A guide to London's ethical entrepreneurs

Start-ups with social impact are capturing the imagination of consumers across the world, and the more people buy, the more they help others – a win-win for all.

Ethics are of huge importance in today’s small business environment. This ethical ecosystem can be challenging, for example new laws now regulate recruitment practices and illicit data usage – and there are social media-led campaigns against unethical practices. With this era of awareness, a new breed of entrepreneur has emerged: one whose product is rooted in ethical behaviour, be it sustainability, investment in the local neighbourhood, or protecting the livelihoods of suppliers. Ethics – in other words – is their goal, their product, their gap in the market. Here, we introduce you to some of these entrepreneurs, and show you how they’re starting to transform London. 

Fashion with a conscience

The glitzy fashion industry carries a heavy past. This is the UK’s second most wasteful industry – with most garments only being worn four times before heading to landfill. Exploitation of workers has often been exposed by the media, and the industry has been involved in re-enforcing certain gender norms and body image stereotypes which have had a negatve impact on many people’s mental health.

Luckily, London-based start-ups are conscious of these issues, and are keen to do their bit to offset the issues. Know the Origin founder Charlotte Instone began her ethical fashion company in response to the notorious Rana Plaza factory collapse in 2013. Her enterprise focuses on transparency in a bid to inspire consumers to learn more about where their clothes are coming from. Through personally constructed supply-chains from seed to storefront, every product on Know The Origin’s runway is organic and Fairtrade.

Birdsong are another ethical clothing brand, who focus on the importance of protest and societal change. You may well have seen our features on them a while back. In their words, “fashion is an important ally in change.” The London-based company accomplishes that change by creating wardrobes for women dressing in protest, be that out-there colours or targeted slogans. But it’s not just idle talk. The company employs London designers, artists, and more, teaching many of them new skills to avoid unemployment. At the same time, it pays all its producers London living wages, well above the average wage of a UK garment worker. 

Food and drink

The food and beverage sector is also in need of reform. Waste reduction and bad deals/ terms for remote growers are big issues to tackle. BELU, a bottled water company, tackles the all-important issue of single-use plastics with bottles that are majority glass, and those that are plastic made from at least 50 percent recycled material. Additionally, the water comes from Welsh foothills and remains not for export outside the UK to reduce carbon footprint. BELU’s reusable products are additionally all manufactured in the UK and company profit is given to WaterAid – currently over £4 million. 

At the restaurant level, StreetSmart has employed eating out as a means for change. The start-up has created a network of restaurants, each of which will add a discretionary £1 donation to each bill to help the local homeless population. Each £1 donation is collected by StreetSmart at the end of each month and then distributed to reputable charities. Since its founding, the company has raised nearly £10 million, showing the world how effective small, high-volume, hassle-free donations can be. 

Focusing on food waste within the household, OLIO has developed software to connect neighbours with local businesses in the hope of eliminating food waste. Its premise is simple: food shared is food not wasted. OLIO is an example of a common business template turned ethical, with tangible results. Although marketplaces have become the vogue from Facebook to Depop, they have not been employed to tackle the issue of food waste, until now.

Society and environment

Business doesn’t always have to appeal to profit-hungry investors – for some, the reinvestment of profit back into local communities provides a better model, with fewer competitors. Two such examples, born in London, are Bikeworks and Better. The former business focuses on cycling as a tool for community-building and fostering inclusivity. The latter comprises a collection of gyms which reinvest their profit on new equipment and the training of staff-members, while additionally offering their spaces for community events and training sessions.

Meanwhile, Leaf Envy uses something as seemingly simple as household decoration to clean up the air pollution of several city boroughs. The online shop matches you with your dream plant (taking light and maintenance levels into account), and gives you all the advice necessary to maintain your surrogate succulent, or fern. Leaf Envy hopes to combat air pollution one branch at a time. 

London’s ethical entrepreneurs highlight the potential for new businesses growth not in spite of, but because of, the ethical agenda. Marrying consumer needs to the needs of the environment or wider society is no easy task, but as old business practices become obsolete, London’s varied college of charismatic entrepreneurs reveals the huge potential that exists in the ethical sphere.

Frances McMonagle
Originally from “Up North“, since moving to London a few years back Fran has made it her mission to make the most out of living in the city. She can usually be found with a green tea, coffee or cocktail in hand busy taking far too many photos.

Date published: 31 October 2019

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