Cheers to the Little Guy: Small Businesses Go Global

These businesses have discovered a magic formula that is helping them grow.

You could say that Cynthia Salim’s small business sprung from a “clothes call”. Five years ago Salim was working for an NGO doing policy advocacy at the United Nations. Attending meetings and business formal events with diplomats was a routine part of her job, and that meant having to dress the part. There was just one problem: Salim couldn’t find anything suitable to wear.

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It pays to prioritize ethical business.

“Even when price wasn’t an issue, I could not find a blazer that was high quality, sharp but not sexy, professional but still modern, much less anything responsibly made,” she recalls. When Salim later landed a gig at the global management consulting firm McKinsey & Company, her frustrations over finding the right work clothes only grew.

So she decided to make them herself.

Last May, Salim launched Citizen’s Mark, a businesswear line for the “socially conscious and empowered woman on the rise”. Thanks to a strategy that utilizes a sustainably focused global supply chain, her business grew about 15 percent month over month in its first year. Salim hopes to sustain 20 percent growth in 2016 and has begun expanding internationally by working with e-commerce websites that have a presence in Europe and beyond.

It’s becoming more common for small businesses to follow a plan similar to Salim’s. They’re finding that a commitment to sustainability combined with smart partnerships can help their brands grow and reach new customers across the globe.

[Also on Longitudes: Megacities Provide New Benefits to Humanity – and Pose Unique Challenges]


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Great demand for good

There’s no question that it pays to prioritize ethical business.

According to the 2015 Nielsen Global Corporate Sustainability Report, sales of consumer goods from brands demonstrating a commitment to sustainability grew more than 4 percent globally in 2015. Those without it grew less than 1 percent. Also, 66 percent of global consumers said they were willing to pay more for sustainable brands, up from 55 percent in 2014.

Salim spent more than two years vetting suppliers and manufacturers to produce her brand’s apparel. The Italian wool mill employed by the company, for example, purifies the water it uses after the dyeing process. The factory she uses in Portugal provides robust healthcare to its workers. And every inch of the brand’s inaugural blazer is sustainable, from the biodegradable cottonseed lining to the fair trade buttons sourced from Nepal.

This part of the growth process can be time-consuming for new businesses that are often strapped for manpower.

“Startups are arguably more impacted than larger companies by the challenge of figuring out how and when to take their business to the next level, particularly when it comes to doing it in a sustainable way,” says Walter Fleming, manager of UPS corporate marketing.

“For example, when should you add more employees to handle specific functions like finance, human resources or logistics? Larger businesses often have the capacity to scale without adding significant resources.”

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Growth is a joint effort


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To be featured, products must be artisan-made, fair trade or have a philanthropic element. Examples include a hand-woven indigo shibori caftan made in Mali and handcrafted greeting cards made by at-risk Rwandan youths.

To save on costs – and offset its carbon footprint – the company works with global partners that help vet its network of approximately 125 designers and artisan groups across more than 40 countries. The Accompany team also scouts pieces at trade shows and accepts submissions.

“Finding these partners, looking through the items, and seeing which ones look like they’re good quality and relevant – we feel like it’s our mission to do that work so more people will want to shop this category,” Keehn says.

According to Keehn, sales were up 53 percent in 2015 from 2014. This year, sales in January and February were up 146 percent over the first two months of last year. And with opportunities with larger corporations on the horizon, Accompany’s founder says he hopes it can expand even further.

“These partnerships enable us to expose ourselves to more audiences and get higher volume,” he says. “It’s another way for us to drive impact to the communities.”

[Also on Longitudes: Keeping Up with the Customers (Sustainably)]

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Local goods, international reach

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At the end of the day, it’s the industry that has to lead.

As CEO and co-founder of green technology firm One Earth Designs, Catlin Powers seeks to help communities by developing clean energy solutions to climate change.

The company’s flagship product is the SolSource solar stove. Powers and her co-founder, Scot Frank, designed the sun-fueled cooker while working with nomads in the Himalayas. They built SolSource to help alleviate energy poverty, and as an alternative to the families’ traditional fuel-burning stoves, which create dangerous levels of air pollution inside homes.

Made from recyclable materials and manufactured in sustainable factories in China, the smoke-free stove harnesses sunlight at 92 percent efficiency. Since introducing SolSource in 2013, One Earth Designs has sold more than 4,000 units in 60 countries. Celebrity chef José Andrés is a fan, and the solar cooker even made an appearance on Top Chef in December.

“Some of our original customers in the Himalayas were so ecstatic to see SolSource – this product they were involved in designing – being used by professional chefs and by people all around the world, so that’s been a beautiful thing,” Powers says.

Like Keehn, Powers has found that working with local partners, specifically in regards to logistics, has been the best strategy to sustainable growth. Being able to virtually vet new distributors and retail partners through their network, as opposed to flying someone out to every location, has allowed One Earth Designs to expand globally in a responsible way.

“At first we tried to do it ourselves, but found it was impossible to be the manufacturer and distributor,” says Powers. “Working with great local partners has been a really important mechanism for us.”

Small business executives like Salim, Keehn and Powers are finding that strong, ethically minded supply chains can positively impact their bottom lines – and their strategic decisions are an integral part of the evolution of sustainable practices.

“At the end of the day, it’s the industry that has to lead,” says Salim. “It’s the demand from the consumer side that said, ‘yeah, we’re interested in these things’, and it’s the actual innovation from industries that’s going to make this movement work.” goldbrown2

This article originally appeared on The Guardian on May 3, 2016, and was republished with permission. 


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Vickie An is a freelance business and culture writer who is currently based in Seoul, South Korea.

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