Startups 100 Index welcomes Cheeky Panda as guest judge

Chris Forbes, co-founder of bamboo brand Cheeky Panda, will join the Startups experts to choose the winner of next year’s sustainability award.

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Helena Young

Chris Forbes, co-founder of Startups 100 regular Cheeky Panda, has been announced as guest judge for next year’s Startups 100 Index.

The eco-friendly entrepreneur is the first guest judge to be announced for this year’s list, which reopened for entries in April. In collaboration with the Startups’ panel of experts, Forbes will help to identify the winner of the Sustainability award from the list of the top 100.

The chosen company will be a UK startup which demonstrates outstanding evidence of prioritising the health of the planet as part of its mission statement.

Speaking to Startups about the announcement, and wearing his signature panda hat, Forbes tells us: “The Startups 100 has a history of finding those who have gone on to become big businesses. It’s great to now be a judge and to be able to participate from the other side.”

Who is Chris Forbes?

Cheeky Panda began as a two-man startup in 2016. It immediately impressed our judges with its innovative range of ultra-sustainable, low carbon, and healthy bamboo products.

We first featured the cheeky brand on the Startups 100 Index way back in 2017. Since then, having been listed in the index three more times, it was valued at a huge £75m in 2022.

Forbes and his co-founder/wife, Julia Chen, have grown the brand together over seven years from seed to shooting success.

“We’ve sold over 50 million units globally”, he says humbly, “and sales continue to grow by 70% year-on-year despite supply chain crisis and major inflation. And of course, we were certified as a B corporation.”

Now available in over 10,000 stores in the UK, the brand has entered what Forbes describes as ‘scale-up’ territory. The company has moved into international markets this year and has also hired an executive management team, readying for its next phase of growth.

It’s this success and experience that Forbes will bring to the judging table later this year to judge the Startups 100 sustainability category.

Green companies can often struggle to find the balance between purpose and profit – but Cheeky Panda is proof that one does not have to come at the expense of the other.

“The business model has to be sustainable as well,” he cautions. “The key to our success has been having good products, a good narrative around who we are, and having the right funding in place as well.”

Being sustainable in 2023: what does it mean?

Sustainability has been on every brand’s lips for the past decade, as more businesses join the fight against the climate crisis. Momentum has continued even throughout the cost of living crisis, with consumers seeking out “kind” firms even in the face of hiked prices.

Excitingly, Cheeky Panda announced a new partnership earlier this year. Joining paws with fellow panda-brand WWF, the business will donate a percentage of the sale on specific products to support the charity’s work to conserve endangered species.

“For consumers, it’s not just about what’s cheapest,” says Forbes. “People want to know what’s a good product, what’s good for me, and what’s good for the planet?”

Alongside this popularity, however, has burned another hot topic: greenwashing, or the act of making misleading claims about sustainability credentials.

2023 has so far been the year of greenwashing scandals, with companies like Ryanair and Unilever both facing scrutiny over unclear environmental claims. Terms like ‘plastic-free’ or ‘carbon neutral’, popular in many big brand marketing materials, have turned out to be false.

As awareness of the practice has heightened, consumer trust in the brands being praised for their sustainability has lowered. It’s a problem Forbes is hoping to fix when judging this year’s shortlist.

Forbes points to an awards ceremony he recently attended as an example, where a well-known aviation company was named one of the most sustainable companies. Forbes was incredulous.

“It was like, ‘how the heck did that happen’?” he recalls. “I think the judges on that award should not be judges.

“Seven years’ experience in a high-profile sustainable scale-up means I’ll spot the difference between people doing something because it’s the right thing to do, and those who are jumping on a bandwagon because they think they can sell purpose as a business person.”

Could you be the next Startups 100 sustainable champion?

Cheeky Panda has won over 30 business trophies in its seven year lifespan. Forbes himself won Entrepreneur for Good at last year’s Great British Entrepreneur Awards.

Startups asks: from his own experiences applying to business indexes and awards, what will he be looking for from this year’s entrants for green hero? Forbes has one word: data.

“The red flag that you look for when I see a green business is no data,” he states. “It’s very easy to create a story, but I actually want to understand what your impact is. If you’re saving carbon, plastic, or energy, how are you tracking and measuring that?”

Hanging proudly on the Cheeky Panda fridge are its own impressive statistics: Forbes reveals the firm has so far saved over 400,000 trees by people using its bamboo products. It has also reduced carbon by 32,000 tons from the tissue and hygiene category.

Alongside internal reporting, Forbes is also interested in external accreditation. For example, B Corp certification. For inspiration, he points to fellow Startups 100 alumni, Neat Home Ltd. as a company that’s doing it well.

The company makes plastic-free, replenishable cleaning products that are vegan and cruelty free. In two years, Neat estimates its refills have saved over 40 tonnes of plastic.

“When we started Cheeky Panda, sustainability wasn’t so high on the agenda,” Forbes comments. “Today, it seems to be something that everybody’s focused on. As a guest judge, I plan to dig into the weeds to spot anything that’s green-washy and find the brands that are truly exceptional.”

Are you an eco-friendly entrepreneur with a blossoming business? Apply to the Startups 100 for a chance to be named the top sustainable UK startup for 2024.

Written by:
Helena Young
Helena is Lead Writer at Startups. As resident people and premises expert, she's an authority on topics such as business energy, office and coworking spaces, and project management software. With a background in PR and marketing, Helena also manages the Startups 100 Index and is passionate about giving early-stage startups a platform to boost their brands. From interviewing Wetherspoon's boss Tim Martin to spotting data-led working from home trends, her insight has been featured by major trade publications including the ICAEW, and news outlets like the BBC, ITV News, Daily Express, and HuffPost UK.

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