How can we achieve net-zero carbon and halt the climate crisis? By working together to drive widescale, meaningful change.
To this end, Delphis CEO Mark Jankovich meets fellow eco-entrepreneurs to swap insights and inspiration. This week, we’re honoured to welcome Laura Harnett, founder of sustainable cleaning retailer, Seep.
Mark Jankovich: A big welcome, and thank you for being our second in the series after Toast Ale!
Laura Harnett: Toast was actually one of my inspirations, so this was clearly meant to be.
MJ: Excellent. Please start by telling us about your background and the story of Seep.
LH: I was a buyer, a consultant, and then I went into Selfridges as the chief of staff, but my corporate life was at odds with how I was living, the products I was using, alongside being very aware of things going on in the world, and at some point you can't live this kind of separate life. Then I was diagnosed with and treated for breast cancer, and that puts a fire in your belly. I’d had the idea for Seep for quite some time and at the beginning of lockdown I decided to finally go for it.
MJ: What is the idea, in a nutshell?
LH: I believe it should be easier for people to make sustainable choices. I was in my local Waitrose and I had my recycled toilet paper and my organic food in the trolley, but then I went down the cleaning aisle – bin liners, sponges, cloths, washing-up brushes, mops, all of that bumpf – and it looked like the 1950s. There wasn't a sustainable product anywhere to be seen. I wanted to put in some innovation, to give people an alternative.
MJ: I think you've succeeded in that for sure, Laura. And as you say it should be easier to make better choices. What do you think businesses should be doing to drive this impact at scale?
LH: You have to keep peeling back the layers of what you've got in your supply chain, because it’s not ingrained. The guys doing our packaging and our printing, they don’t automatically think of sustainability unless you ask questions. And if they come back with a crappy answer or say, "oh, it’s biodegradable", that’s not good enough.
MJ: I hear you work with On A Mission. How are they different from the 55 million others doing carbon offsetting?
LH: They are scientists and engineers who work in reforestation. They’re very data-driven, there’s no ego, no flashy branding, just great decision-making and backup for how they choose their projects. If I feel that somebody has the same sort of ethics as me, that goes a long way.
MJ: Did they help you with your LCA, the Life-Cycle Assessment?
LH: Yeah, we’re at the early stages of doing that as part of our B Corp certification. They look at what your products are made of, how they’re made, how you're shipping them, the mileage, and then they give you a carbon footprint based on the way that you're currently sourcing. We offset three times our footprint, but the idea is that you keep the money the same, even though your footprint – hopefully – comes down, so you’re offsetting more and more over time. How have you done it? Any tips?
MJ: For us, scope one and two was easy, the hard piece is scope three. It's auditing our factories at a real deep detail. They are moving in the right direction, but I'm almost at the point of panicking about scope three and how we can draw that baseline. Because you can't say you’re going to race to zero and not know where you started.
LH: Exactly. I mean, it's really great to hear, because that's the stuff I endlessly beat myself up about, you know? How far back can we go? But knowing that even someone like you, Mark, is still worrying about that sort of thing, actually makes me feel better. If I can just chip away at it and understand where I'm at, anything that I can move forwards is a little victory.
MJ: And the whole point of this session is that it’s 100% our responsibility – 100% our responsibility! – and it winds me up that you have massive corporates that are putting their heads in the sand and saying, it’s not me! We are talking about such systemic change and you're not seeing it on a massive scale. The only one is Tesla where, at a binary level, they’ve redesigned the entire infrastructure and that's what we need. We need somebody to blow a billion dollars and be broke and be crying on the floor because he's got cars that nobody wants to buy and be within seconds of shutting down and then… make it! Everybody's now copying him, and governments are going we need to stop combustion engines!
LH: I couldn't agree more, it's the big disruptors that are prepared to challenge their industry. I'm biased, but I think Selfridges has done some really good stuff in that space. They did the ‘No More Fish in The Sea’ campaign years before it was the thing that caught on. It really comes from the top, so Alannah Western, the chairman, and the MD Anne Pitcher, they baked it into the strategy.
MJ: Alannah is a real stand-up leader.
LH: And brave. Because she said, "Look, it's going to impact our bottom line, but I believe so much in this".
MJ: What's so important about case studies and telling stories is we need to tell people that stuff is happening, things are changing, and this is the way you can behave, and they'll follow. If we can keep telling great stories and can collaborate on how we can work together, we will move the needle.
LH: If you can get people to love a brand, and an ethos, and a great looking product, and it also just happens to be sustainable, I'm good with that. A great example is Stella McCartney who, when she became a designer, said, I'm not using any animal products. Another example is Good Club. Are you listed with them?
LH: Okay, so they’ve really thought it through from beginning to end. You get the crate that you can decant when you’re buying it loose, and they’ve made it super easy for the customer. The ethos they have on the buying side, being really clear about what they think is okay and what is not, I think that’s a real challenge to other grocery retailers.
MJ: The more I learn about them, the more I like their passion. What about your journey to getting B Corp certified? How’s that going?
LH: We are very early days, but I wanted to build Seep from the ground up in a way that was right, and I knew that B Corp was kind of a North Star that would guide me in the decision making. What works really well with me is, if I make a public statement about something, by God am I going to make sure that it happens!
MJ: I remember doing my B Corp submission. Oh, my God, that was hard yards! You know, Laura, it's amazing the overlap, because my ethos has also been, we’ve just got to do it, we've got to keep going and we've got to be true to ourselves. We have to think through all of our procurement, we have to make those better choices.
LH: Yeah, and it's tough when you're a new business, because those choices add cost. And you don't have the budget sometimes, so they're not choices that you make lightly. I think that's the hardest thing actually, how do you tread the balance of being as sustainable as you can be without killing your margin along the way?
MJ: I mean, that’s the reality of being an entrepreneur and a disrupter and delivering something completely new. I've got long-suffering shareholders who have been around for three times longer than they'd hoped, but you've just got to keep going and hope that it will come right. Last question. Where did the name come from?
LH: My husband's an orthopaedic surgeon and he loves an acronym. He came up with Sustainable Eco Everyday Products or something, and I thought, God, that’s naff! But then I thought, hang on a minute, it spells Seep, it’s got a lovely sound and a graphic designer would get quite excited about it. And it stuck.
MJ: That’s pretty cool. Well, thank you for taking time to talk.
LH: I mean, I have a ton more questions but they're all really practical, like plastic bottles and inks and, you know, no end of it. I’ll have to set up another time to pick your brains!
MJ: That is the point of Collaborate to Zero. I want to share what I know, my suppliers and so on, and get tips from others and kind of help push the whole thing. So, watch this space…