The Current Climate: How to Sustain an Environmental Business During COVID-19

illustration of a young man walking through a scene that reflects sustainable living. plants surround him and sustainable products are on a conveyor belt around him.

It’s hard to focus on the environment in the middle of a global pandemic.

Reported cases of COVID-19 continue to climb, economic hardship and job losses loom, and many small businesses have faced an abrupt decline in sales. COVID-19's influence over day-to-day life has made other issues, even important ones, feel like distant distractions.

But the arrival of a new crisis doesn’t make old problems go away. Climate change isn’t canceled. Many people, and businesses, still want to be mindful of their environmental footprint and the long-term health of our planet.

Businesses that have built their brand around combating climate change are in an especially delicate situation. What happens if you’ve established a niche that includes sustainable practices for, perhaps, a premium price? In the middle of such unease, is there room for your brand to be loud and proud about your environmental efforts, or are you at risk of appearing out of touch?

We spoke with a few environmentally-minded businesses to hear their perspective. They candidly shared how their businesses are faring and what pivots they’ve had to make in a post-COVID world, along with a number of best practices for individuals and businesses who want to reduce their environmental footprint.

For The Better Good: Carbon-sequestered water bottles 

Portrait of For The Better Good founder Jayden Klinac in a blue t shirt and faded jeans.
For The Better Good Founder Jayden Klinac. Sarah Booher, For The Better Good

After New Zealand’s national ban on ecommerce sales (which has since been lifted), Jayden Klinac, founder of For The Better Good, saw his sales grind to a halt. The yoga studios, cafés, and events that previously purchased his “better water bottles” have all closed and canceled their orders.

“Business-wise, in terms of money, we’ve failed,” Jayden says.

It was a setback severe enough to sink most businesses, but Jayden responded with resilience and is now reimagining what role his company can play in positively shaping the planet.

For The Better Good was built to solve Jayden’s frustration with products that unwittingly cause people to create waste that will long outlive them—particularly plastic bottles, which can linger in landfills for hundreds of years.

In response, Jayden created the company’s flagship product: a bottle made from starch-rich plants like corn that pull carbon from the air to grow. Every label playfully reads, “Hello, I’m made from plants,” and “This is not plastic.” The bottles themselves are non-toxic and designed to be reused again and again, safely. Jayden has also set up more than 200 refill stations across New Zealand. If customers no longer want their bottle, they can simply drop it off at a nearby location. Jayden collects and composts every bottle returned this way.

aerial photograph of composting operation in New Zealand
For The Better Good's first composting site in Porirua, New Zealand. For The Better Good

To be certified as compostable, a product must break down in fewer than 180 days and be toxin-free. Jayden’s bottles break down in 27 days. All in all, his production process generates 78% less carbon emissions than regular plastic bottles. As a result, For The Better Good is carbon negative—or “climate positive,” as Jayden puts it—which means he sequesters more carbon than his business operations emit. This end-to-end solution is part of his commitment to product stewardship: taking responsibility for a product every step of the way.

“There are no laws about this yet,” he says. “We’re leading the way by just doing it. Anything we make, we take responsibility for.”

photo of For The Better Good compostable bottle mid way through decomposing
Jayden's "better bottles" partially decomposed. For The Better Good

Fortunately, Jayden's early commitment to composting now leaves him well-positioned to pivot his business. Last year, Jayden came across an ideal location to create and use his bottle compost: an abandoned lawn bowling club in Porirua, a city on the north island of New Zealand. There, he established an organic micro-farm, growing tomatoes, pumpkins, watermelons, and all kinds of fresh produce using his nutrient-rich compost. The site not only provides a way to return his products to the earth, but the compost has since diverted 35,000 kilograms of food waste after opening just over a year ago. 

photograph of rows of kale in a garden
Fresh greens growing in For The Better Good's first organic micro-farm. For The Better Good

Jayden is now redirecting his time to launch a program called Edible Earth to build momentum on the success of his first organic micro-farm. The program will include finding additional compositing sites, donating food from these locations to families in need, and educating people with content like how to make their own compost at home. After the pandemic passes, Jayden is confident that bottle sales will resume, but Edible Earth will remain his focus.

photograph of cherry tomatoes on a vine, growing in a garden
Tomatoes on the vine, grown from the nutrient-rich compost created with Jayden's decomposed "better bottles." For The Better Good

Lessons

  • For businesses: Use COVID-19 as a time to diversify your company and do the thing(s) you’ve always planned but never found time for.
  • For individuals: Compost! “People think compost is just a smelly thing in their backyard,” Jayden says, “but it is so powerful.” One study by the University of California–Berkeley showed that if California covered one-quarter of their rangeland with a quarter inch of compost, it could sequester 75% of the state’s carbon emissions.

The Unscented Company: Fragrance-free soap

Portrait of The Unscented Company Founder Anie Rouleau
The Unscented Company founder and CEO Anie Rouleau. Chanel Sabourin
Founder Anie Rouleau was excited the day we spoke; you could hear it in her voice. She was gearing up for a Zoom viewing party that evening to watch the airing of her appearance on Dans l’oeil du dragon, Quebec’s version of Dragons’ Den, where bright-eyed entrepreneurs pitch their big ideas to venture capitalists.

