BUSINESS + POLITICS
The rise of sustainable online businesses
11th May 2021
Sustainable online businesses have flourished amid the pandemic, as Covid-19 restrictions appear to have had a positive effect on e-commerce. Within the growth of online business, many are opting to contribute to the effort of achieving sustainable principles. There are many definitions of sustainability; a commonly referenced understanding of sustainable development was offered in the Brundtland report in 1987, “Development which meets the needs of present generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
There are 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set by the United Nations to be achieved by 2030, that are often used as indicators to measure how far we have come and how much further we must go to implement sustainable practices globally. Small sustainable businesses that have emerged during the pandemic are particularly well placed to achieve two of the SDGs, namely, Goal 8: Decent work and Economic growth and Goal: 12 Responsible consumption and production. It is understood that a thriving economy can be conducive to a better quality of life. A report by the OECD in 2007 found “there is clear evidence to show that economic growth is an essential requirement and, frequently, the main contributing factor in reducing income poverty”, but where do we draw the line between sustainable and unsustainable consumption and production?
Sustainability has many facets in which businesses and consumers both have a part to play. The sourcing of materials, treatment of labour, packaging and the effects of mass production, are all elements of consumption processes that have garnered media attention in recent years. Most of us are familiar with the narrative of unscrupulous multinationals underpaying employees, working in deplorable conditions, making mass-produced poor-quality garments in factories, pumping out fossil fuels and waste into the environment. Most recently, major fasion brands including H&M, Zara and Adidas have come under fire for their links to the forced labour of Uighur Muslims in camps in China , who sourced “cotton and yarn produced through a vast state-sponsored system of detention and forced labour.”
As a society, we also must inherently change our relationship with how we consume. The fashion industry currently perpetuates notions of instant trends and fast fashion, which creates “an estimated 92 million tonnes of textiles waste each year”, and the fashion industry is alone responsible for, “10% of all greenhouse gas emissions, and 20% of global waste water.”
“During the Covid-19 pandemic, some have used the extra time at home to harness their entrepreneurial skills and turn passion projects into sources of income, while pre-existing businesses have benefited from the surge in sustainability–conscious buyers. Beautiful, unique and diversified products have emanated from this time of lockdowns and restrictions.”
Art, fashion and beauty are a few of the many areas in which people are creating and selling in this upsurgence of small and independent online businesses. The switch from high street to online purchasing is evident in every area of life and has specifically positively impacted the visibility of many small businesses who now promote themselves solely online. Apart from in-store essentials, consumers spend a good deal more time online, both shopping and on social media where creators use their platforms for marketing. A report in The Irish Times found “The Covid-19 pandemic saw growth in online sales last year surge to five times the average annual growth.”
The sustainable Irish business scene has grown exponentially since the first lockdown in 2020. I interviewed three small sustainable Irish businesses who use social media, specifically Instagram, to market themselves. All three businesses were founded and are run by young women. The first of which is Sew it Seams, run by Mairidh, who sells handmade clothing, specialized sewn garments including fleeces and tops. The second of which is Lemon Queen Vintage, owned by Chloe, selling vintage and handmade clothing and accessories including stain glass earrings. Finally, Shhillustrations ran by Sophie, who creates unique print illustrations, cards and graphics. The intent was to understand how the pandemic has impacted their businesses, their views on sustainability and how they implement sustainability practices in their business.
I firstly questioned whether the pandemic had positively affected the business and how so. Two of the three business interviewed emerged from the pandemic. Mairidh of Sew It Seams accredited the pandemic for giving her time to create her business, “suddenly I had so much free time and I decided to make myself a fleece and a sewing page to document my journey…it then started spiralling.” Mairidh now has amassed over 15 thousand followers on Instagram and has sold out various times after dropping her collection of fleeces.
Similarly, Shhillustrations was also born “in the middle of the pandemic”, as Sophie agreed that the situation was “definitely a good time for online business” and she “continues to get great engagement online”, with “lots of people sharing, commenting and liking.” Lemonqueenvintage pre-existed before the pandemic. Chloe mentioned the “conscious effort made by people to shop more local and sustainably”, and has been “super busy with custom and pre-made drops due to a high-demand for sustainable slow fashion.”
Importantly, I queried the businesses on how they implement sustainability into their business model. Mairidh explained, “I only buy what I need, when I need it and make all my fleeces with as little waste as possible.” As for waste, “I collect all the larger scraps and either sew them together and make them into something or donate them to sewing groups and schools for projects.” Chloe believes sustainability “can be made fun.” She elaborated, “all the clothing I sell is second hand, vintage or handmade by myself”, and she has in the past had “a special earring collection with all proceeds going to two charities dedicated to helping the Black Lives Matter movement”, and is keen to do something similar again. Sophie tries to “go paperless as much as possible by offering digital prints”, and does not use “excess packaging or anything non-recyclable”. Shhillustrations delivers mainly in Ireland and Sophie hand delivers orders in her surrounding area. Shhillustrations are “not mass produced, they are made to order.”
The business landscape is changing vastly due to the circumstances the pandemic has put us in as a society. Small and independent businesses are benefitting from ongoing advancements in e-commerce and are also paving the way for ethical businesses to thrive in a growing community of sustainability conscious shoppers. These communities of people who are buying less, while buying goods with longer life spans and of higher quality, who are conscious of those who make their goods and how they are being treated, will reduce the carbon footprint for all and are creating a fairer landscape. Consumer interest dictates how businesses operate, so we should all make sustainable purchases and watch as the industry adapts.