Ethical Ecommerce Interviews: Zero Waste Club on Running a Zero Waste Business

This is the first in a series of interviews with ethical online entrepreneurs: we hope they’ll be helpful and inspirational for anyone trying to find their way in business. Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!

Our first interviewee is Pawan Saunya, co-founder of Zero Waste Club: creating sustainable (and affordable) essentials for zero waste living.

What inspired you to start Zero Waste Club?

It was a 2009 documentary called The Age of Stupid: it showed how much human consumption impacts the environment, and how the whole system could collapse in thirty years’ time if we don’t try and change it. So I deferred my place at university to set up Zero Waste Club, and I’m really grateful that it’s worked out so far.

How did you go about setting up the business with a “zero waste” philosophy in mind?

I don’t actually think 100% “zero waste” should be the goal: as a business, even as just a human being, you’re always going to have some kind of impact on the world. I think reducing your impact as much as possible should be the goal.

But the first step is to think of the most sustainable materials you can work with to create your products: bamboo is a really eco-friendly option because it grows so fast and doesn’t require any pesticides.

Then, you shortlist sustainable suppliers: it’s really important to look for certifications like the BSCI and Sedex. It’s faster, easier, cheaper and better to find suppliers online rather than flying out in person: there’s a few sites you can use, like Alibaba and IndiaMART, but even if you just google “bamboo supplier” hundreds of options will appear.

You pay your Chinese artisans double the regional minimum wage. Has this been difficult?

From a bureaucracy point of view, it’s been pretty simple: we just look for suppliers that pay their employees well. There are good people out there: you just have to do some research.

From a business point of view it’s been harder: I’d say it costs the company about 5% extra, and sometimes we do have to sacrifice lead time. There are suppliers out there who can turn orders around in fifteen days, but this means they burn their workers out, or hire more workers and pay them less.

How have you grown the business?

The first thing we did was get a stand for £50 at the Yoga & Vegan Festival in London. I worked for like a month to prepare the products for it, and I think we made £126. It obviously wasn’t a fortune, but it made us realise that people were really receptive to our idea.

Nowadays we’re focusing on wholesaling. It’s pretty simple: stores just google “zero waste wholesalers,” and we pop up! We also have an internal salesperson who actively reaches out to stores.

What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced?

We used to sell food, until we realised we were lying to ourselves about the concept of “zero waste food.” There are so many impacts the customer doesn't see: the food had to travel from our warehouse, to a packing warehouse, to a shipping warehouse, to their house. So we decided to stop selling it. It was really hard: we lost a significant amount of revenue, and some loyal customers, but it was the right thing to do.

You grew up in Sri Lanka, which is a predominantly Buddhist country. Has it affected your approach to business?

I do actually meditate for two hours a day. I think it’s really important to have a spiritual practice to gain control of yourself. Especially if you’re starting a business, you have to remain humble and keep focused: maybe you have to live with your parents for a few years to keep costs low, or maybe you have to take a low salary. Without self control, you might keep running after those things that look shiny, but don’t have real value.

Tell us about the tech you use.

We’ve been using Squarespace, which has been phenomenal because it has inbuilt analytics, SEO, pretty much everything you need when starting a business. But we’re building our wholesale site on Shopify, because it has more commerce functionality.

We also use:

  • Squarespace’s email marketing: we’ve found it so much easier than Mailchimp
  • Xero accounting, which integrates really well with your site
  • Monday.com: an organisational tool which lets you see the status of products that are coming in, and assign tasks
  • WeChat is essential if you’re working with Chinese suppliers!

What advice would you give to someone who’s just starting out in ecommerce?

First, think about why you’re doing it: is there a problem you’re trying to solve? If so, there might actually be a better way to tackle it than starting a business!

And don’t be so focused on selling online at the start: it’s really easy to find your customers at trade shows and events, and talking to them will help you figure out what they want. For example, if you’re in the vegan product market, just search for “vegan trade shows” and see if there’s one happening near you: then book a stall and see how it goes. The feedback you get from the people you meet there will help you decide what steps you should take next.

What do you think the future will look like: for ecommerce, and for Zero Waste Club?

COVID will definitely increase online shopping in the long run, and the big retailers, like Amazon, will of course benefit the most. I also think ecommerce within VR is going to be massive: I’ve tried it a few times, and it’s scary how absorbed you can get. It’s going to be a strange world in twenty years.

As for us, our goal is to plant 100,000 trees. We go through Eden Reforestation, and incorporate the cost of planting a tree into each item we sell. It makes us more expensive: but we’re happy to take that hit.