 
Anie runs The Unscented Company, a home and body care business that, fittingly, sells unscented products. She appeared on Dragons’ Den last September—that’s when she moved her online store over to Shopify, to handle the surge of web traffic brought by the media exposure—but appearing on her home province’s version of the show from her headquarters and home in Montreal felt special.

Perhaps it was all a welcome distraction from the fact that The Unscented Company’s wholesale orders had slowed to a crawl after most of the businesses Anie sold to closed their retail locations.

The Unscented Company products lined up on a wood plank backed by the mountains.
The Unscented Company's refillable product line. Pété Photographie

But there’s plenty of good news amid these troubles—she hasn’t had to lay off any staff, and she’s been able to keep all of her suppliers.

The latter is the result of a prudent choice Anie made five years ago: to buy all of her components from suppliers close enough to drive to. Right now, 90% of her supplies ship from within a 500-kilometre radius of her Montreal office, and 99% of her suppliers are Canadian. This decision, along with other commitments like offering a refill option for all available products, allowed The Unscented Company to become a Certified B Corporation. “Like fair trade or LEED, but for the whole company,” as the brand’s website explains. But it’s about far more than gaining a badge of approval.

“I’m doing it because I believe it’s the best way to do business, period,” Anie says. “COVID or no COVID, by focusing on and encouraging our local economy, we’re all better off.”

A photo outlining the local suppliers The Unscented Company works with. Pété Photographie

Anie has noticed changes in customer behavior throughout the pandemic. Previously, online orders made up about 10% of The Unscented Company’s annual revenue, but with the recent spike in ecommerce sales since COVID-19’s arrival, Anie forecasts that percentage will rise to 50% by next year.

Though ecommerce is many customers’ only option right now, the recent jump in sales can also be attributed to the company’s opportune market. Selling soap, it turns out, is a lucrative business when everyone is washing their hands multiple times a day. The fact that Anie's products are eco-friendly, biodegradable, and unscented only enhances their value right now. When washing constantly, people’s hands become less irritated without the addition of fragrances and other chemicals common in soaps.

COVID or no COVID, by focusing on and encouraging our local economy, we’re all better off.

Her customers are buying in bulk at a rate she’s never seen before. Her four-liter refill stations that used to be primarily shipped to wholesalers are now going to individuals’ homes so they can refill their own bottles. This practice is convenient now, but it has always benefited the planet: 300,000+ fewer bottles have ended up in a landfill because of The Unscented Company’s product refills, according to a studious intern’s calculations.

Photo of a young girl refilling her Unscented Company soap container.
The Unscented Company's four-liter refill bottles that are now being purchased by individuals instead of only retailers. Chanel Sabourin

Lessons

  • For businesses: Be mindful about your supply chain. Choosing local options, or as close to local as possible, means you’re less prone to shipment disruptions. Plus, you’ll produce less carbon emissions from the distance your products and materials travel.
  • For individuals: Buy products you can refill and use again and again to cut down on both cost and waste. Shop locally whenever you can.

Abeego: The original beeswax wrap

Portrait of Abeego Founder Toni Desrosiers
Abeego founder and CEO Toni Desrosiers. Abeego

“It’s an interesting thing to say now, because you can Google it and it looks like it’s always been there, but I invented beeswax food wraps,” says Abeego founder and CEO Toni Desrosiers.

Necessity was the mother of Toni’s invention. As a holistic nutritionist in British Columbia, she spent a lot of time thinking about food. But when it came to wrapping up leftovers or preserving delicious morsels, she could never understand why plastic wrap was an acceptable solution.

“No one likes pulling that stuff off the roll,” she says. “It just blows my mind that it ever reached such popularity given that it’s such a terrible experience.”

If you look to nature, every skin peel and rind is opaque and biodegradable—they look nothing like plastic. So Toni set five rules for herself to determine a better solution: it needed to be totally natural without chemical alteration, antibacterial and antimicrobial, plastic-free, malleable, and historically used for preservation. Beeswax, she soon discovered, checked every box, and Toni launched Abeego in 2008.

Abeego beeswax wrap over brussels sprouts.
Abeego's beeswax food wraps. Abeego
Abeego beeswax wrap being wrapped around parsley and kale.
Beeswax wraps help preserve food for longer than traditional plastic wrap. Abeego
COVID-19’s impact on Abeego is a familiar story at this point—most retail partners have closed and revenue is down. As anxiety around the pandemic began to swell, Toni instructed her team to take a quiet approach.

“There just wasn’t space in the consumer’s mind to think about purchasing anything,” she says. “And we sat here and thought, ‘What can we actually do under these circumstances to be supportive?’”

Her answer came from reflecting on the company’s mission: enabling food security. While decreasing people’s reliance on plastic wrap was a clear upside of Abeego’s business model, it’s not the company’s primary reason for being. It’s all about preserving food. According to the USDA, 31% of all food is wasted every year. And that appears to be a conservative estimate, with some studies showing that number could be as high as 50%.

