How I started ethical business ElephantBranded

ElephantBranded founder James Boon on the six rules he has followed to make his ethical company a success

Starting a business is one thing, but how do you start an ethical business? There’s a tricky balance to be had between the profit motives of start-ups, and the desire to achieve something worthwhile. But get it right, and a business can turn a reasonable profit, while making a genuine contribution to society.

In my case, I set up my business, ElephantBranded, after working and travelling in Africa and Asia, where the basic level of school equipment shocked me.

ElephantBranded sells ethically made, recycled bags and related products. For each product it sells, it donates a school bag and kit to a child in Africa or Asia.

We didn’t really plan to get to where we are now – initially I was only hoping to sell 50 or so bags and then send 50 school kits to South Africa. But being ethical has paid off for us: ElephantBranded products are selling well, including through John Lewis.

So what advice would I pass on?

Keep it simple

Transparency is vital, so customers can see how the money they spend is contributing to your ethical aims. More so than in a conventional business, your customers will have lots of questions – try and answer them all as best you can.

Create advocates

Then, people are your biggest strength. Allow them to volunteer, to get involved and to help out. These people will then also become your most effective sales staff – telling their friends, and spreading your message by word of mouth.

We have volunteers taking our school kits out to various countries, for example this summer four people rode through Vietnam from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City to give out the kits. We also have people going to Kenya to work in schools for three months, as well as giving their time for free back in the UK.

Pay fairly

While we have UK volunteers helping us, ElephantBranded pays fair, competitive wages to the people who make the bags, which are made from locally sourced, recycled materials in Cambodia and other countries. Working for us also gives people the opportunity to learn valuable skills that give them a sustainable, effective way to get out of poverty.

Find a mentor

You need to get the right people around you to run the company. My business partner Tim Mendelssohn has been invaluable. I’ve also had vital mentoring and advice from SETsquared, an organisation that helps start-ups and student enterprises – I’m currently an architecture student at Bath, running ElephantBranded in my spare time.

Manage cashflow

Like any business, you need to watch your cashflow. We now only deal in US dollars, because currency fluctuations would otherwise be too difficult to handle.

Stick to your principles

Finally, for any social enterprise, the most important thing is to keep to the principles you started out with, no matter how much money people offer you to do something else. If you diverge from your ethics, you’ll lose the goodwill and volunteer help that are integral to making the business work. Some companies appear to lose their way, and they forget about the long-term consequences of moving away from their original moral position.

Get it right, and ethical businesses can be more effective in some cases than charities. We’re often smaller and less bureaucratic, so we can move faster, and can get results for less money – we can do things in Cambodia for a few hundred pounds that would cost a charity thousands. It can also be easier for an ethical business to show its customers how they make a difference, so people can see exactly where their money goes.

When I was first starting up, I went to a lecture by Sir Richard Branson, and he said something like, “Chase success and money will follow.” That’s really important for an ethical business – money will come and go, but if you stick to your principles, the difference you make will stay forever.

James Boon is an architecture student at Bath University and the founder of ElephantBranded.

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