Starting a social enterprise is quite the rage nowadays, especially as it becomes the mainstream with brands such as Toms or Warby Parker growing into enormous company’s, and as entrepreneurs see the profit potential and yearn for that.
What isn’t always discussed are the unique and sometimes staggering hurdles that are presented when starting this endeavour. This is especially true if your focus is on a market that is incredibly challenging like luxury handbags in the case of my brand Avery Verse.
In starting up and growing this business with my wife Christie, we’ve been presented with a unique set of challenges to walk a tight rope between being socially and environmentally conscious and a viable business.
What we’ve learnt from this is to be guided by our moral compass yet strategise with our business mind. The end result is that we’ve embraced a harder form of starting up, yet have leveraged this into a more interesting brand and accessory, positioning ourselves for greater growth.
Firstly, on an environmental front, we use Italian vegetable tanned leather. This is a leather tanning process that involves bathing the leather hide for up to sixty days in a water bath full of organic materials. The process is recyclable and harmless to the tanners.
In order to do this, though, you have to use the best quality, and therefore more expensive leather, and you have to invest more in the tanning process because it can take up to two months to complete.
By contrast, most luxury brands (some stats point to 90%) use chromium or mineral tanned leather which can be prepared in a day and used on highly inferior leather yet still produce a nice enough finish. But it is devastating to the environment, has been known to give cancer to tanners and for the end-user can even cause dermatitis.
So in this case we were presented with a choice.
Save money yet yield to a less environmentally friendly practice or expend precious capital but retain good conscience. We chose the latter. But then we applied our business mind and found ample opportunities from this eco-friendly choice.
We have a unique selling position, an in-built story for our PR and a quality of handbag that is exemplary as well as our integrity by choosing the environmentally friendly choice.
Then there is the social element, and this was one we were very conscious about making the most out of.
Proceeds from every sale go towards water.org a charity that works to empower communities through life-giving access to water and proper sanitation. By addressing this core human need, families, in particular women and girls, are able to redirect their time and energy from survival to thriving in the form of education, entrepreneurship and personal development.
They’re a great organisation that we’re pleased to work with, but at the same time we donate money from every sale, and not before the end of the financial year for tax purposes. We’re investing in lives because we believe this is important even if it means less cash to reinvest into the company or on our pay cheque.
That’s a tough pill sometimes.
Nonetheless, while we open ourselves up to more difficulty we’re providing for our customers a more fulfilling buying experience. No more do you just own a luxury handbag. Now with Avery Verse you help empower women and girls around the world while advocating an eco-friendly luxury lifestyle. And you look good while you do it.
This richer experience has connected with people around the world as they embrace the style and the joy behind not just caring about yourself but others as well. In turn we develop advocates rather than just customers and who would complain about that?
We’re different from the norm, and that journey has been harder, but it carries with it benefits that any business would enjoy. It’s from this way of thinking that I believe embracing a social enterprise model is the best form of entrepreneurship on Earth.
I believe it will grow to such a height that the word ‘social’ will disappear from the title one day and everyone who embraces an entrepreneurial lifestyle will be creating businesses that help others as a matter of routine.
At that point, I eagerly await the new disruption to entrepreneurism. But that’s a story for another day.