Jenny Derry of Anything But Plastic

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Anything But Plastic is an online shop for sustainable alternatives to plastic products; reducing consumption and tackling plastic pollution.

Interviewed over email, August 2020

Jenny: “In 2016 I decided to change my personal buying habits as a reaction to the horrors of plastic pollution; litter in general, but particularly plastic. It doesn’t magically disappear, and recycling just forestalls the process of contaminating the environment. I started actively cutting down, but struggled to find good alternatives. The issue hadn’t hit the mainstream and there wasn’t one UK place to get everything. I did a lot of tortuous research, trial and error to find the best replacements, and thought; wouldn’t it be nice to spare everyone that and have it all in one place? Launching a website and online shop was a natural progression.

When I had the initial idea, I was standing around doing nothing for long periods working in an outdoors shop; highly conducive to planning something more productive. The shop also generated massive plastic packaging waste; everything came individually packaged, which we’d unwrap and put out. Consumers had no idea about this, which increased my stance against plastic production and pollution. I imagined a shop selling plastic-free items whilst also getting rid of plastic in the supply chain. In June 2017, having endured enough micromanaging from management, I quit my job. A great relief, and one I’ve never looked back from. I launched ABP in October 2017, living rent-free with my parents whilst I set it up, a privilege I know not everyone starting a business has. Quitting my job was empowering and a great motivator, as it meant I had to fully go for it with Anything But Plastic.

Coming up with the name was easy. Our products are plastic-free alternatives to items either made of, or packaged in plastic. Best-sellers are bathroom products like bamboo toothbrushes. The bathroom is the easiest place to make changes, with so many different products that can be easily replaced.

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Customers like ABP because I’m transparent and honest. I don’t sell ‘snake oil’, but I do provide a dose of reality. There’s a lot of my opinions on the website, but I don’t disguise them as anything else, and if a product won’t work for some people or has drawbacks, I’ll say so. I have a section on each product page called ‘Is it worth it?’  where I compare the price of the plastic-free product with its plastic counterpart people would be switching from. Sometimes the answer to ‘is it worth it’ is… ‘only if you think it is’. Too honest? Maybe for most businesses, but I don’t want to be like most businesses.

I write the website copy humorously, which people may or may not enjoy, but thankfully no one has complained I’m not funny . . . yet! Haha. Plastic pollution is pretty depressing, and I don’t want to sell through guilt, so I add humour to otherwise boring products (Have you ever gotten excited about what you clean your teeth with?) I hope to make people think more about their everyday products – what they’re made from, how they’re produced. I struggle to write seriously anyway, it’s easier to be jokey. I’m catering to my own whims, but at least I enjoy it!

I have three part-time employees. My tips for recruiting and retaining a dream team are – employ people who care about the goal of your business, you’ll never have to fight against someone who’s in your corner. If they believe in your mission, they’re more likely to turn up and take initiative than if this is just any old job.

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A big milestone of expanding was getting an office in August 2019; a lifesaver. I was steadily going mad working from home with boxes piled up in a small flat and rarely leaving in case a parcel was delivered. Not ideal working conditions in any way, shape or form. My stress levels and symptoms – (yay, who knew stress had physical symptoms?) decreased dramatically. It’s my biggest ‘we did it!’ moment.

My background includes working in outdoors shops in Leeds, Manchester and Glasgow before starting my own online shop. I didn’t have much ‘back office’ experience of retail, so there was a lot to learn (and still is).

I hadn’t considered running my own business before I started ABP. The ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?’ question used to put the fear in me; not knowing how people decide such things, I’ve never really had any particular career goal in mind. Growing up, I was academically-minded, not particularly entrepreneurial.

In 2017 the sustainable retail sector was a comparatively small market, gaining momentum, but over the past few years demand has skyrocketed. Public awareness of environmental issues is really high now, which is fantastic. People are searching out businesses that align with their values, and the sustainable retail sector is growing as more people realise that businesses don’t have to be a negative drain on humanity and the planet but can be responsible and sustainable. Hopefully, the rise of business models like social enterprises and community interest companies (CIC’s) is here to stay.

In terms of sales and growth, I couldn’t keep up to start with! Growth is challenging when you have to quickly scale up to accommodate demand and adapting to this was hard work. When setting up a business you expect the graft of going out and getting people’s attention, so I was pleasantly surprised when the business began to grow seemingly organically with little prompting.

A challenging time was being consistently a week behind on orders for at least six months in 2018. That was intense, always playing catch up, which isn’t a good situation to be in. At its worst, the list ticked up to 300 orders unfulfilled. These days we’re better at getting orders out on time thankfully. It’s only when something upsets our daily routine that the orders start to build up, rarely, thank goodness.

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I’m not a huge fan of social media, I don’t like using it myself, so haven’t used it intensively for business. Happily, my customers promote ABP via word of mouth. Neither do I want to fall into the social media tropes of giveaways and mindless competitions. We’re supposed to be fostering more mindful consumption and giving away free stuff doesn’t fit with that.

