How to Build a Sustainable Business
I was introduced to the concept of sustainable design while attending a TED conference in Monterey, California, in 2005. During one presentation, William McDonough described the principles outlined in his book, Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, which he co-authored with Michael Braungart. In the book, the authors argue that products should be designed in a way that allows their constituent materials to be infinitely recovered, recycled, and recombined into new products.
McDonough's presentation had a profound effect on my approach to manufacturing when I founded Rickshaw Bagworks in 2007. Since then, a lot of businesses have realized that sustainable practices can help save money and strengthen brands. In fact, there has been an explosion of marketing hype for so-called green products and eco-friendly business practices. As business owners, we should set aside the promotional gimmickry and focus on making sustainability a core value. At Rickshaw, we have developed several guiding principles for doing so.
We embrace what I call the "three f's" of sustainable design: form, function, and footprint. We pride ourselves on making high-quality products for long-term, everyday use. Some sustainable fabrics wear out too quickly to meet our standards. For instance, we tried making bags with beautiful (and expensive) Italian wool herringbone tweed, only to have the prototypes wear out in weeks. So we partnered with one of the few remaining upholstery mills in North Carolina to develop a proprietary collection of Rickshaw Performance Tweed: a gorgeous, rugged fabric made from recycled beverage bottles and finished with an eco-friendly, stain-resistant coating. With a little extra effort, we developed a fabric that met our goals for sustainability, style, durability, and affordability.
We also strive to reduce waste in every aspect of our business. To that end, our Zero Messenger Bag collection is designed in a way that lets us use every part of the fabric that we cut to make each bag. All of our bags are built to order in our San Francisco factory. As a result, we eliminate the waste that results from overstocking and disposing of unpopular and seasonal styles. Because most of our business involves selling directly to customers through our online store, rather than through retailers, we have virtually eliminated the need for hang tags and wholesale brochures. We don't send print catalogs to consumers, and our packaging is designed to convey only essential point-of-purchase information, without wasting paper on words that few people ever read (or would just as likely seek out on the Internet). We're even experimenting with ways of replacing shipping boxes with reusable fabric pouches.
The best way for many manufacturers to shrink their environmental footprint is to focus on reducing the amount of transportation required to obtain parts and materials. At Rickshaw, we work with local vendors for a variety of outside services, including screen printing and embroidery. In fact, we make many of our vendor visits by bicycle. We purchase roughly 70 percent of our parts and materials from domestic sources, and we're working to drive that number to 100 percent. We believe that any additional incremental expenses that result from sourcing domestically will be offset by operational efficiencies and positive brand equity.
Sustainability is a journey, not a destination. Once you embrace the fact that sustainable business practices save money, simplify operations, and build brand equity, you will continually seek new ways to embrace them. At the same time, you will be making things better for the environment and for future generations. After all, sustainable business is just good business.
Mark Dwight is the founder of Rickshaw Bagworks, a San Francisco maker of custom bags, and SFMade, a nonprofit focused on building the city's manufacturing sector.