Adapt or Die, Within Reason
The following piece was written by Ware's founder, Gillie Roberts, for an Asheville business journal, Capital at Play. It was originally published in 2019. Edits have been made for the Ware audience.
There’s an undeniable stigma surrounding businesses with a sustainability ethos - at least, there has been in the past, and it hasn’t totally gone by the wayside yet. It's the notion that these businesses are somehow out-of-touch (or out-of-reach) to the average customer. This is exemplified by the marketing firm that only seems to use the color green and leaf images to convey their messages, the quirky and conspiracy-theory-spouting eco-friendly shop owner, or the event venue that uses burlap sacks as their dominant decorating motif. However, as sustainability becomes a more mainstream concept, it is crucial to its success that it caters to a more mainstream audience.
Bear with me a moment as I state the obvious en route to my point.
Most goods and services follow trends, some short-term and others long; the tech and fashion industries are easy places to witness the varying arcs of trends; some products remain in favor with consumers for years and others only see popularity for a matter of months. Simultaneously, there are some products that are considered “timeless” - think the v-neck tee shirt or accrual accounting. Both ends of this spectrum must be represented in the marketplace, as there is an ongoing demand for both classes of product/service.
It may seem like common sense business advice, but in the context of changing the tide of business as a whole, it is considerably more important for early-adopting social enterprises to be aware of and responsive to the dynamic demands of their respective industries. That is, if said socially-relevant enterprises are to become the norm.
While I’m sure I don’t need to stress the importance of knowing your target market in this publication, I will present the notion that your company should aim to serve that market thoroughly. By this I mean adapting to market demand as it is displayed within your target market. Adaptability leads to accessibility, widening your audience within that defined demographic.
When I say “accessibility” I don’t only mean how someone with a disability might use what you sell or enter your building or address your company. I don’t only mean the affordability of your goods or services. Both are important. In a more general interpretation, I mean “how do people approach or access your brand?” I find that so many brands (my own included) have at least one area in which they are creating unnecessary barriers to entry for their customers or potential customers. I’m referring primarily to the aspects of a business that do not fundamentally change procedure but do have a significant effect on the way potential customers interact with your brand.
In most cases, this comes down to branding and marketing. They are, after all, the first way someone experiences your company. “Branding” and “marketing” are also both umbrella terms that refer to cumulative effects had by many smaller decisions and actions: what color the walls are painted, an email footer, font and color pairings, window displays, and which community events the brand appears as a sponsor. You may be thinking that what truly matters in aligning with your sustainability vision is more internal: choosing to carry one product of another, signing up for a commercial composting service, rearranging the floorplan to make it more navigable for wheelchairs. However, most of those more internal actions require catching someone’s eye to get them engaged with your brand in the first place. Only then can one appreciate how your business is run.
There are so many ways in which to start this work that the overwhelm can set in quickly. I’m speaking from experience, here. However, I’ve found my M.O. in constantly looking to start where it's easiest, the path of least resistance. With my customers, I look to unearth the aspect of sustainable living that is “most attractive” to them. From there, I can help them wade into the water of a more intentional lifestyle with very little pushback. I figure that they wouldn’t be talking to me in my store if they weren’t drawn in by some aspect of what I’ve got going on, and there is usually a snowball effect from that point. First, they hear music that they enjoy and see that the store playing it has a vintage-inspired logo but rather modern design aesthetic. Upon entering, they’re greeted by the dish brushes they’ve seen online. Then they learn how easy it is to use dryer balls in lieu of dryer sheets or that solid shampoo really does work as well as liquid and you don’t have to contend with plastic bottles when it’s gone. Each subsequent sale is merely a natural progression of growing interest. But it all started with the seemingly superficial decision to play Latin jazz-funk fusion music.
The same approach can be taken by anyone looking to transition their business to better align with their values. By starting with the facet of your company that you think you’d get the most enjoyment from being greener or more ethical, you make it easier to maintain momentum through the rest of the transitions.
