More than 11.6 million businesses in the U.S. were owned by women in 2017, according to the National Association of Women Business Owners, and they collectively generated $1.7 trillion in sales.
Many female-owned businesses also incorporate a focus on sustainability. “Women are stepping into their own power and doing it in a very female way,” says Carrie Ellen Phillips, partner, co-founder and head of the sustainability practice with strategic consulting and communications agency BPCM. For many women, that means not just making money, she says, but aligning their businesses with their personal values.
NRF spoke with a few companies led by women who are focused on sustainability as it applies to their businesses, their communities and the environment.
When Aisle launched in 1993 under its former name of Lunapads, it was an early producer of modern, reusable feminine hygiene products. The endeavor was challenging. “It’s difficult to bring in a new product that consumers may not be ready to embrace,” says co-founder and CEO Suzanne Siemens. Bricks-and-mortar retailing was struggling at the time yet ecommerce sales were taking off.
“We pivoted to online,” Siemens says, adding that online transactions now account for 80 percent of Aisle’s sales. The company has grown to 12 employees with millions in revenue. “We’re seeing a surge in interest, especially among millennials and Generation Z, who are very conscious of what they’re buying,” she says.
Aisle’s products aren’t just reusable; many of its materials are organic or recycled. The company’s pads are made at a female-owned, zero-waste factory in Vancouver, British Columbia. Aisle period underwear is manufactured in Cambodia in a state-of-the-art factory that provides workers with free hot lunches and pension plans, among other benefits.
Accessing capital, a challenge common to many female-owned businesses, can be even more pronounced when the company’s products are used only by women. However, once a company proves the viability of its business model, lenders tend to assess it like they would most other businesses, Siemens says.
Aisle’s long-term goal is to help “change the model of capitalism so that sustainability, transparency, and taking care of the supply chain and the community are equally important as the top line,” Siemens says. That care of the community continues through the current pandemic.
“Aisle is a small business, and COVID-19 is hard on small businesses, and we're experiencing our share of challenges,” Siemens says. “We are dealing with it by being resourceful and committed to our community. This includes a pivot to mask-making to support our most vulnerable populations, delivering great products to our community, and doing our best to provide a helpful, thoughtful presence for all who connect with us during this time.”
Autumn Adeigbo was voted “best dressed” in fourth grade — recognition of the colorful, printed outfits her Nigerian mom sewed for her. “I loved getting dressed each day,” she says.
In 2016, Adeigbo started her eponymous fashion brand, a collection of vibrant, ethically made women’s garments. “I think of myself as an artist,” she says. “I’m creating wearable art.”
Adeigbo’s collection is designed in New York by a team of women and sewn there in female-owned production facilities. Beading is done in Rwanda and India by female artisans who are paid fair-trade wages. “I don’t understand why you wouldn’t want to make sure the people working for you are doing well,” she says.
Autumn Adeigbo fashions are made to order, slashing the volume of material that might otherwise be wasted if they produced for inventory. The garments are crafted to stand the test of time. “We believe in ‘slow fashion,’” she says.
To be sure, others questioned her approach. “No one believed in a non-inventory model. I was told people don’t want to wait for things.” Adeigbo is proving them wrong; her company has more than doubled its revenue each year.
While Adeigbo’s love is fashion, she earned a degree in economics from Spelman College, as well as a degree in fashion design from Parsons School of Design. Running a company means calling on her business acumen as much as her design talents. “You have to learn both sides,” she says.
As for leading her company through the pandemic? “I’m staying positive and ramping up my digital strategy,” she says.
On building ventures and driving sustainability:
Suzanne Siemens, AISLE: When it comes to sustainability, start small. “Start with steps that are achievable and cost effective. Get small wins and then keeping going.”
Autumn Adeigbo: There will be naysayers. Believe in yourself, but also listen to the market. If the market’s not responding, adjust. Find that balance.
Sarah Kaeck, Bee’s Wrap: “Never stop asking the question, ‘Is this the best way we can be doing this?’”
Stacy Flynn, Evrnu: “So many people told me that what we wanted to do couldn't be done — that if it could, it would have been done already. Do not forget that no one can see what you see. Sometimes you need to take a chance on yourself and just go for it.”
Thyme Sullivan, TOP: Ask for help. “When people know you’re doing something for the right reasons, there’s a groundswell of kindness.”