Social media can be a powerful tool, but it doesn’t always work that way. It’s easy to ‘like and share’ but this can distract people from taking meaningful action; feeling you’ve done your part without having to think further about the reality of the problem. We have more agency in the world than we realise, and if we care about the environment, we can probably do something about it.

For a lot of us in western countries, that may mean monetary if not volunteering or helping directly. We can’t all be ‘superhuman’ and save the world, but we don’t need to be, because if we all if we all chip in when we can, it’d be more than enough to create change.

It’s better to do something rather than nothing. Being apathetic and passive about our everyday choices makes things worse, if the norm is repetitively buying products which fuel the destruction of the environment. It lifts your spirits to know that you are helping, even just a little bit. Things get better when we choose to make them better. The issue of plastic pollution has shown just how effective this approach can be, as laws like the microbead ban and plastic cotton bud stick ban have all been ‘bottom-up’ campaigns that went all the way to the top.

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Much to my chagrin, I’ve had no outside investment or funding. There have been opportunities, but I haven’t taken advantage of them, as I’ve been too busy with the day-to-day handling of the business. It’s a shame, as I can tell some of our competitors have had this push up of investment, and I sometimes feel a bit inadequate by comparison. Scotland has quite a few grants and funding opportunities for zero-waste/sustainable/low-carbon/environmental projects and businesses. As ABP started chugging along quite merrily by itself quite quickly, I’ve not felt I had time to manage grant applications. Maybe I’ll get around to it eventually!

My advice for other people wanting to self-finance their business is; start small. I’ve expanded gradually and cautiously, which is my nature when it comes to financial risk. I’d always say be sensible and don’t go beyond your means. That is how I run my business, and it works generally. Don’t buy tons of stock that could go obsolete – something I learnt from my outdoors shop days. One of them had a stockroom – an entire floor full of clothing, some eight years old, never seeing the light of day. It was unlikely to shift, as even styles of functional clothing go out of fashion. A very clear lesson about how not to waste your money. This isn’t to say that I haven’t made these mistakes myself. For example, I bought loads of reusable coffee cups just before every man and his dog started selling them… *facepalm*. I still have quite a lot left, so whenever anyone buys one it makes my day!

I’m not going to lie, there are highs and lows to running your own business, and the low for me has been the stress that comes with the territory. I haven’t done nearly as much as I have wanted to with ABP other than general upkeep because I’ve been stressed. I’m getting better, but I’m not entirely there yet. I wasn’t aware how much it affects your bodily health, like weight gain, dodgy stomach and other not-fun symptoms. I’ve learnt that when I’m under stress I am mostly a ‘freeze’ type of person when it comes to fight or flight responses, which isn’t helpful when you’ve got to run a business, as all the tasks pile up with no one else to do them.

People always mention financial risk when talking about the personal sacrifice of running a business, but this hasn’t bothered me, as I was on minimum wage beforehand, so I didn’t have much to lose. I try and keep as much money in the business as possible so it can grow. I’m not very financially ambitious – I was never out to make a million as the point is to tackle the problem of plastic pollution. If I can pay myself enough to live on, that’s grand for now.

On the flip side, running a business has helped me out personally, as I have a sleeping disorder called idiopathic hypersomnia, and having my own business means no one requires me to get up early in the morning! And I don’t have managers being annoyed at me for falling asleep on the job anymore.

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Some of the highlights have been; a TV appearance on BBC Midlands evening news, during which I brushed my teeth with a bamboo toothbrush…hilarious and not what I ever imagined when starting ABP. Being featured in the Guardian was pretty exciting too! Through ABP I’ve had the opportunity to become a Sea Champion for the Marine Conservation Society and I enjoy the volunteer work I’ve been able to do, although I’d like to do more.

We are working towards the goal of B-corp certification. It fits with ABP’s ethos of being as open and transparent as possible. I think moving in this direction will become more common for businesses in future. To eradicate injustices like poor working conditions/pay and using environmentally harmful substances in products, it has to be.

Happily, I think that society is increasingly interested in the values upheld by certification schemes like B-corp and businesses are taking steps in the right direction. Unfortunately, external auditing costs money as well as time in paperwork. (Whoever said telling the truth was easy clearly never had to prove their truth with a paper trail.) We aren’t quite there yet but it’s coming soon!

My best advice would be; don’t go it alone if at all possible. Having someone whose advice you trust, who is there for you when you need them, whether it be a business partner, mentor, or anyone else, as long as they are invested in the project is important. It’s harder having no one to turn to.

Another good one; separate your work and living space. All of the newbies to working at home will thank me in the future if you implement this! You don’t realise how much your brain needs that separation until you’ve lived without clear boundaries for a long time. You need to switch off from work, and if you can’t physically work because you have removed yourself from the workplace, that is a clear signal for your brain to stop working.

If you work alone, make sure you keep talking to people so you don’t become isolated.

Lastly, accept help from other people when offered – don’t try to shoulder every burden by yourself.”

Anythingbutplastic

1 Comment

  1. Love this article, started trying to cut back on plastic a while ago but admittedly have fallen short again, so nice to be reminded. I also used to work in retail and was shocked at the amount of packaging. One of the reasons I left… can be pretty shocking

    Liked by 1 person

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