Growing a Friendly Business
It’s easy to stick to your laurels when running a small set-up, but what happens when things get serious? Becoming an employer of many without cutting corners on ethics can be challenging. Here’s how Friendly Soap are managing it.
If there’s an everyday household item that offers a great opportunity to shop more responsibly, it’s soap. Whether it’s something you already use regularly or a product you’re gradually coming round to, one ethical Yorkshire soap firm is worth adding to your vegan shopping list.
Friendly Soap was formed in 2008 by close friends Geoff Kerouac and Rob Costello. As children of the 1970’s growing up in the famously radical West Yorkshire town of Hebden Bridge, the pair always had a strong ethical leaning. They also shared an instinctive love of the natural world, inspired by their stunning Pennine surroundings. After cutting their career teeth at legendary local food cooperative, Suma Foods, the two friends moved on to start a soap making business which they hoped would offer something totally unique: a range of rigorously ethical high-quality products at an affordable price. In Friendly Soap, they seem to have managed just that.
Today, the firm employs 22 people at its idyllic manufacturing base in Cragg Vale in the Calder Valley – just a couple of miles up the road from Hebden Bridge, and close enough for many of its staff to walk or cycle to. Growth has been constant and rapid too, and the company has moved to bigger and more suitable premises twice in the last 3 years. In fact, only one year ago its only employed five full-time staff!
Owner Geoff explained, “We started from nothing really, but we’ve worked incredibly hard to develop vegan products that are good enough to win people over and keep them loyal. We’ve clearly benefitted from the global boom in veganism and plant-based lifestyles too, and by keeping our soaps competitively priced we’ve managed to attract customers from a wide range of backgrounds and income brackets, which fits with our ethos perfectly.”
So, what about those ethical credentials and the threat to them caused by company growth? Friendly is one of those businesses that doesn’t just pay lip service to ethics, instead preferring to consider every aspect of its products and operations from a moral standpoint before a commercial one. A quick look at their website illustrates the extent to which this is true.
For example, all of its own brand cosmetic and personal care products are approved under the Cruelty Free International Leaping Bunny Programme; the gold standard of cruelty-free products. Meanwhile, to satisfy the strict requirements of the Vegan Society, a dedicated team checks every single application against pre-set criteria, ruling out the inclusion of any animal ingredients, even those not present in the finished product.
Ingredients are meticulously researched and resourced too, like coconuts that haven’t been harvested by so-called ‘slave’ monkeys. Meanwhile, Spanish olive oil is bought from a supplier which guarantees not to use super-intensive night-time harvesting methods that can lead to bird deaths. Packaging is in recycled and recyclable materials of course, with plastic-free materials for online orders. Even the printing ink is vegetarian.
As the company has grown, so has its staff base and tax burden too, but these are two other areas where Friendly has openly committed to operating not just legally, but generously. With this in mind, the company operates a profit share scheme for workers and is an accredited Living Wage Employer, certified by the Living Wage Foundation. This ensures that all staff, including under the age of 18, are paid at least the national living wage, and even those in certain roles within company’s contracted staff. The company also enjoys Fair Tax Mark Certification, which recognises those businesses that pay their full tax obligation at the right time and in the right destination – there’s no cynical offshore accounting or hiding of profits here.
Rob Costello explained, “We started the business to offer consumers something genuinely different, not to cash in on ethical lifestyles. We wanted to make the kind of feel-good products we’d like to use ourselves, and at every stage of our growth we’ve had to check ourselves carefully and make sure we’re sticking to this core belief. In a nutshell, if a new product, operational policy or commercial strategy doesn’t feel right, it doesn’t make it beyond the boardroom. In fact, there isn’t even a boardroom as such, because we encourage company innovation and strategic input from all of our employees.”
As for the future, despite uncertain times for manufacturers and retailers as a whole, things are looking promising at Friendly. A totally revamped e-commerce website came last year and is making it easier for the company’s global customer base to research, compare and buy their goods. There are exciting new products on the horizon too, including a natural non-bio washing powder, pet soap, deodorant stick, castile soap and a sports/shower bar. On top of that, new opportunities to be ethical are actually arising because of the company’s growth, not despite it. For example, the move to larger premises has enabled Friendly to switch to returnable Intermediate Bulk Containers for storage, reducing its recycling need and minimising packaging too.
Geoff explained, “As a normal business grows, so the damage done by any irresponsible decisions would be scaled up correspondingly. At Friendly, though, we’re anything but normal. We’ve stuck rigorously to our morals right since day one, and we’re enjoying the fact that our growth is actually bringing us ethical advantages as well as commercial ones. It’s a case of the bigger we get, the more good we can do!”
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