In her search for a sustainable way to store homemade bread and other foods, Sarah Kaeck founded a company. “I came across the idea of waxing fabric with beeswax, resin and jojoba oil, and began experimenting at home until I’d found a formula that worked for us,” she says. Bee’s Wrap now employs 40 workers.
Kaeck’s lack of business background proved to be an asset, she says. “It freed me to do things the way I wanted to, and not the way I’d seen them done before,” she adds. At the same time, she faced challenges in balancing her “utopian ideals” with the day-to-day of making a business run.
One key has been building a strong team. Early on, Kaeck and her employees were waxing wraps by hand. “I knew that in order to scale, we needed to design a machine to wax fabric faster and in larger quantities,” she says. That meant finding an engineer who helped design the machine and partnering with a friend who’s been able to bring each textile design to life. “One of my strengths has been finding the right people to help solve problems,” she says.
Baked into the company culture is a drive to “to always be looking for a solution that is good for the planet, for people, and for Bee's Wrap,” Kaeck says.
As of early April, Bee’s Wrap was working on a small scale, using volunteer sewing enthusiasts to craft face masks in its local community for health and elder care facilities in need.
When Stacy Flynn traveled to Asia in 2010, she’d already visited many areas across the globe in her positions within the textile and apparel industries. However, this was the first time she visited a region with many subcontractors. “I saw how the textile industry treated the environment,” Flynn says. One turning point: She couldn’t see a colleague standing next to her because the air pollution was so thick.
At the time, sustainability and textiles weren’t typically spoken about together. Conversations about sustainability were often focused on energy and the food supply — even though each year across the globe, about 50 million tons of clothing are thrown away. And about 90 percent of clothes are made with either cotton or polyester, both of which consume many resources.
Flynn and co-founder Christo Stanev launched Evrnu, a textile research and development company working to break down garment waste. In an early win, they converted a t-shirt from solid to liquid and back to solid. NuCycl, one of Evrnu’s suite of technologies, extracts the molecular building blocks of the original fiber so pristine new fibers can be created, again and again. NuCycl products will hit the market in later this year.
Challenges lie ahead, Flynn notes. Consumers will need to change behavior. The infrastructure through which companies can receive used garments still needs to be built. However, EVRNU’s technology will “enable apparel companies to decouple their growth from their impact on the environment,” Flynn says.
These days, Evrnu’s business approach has pivoted in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. “In particular, we created specific task forces to focus on critical objectives. One of those objectives is to help our brand and retail partners find solutions for their excess inventory. We have known for many years that the apparel business model was unstable based on the culture of chasing markdown dollars. This is why we developed Evrnu technologies, to create a more stable business model for brands and retailers by enabling them to convert waste into new resources.”
The average American woman uses more than 12,000 tampons in her lifetime, according to The Organic Project, a provider of organic, biodegradable feminine hygiene products.
Thyme Sullivan and Denielle Finkelstein, cousins and TOP co-founders, left corporate jobs in 2018 to start the company. Their catalyst? Their conclusion that the “category had a lot of flaws,” Sullivan says.
Two primary shortcomings, she says, were a lack of transparency about the materials within the products, and their single-use nature. Moreover, nobody wanted to talk about feminine hygiene products. So, Sullivan found a tampon costume online and wore it while running a 10K race. It worked: “People started talking,” she says. “It changed the narrative.”
Balancing sustainability and earning money can require challenging trade-offs. For instance, most traditional tampons come with plastic applicators, which are easier to use but don’t easily biodegrade. It took TOP a year to source a biodegradable applicator made from sugar cane — they’re calling it “the planticator,” Finkelstein says.
The wait was hard, especially since both women are the primary breadwinners in their families. “But we’re building a business for the future,” Finkelstein says. “It was important to stay true to our core values.”
With the pandemic changing business plans around the world, TOP is no different. “Over a month ago, we re-forecasted our 2020 and 2021 plans and expenses to maximize our long-term cash flow into 2021. Changes in where the consumer is spending have created an opportunity for TOP to shift its planned advertising expenditures to focus on short-term online selling opportunities. We are seeing triple digit growth on Amazon and our own website,” Finkelstein says.
“Our goal for 2020 was and still is to launch into retail stores, but now at a slower pace than planned. This month, we will also be donating 110,000 period products to women and girls in need in partnership with Period Inc.”