Andy Redfern talks about how his own blue and green dreams led to the founding of Ethical Superstore
Instead of shopping by brand or store, how about shopping by ethics? This might sound crazy and complicated but Ethical Superstore makes it easy. Whatever your ethical stance, it’s highly likely you’ll find something to suit. You don’t have to declare your values, you just search for what you need – washing-up liquid, disposable nappies, solar device chargers, whatever – and you know if it’s carried it satisfies a number of ethical criteria. Its disposable nappies, for example, are made from bamboo fibres that are easily cultivated, need no fertilisers or pesticides, and are 70 percent more absorbent than cotton. Ethical Superstore is a great idea and it owes half of its existence to co-founder and CEO Andy Redfern.
In the beginning
After eight years as international director of Traidcraft, Britain’s leading fair trade organisation, Redfern decided to start a new business putting ethically-minded consumers in touch with tens of thousands of products reflecting their values.
A mutual friend pointed out his shared aspirations with co-founder Vic Morgan, who’d formerly helped Traidcraft establish a candle supply chain. Morgan, a Harvard MBA, had worked at a major consulting firm and, most importantly, had created a wholesale fair trade business in the USA, now owned by a subsidiary of National Geographic. Redfern, as well as establishing Traidcraft, was a closet techie with an electronic engineering degree and eight years’ experience writing for and editing computer magazines.
In 2004, exploiting their complementary backgrounds, Redfern and Morgan created a web consulting and marketing company to generate the funds needed to launch their “big idea”. With enough money for six months, they brought in ethical products magazine New Consumer to act as the marketing arm of their fledgling Ethical Superstore.
Realising they needed external funding they wrote their first business plan in October 2005. The first funding round closed in June 2006, followed by new funding rounds every year since. The business doubled in size for three consecutive years. Redfern says, “It’s like starting a new business every year. What worked last year won’t work this year. Last year’s logic becomes this year’s folly. It’s always interesting, never boring.”
So how does someone with an electronic engineering degree come to be running a business like this? The answer lies partly in his techie background – when the company needed an “online marketplace” for other companies’ products Redfern wrote it in three weeks – but also in his introduction to the thinking of EF Schumacher through his 1973 book, Small is Beautiful. Redfern says, “My life has been at its most frustrating when I’ve moved away from the values expressed in that book.” He was 18 when he encountered Schumacher’s work as part of an ecology course at Warwick University and a subsequent “engineering and appropriate design” course module. (It was also the book that changed my life – Ed.) That’s only part of the story, though; the church and its values are important to him too.
Redfern’s Traidcraft work took him to places like Bangladesh, Malawi, India, the Philippines, Zambia, Tanzania, South Africa and Pakistan. He says, “It opened my head up in terms of issues.” Eager to share his new understanding with his family, he encouraged his wife and two of their children (they have five, three of them adopted) to visit Malawi to experience life out there, including 24 hours in a village with no electricity or water. They discovered that “things” don’t make you happy. About the Malawians he recalls, “These people enjoy life and local celebrations despite the absence of things that we call ‘necessities’.”
Redfern is reluctant to speak of dislikes. When pushed, however, he settles for “bad drivers” and “me culture”. The first relates to his having been knocked off his bike twice and side-swiped by a lorry while driving. As for the second, he can’t abide people who are “long on ‘rights’ but short on ‘responsibilities’”.
About what he likes he’s much more forthcoming. He lists his family, sport, the church and green politics. At weekends it’s football, rugby, skateboarding, dance and ballet; and he likes to be around for a couple of hours in the evenings too. This means that his working day starts at 5 a.m. On losing his deposit as Green Party candidate in Gateshead, he reflects, “at least I gave the disaffected something to vote for”.
When asked to look forwards, Redfern notes, “Changing consumption patterns can make a difference. Organic, fair trade, cutting down on meat can all change our impact on the world.” He likes the idea of people coming together to meet local goals, as with the Settle electricity generation project in the Yorkshire Dales. He’s confident about the future for companies with sustainability and ethics at their core.
But he’s equally concerned about “green fatigue”, worrying that, “People are becoming immune and weary.” Just like Blue & Green Tomorrow, Redfern believes in making it easy and leading by example. He says, “So much of the green message has been people-bashing; we won’t bash people into doing the right thing. Recycling should be as obvious and instinctive as putting on seat belts when we get in the car; unlike 30 years ago, when we had to be told to ‘belt up’.”
Having spent years thinking and acting differently from the mainstream, Redfern tells us, “Bucking the trend is both easy and hard. It’s easy to say you’re different, but much harder to actually live it.”
Luckily, his life is evidence that it’s worth the effort.