as giving greater meaning to what they're doing by using your product or your service, and I know you do that as well with your brand YogaClicks. I have some of your recycled plastic leggings, which I love. I absolutely love them not only that they look so cool, but because they have greater meaning, for me and for you. For me, buying from your place solves the problem that I want to feel good about myself when I am doing yoga, and I want what I am wearing to help the planet, as well as helping myself, because yoga is obviously a form of meditation and it's great for the body and the soul. So, if I'd known these things, I think I would have taken a stronger path towards these deeper things. Right from the start.
Lucy: I think getting clear right at the beginning about the change that you want to make in the world is important. Also, why it’s important to you. And then, how to go about delivering that change. Ask yourself those three questions and get really clear on that then you can lay down fundamentals of what your brand is about from the beginning.
People are much more likely to get engaged if you're able to share your “why” - your personal story. Which you do well Laura, through your website and your social media. Sharing a picture of your children on the beach - you don't have to use so many words to communicate what that is about. You are clear in that picture that what you're doing is preserving the planet, and your children’s happiness and health. Super clear visual communication is key, and doing that right from the beginning, supporting it with strong storytelling really works.
I've worked in advertising for many years and I do marketing for yoga teachers and ethical businesses now and I always start with those questions, what is the change you want to make? And why do you want to make it? Interestingly when I first came to set up YogaClicks’s online yoga shop I wanted to support the creativity of the yoga community, because I'd written books out of yoga and I knew the power of yoga to help us to create because it removes the roadblocks or the internal chatter and helps you get to clear on your intention. It was that that got me recruiting yogis, and then I realised that everybody was doing things sustainably, so I went at it the other the other way around to you. That was a very happy discovery; I never actually had to say “no” to a yogi maker on the grounds of sustainability - that's never been the problem. The problem is more likely to be issues with marketing or with brand imagery or with the products themselves but not never their responsibility to the planet.
Lucy: What's next for Laura Thomas? What's coming up in the next few months?
Laura: Well, very excitingly, we have a few new products. We've got new textiles coming including beautiful handmade woollen rugs from Morocco launching in September, and we have a new hand wash and hand and body lotion that we're working on now which is exciting. The smell is just divine! It's taken us since January to create this blend. There's been a lot of smelling going on, and a lot of coffee beans!
The big one will be spring summer next year. We are looking to get a bigger collection of natural and sustainable homeware, and textiles, for your house.
Lucy: I was looking at your amazing tie dye beach towels but they're all sold out!
Laura: Yes, they are, which is amazing. We will increase stock next year - we've had a fantastic response, which has been great. I hope everyone that bought one really enjoys using them because they're fun.
Lucy: You've got a sale on now, haven't you?
Laura: We have. We only do two sales a year - in January and in July. So, we really make it worth it for our clients. If you want to try something from our range, please do so at less cost! The sale runs for the whole month of July. We're discontinuing our bedding, which was the product that the brand started with, but we feel it's far more beneficial to the brand to be concentrating on more natural and sustainable wellbeing products. Please go check the sale out and grab an absolute bargain!
Absolute pleasure talking to you Laura. Thank you for your time and generously sharing your advice. Good luck everyone.