Here is a debate I often have with myself regarding two hypothetical customers who spend the same amount in my store and bring the same number of friends to shop with them later on, and do the same amount of sharing about Ware on Instagram, but one only likes Ware’s aesthetic and couldn’t care less about the values and the other is an advocate for sustainable living: who is the more “valuable” customer? The latter is clearly someone I love to have in my sustainable lifestyle store. They get what Ware is about. They have great, engaging conversations about the products with my staff and me. They make very intentional purchases and cherish what they take home. However, the customer who is drawn in by the look and feel spends the same amount of money in the store. While I’m chatting with the informed customer, this customer is doing their own thing, picking up the products they want, checking out, and leaving, all while I’m wrapping up a conversation about the merits of a circular economy.
I don’t mean to disregard or minimize the necessity of knowledgeable consumers in the movement toward a more sustainable society at large. My informed customers are who make my job so fun. But those who come into the store with little knowledge of sustainably-made products offer a very cool opportunity to plant the roots of less environmentally impactful living in a new group of people. The argument could even be made that this customer has the potential to be “worth” more to Ware, as they present a gateway into a group of people who might not otherwise find the store. They and their friends aren’t sitting around Googling the meta tags associated with my website or sifting through hashtags that Ware uses. SEO and information-based marketing might miss this customer who walked past the front window and liked what they saw.
I mentioned that, though I make great efforts to uphold the concepts I’m writing about here, I have not been immune to the stubbornness that holds one back from making these relatively simple changes. I could provide a number of examples, but my biggest sticking point to date was my reluctance to launch an online store to compliment my brick-and-mortar. In fact, many people told me early on that I was unwise to take on the overhead expense of a storefront in the age of the internet and should try having the store exclusively online first.
It took an entire year of my existing customers who live outside of Asheville telling me they wanted to give me more business, buy the same face oil or soap from me when they run out or refer their friends who live elsewhere to Ware, but that I was making that impossible by not having an online store.
In my case, the expense associated with launching the online store in a very simple way, that served my existing customers, wasn’t expensive. Sure, I’d have loved to hire a professional to build a custom online shopping experience, and I intend to pay for SEO services as soon as they’re in the budget. As the owner of a young business (and being young myself) I could afford the time, energy, and learning curve it took to get the online store up and running. I could not afford the associated services. Yet. I started with the what was most available to me at the time. Much of the time, it is undoubtedly easier to improve upon something than create from scratch. In the vain of “done is better than perfect,” I finally got the ball rolling. Now, online sales represent about 20% of our annual sales.
I hope it’s clear that I recognize that any of these changes bear an associated cost. Time and money must be prioritized. However, if you’ve sunk the costs of building the business, opening it up to a wider audience seems like it would be high on the list of priorities for most of us attempting to increase or sustain revenue streams. In fact, there's now plenty of evidence showing that offering both truck-and-mortar and e-commerce channels has mutual benefit.
If our goal as socially and environmentally-minded entrepreneurs is to spread the Good Word of Sustainability, evangelizing to the existing believers only gets us so far. It simultaneously closes the door to otherwise potentially interested customers and perpetuates the stereotype that companies can’t be doing good things and stay relevant. There is an entirely separate piece to be written on the dangers and inherent unsustainability of succumbing to particularly short-term trends from both an environmental and financial perspective, but I’m not going to take us there for now.
You’ll notice that, where I typically (in past iterations of this column, I mean) throw a bunch of cited facts at you, this issue is entirely my own words. I spend a lot of time reading about how other people do and know things, but these concepts are some that I intuited early on and have been testing and observing throughout the life of Ware. Certainly, others have come to similar conclusions. I’ve given you some specific examples of my approach, but I’ve also been intentionally vague in many ways. This is because these concepts can be applied to any industry, and I wanted to leave room for those who are so inclined to apply the ideas to their own endeavors.
There will always be those people who value your product on merit alone and have no need for killer branding. We like those people - a lot - but why limit yourself to only those customers? A significant component of sustainability is staying relevant. Assuming that your company’s values stand alone in a powerful enough way that they need not serve the public is detrimental to your business as well as to the greater movement toward a sustainable economy.