In a marketing campaign called “Better With Abeego,” the team compared the freshness of vegetables wrapped in beeswax wraps to veggies left uncovered. Beeswax was the clear winner. 

Swiss chard before and after. Left is before, still crisp. Right is after, wilted.
The swiss chard on the left has been preserved in beeswax. The one on the right was left uncovered. This photo was part of the company's "Better With Abeego" campaign. Abeego

In times when many people are on lockdown and going to the grocery store as little as possible, safely preserving their limited food becomes more important than ever. “We will absolutely keep that food fresh for the week or more, no problem,” Toni says. “That’s our superpower.”

If anyone in the consumer market is sticking with the status quo, they really have to question their ability to survive this. 

Prior to COVID-19, Abeego's brand voice was assertive and confident: “We will save your food.” But in light of the pressure people are now under, Toni decided to take a softer tone; one of a steadfast friend who helps feed families for longer. Toni believes that shifts like this are now essential to every business, whether they're environmental or not.

“If anyone in the consumer market is sticking with the status quo, they really have to question their ability to survive this,” she says. “Their message won’t land, or it’ll land in the wrong way.”

Lessons

  • For businesses: Find your unique benefit within the crisis, and pivot your brand marketing to focus on that newfound importance.
  • For individuals: Preserve your food to reduce waste. Avoid plastic wrap whenever possible by using solutions like beeswax wraps or reusable containers.

Are there environmental silver linings to COVID-19?

It doesn’t seem as though sustainable-based companies are being hit harder than the average business, but they’re not protected either. Perhaps the fact that 55% of US consumers say they're more likely to purchase from a sustainable business will bolster them during this time.

I spoke with Kornelis Blok, a professor at the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands and a lead author in the Sixth Assessment Report for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). He worries that eco-friendly products may be considered too niche to thrive during COVID-19.

In lean times, people cut everything unnecessary. So you have to position yourself as necessary, Kornelis says. Frame your product’s benefits to show how it saves your customers’ hard-earned money, or highlight price-conscious options, like the ability to pay in installments. Consider how you can expand your product line to include items that are particularly necessary right now. Change your business model, if you can, to add digital products or services instead of physical products alone. Kornelis’s daughter, a musician, is currently offering piano lessons online, for example.

Ideally, eco-friendly businesses will continue to survive during this pandemic, keeping the environment in the periphery of our global consciousness. Kornelis says he mourns the loss of momentum that climate action had gathered in recent months, thanks in large part to awareness raised by activists like Greta Thunberg and global commitments to reduce emissions.

Although there are many examples of positive changes appearing—clear water in the Venice Canal; the Himalayan mountains visible from Punjab, India for the first time in decades; smog in China dissipating to showcase clear sky—Kornelis says he’s not inclined to call these silver linings.

Fighting climate change will cost us less than fighting COVID-19, and the impact of climate change will be much bigger than the impact of the virus.

“In the short term, there will be less emissions and fewer greenhouse gases,” he says. “But further climate action will be delayed, and that effect is probably bigger. A delay of one year will offset any gains in emission reductions this year.”

There is one aspect of this pandemic that he’s optimistic about, however.

“One thing we do know is that we’ve been willing to accept a very strong blow to the economy to avoid a very serious health impact. Apparently, humanity is able to take that corrective action,” he says. “Fighting climate change is something that will cost us less than fighting coronavirus, and the impact of climate change will be much bigger than the impact of the virus. So if we can do it for COVID-19, why don’t we do it for climate change?”

Parting thoughts

No one can tell what our world will look like when we come out the other side of COVID-19, but one thing is for sure: addressing the health of our planet will become more urgent than ever. Businesses and people who remain true to their sustainability principles will be essential.

It’s easier to hold to your principles during easy times, but those principles are even more important during moments like these. Businesses like For The Better Good, The Unscented Company, and Abeego show an admirable conviction to stay true to who and what they are—even when that’s hard to do.

Our environmentally-minded founders leave us with some words of wisdom for this strange time:

Jayden, For The Better Good:

“You couldn’t have planned a better reset button for nature. You couldn’t have organized it. I know that the earth is having a chance to breathe right now. We’ve had this big clean up, and now it’s up to us to decide what we add back in.”

Anie, The Unscented Company:

“When times are good, we fight for the environment. When times are difficult, we fight for the environment. When it’s part of your mission and vision, you do not give up.”

Toni, Abeego:

“The opportunity for the average person to slow their life down, take stock of what matters, their family, and their home life, will forever change the landscape of consumer behavior. Whether you understand this or not will determine whether or not your business survives.”


To learn more about Shopify’s commitment to the environment, read our CEO Tobi Lütke’s article announcing Shopify’s Sustainability Fund, a $5-million minimum annual commitment to invest in technology combating climate change. Stay tuned for more information about our fund’s progress.

Illustration by Borja Bonaque
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