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A notable winner at the recent UK Growing Business Awards was Bambino Mio, a Midlands-based company that makes washable cloth nappies (and other related products). I’ve written a lot in this blog about the macro drivers behind the rise of impact investing; now I want to try and bring it to life through the stories of some impact entrepreneurs.
These days, disposable nappies account for about 15% of all waste that goes to landfill. That’s a huge cost for local authorities and a huge environmental challenge – which means there must be value in solving it. By persuading more parents to ditch the disposables, Bambino Mio can have a genuinely positive impact on the planet; and in an era when single-use plastics are increasingly under the spotlight, it’s in the vanguard of a category with huge growth potential. But to me it’s also interesting because of what it tells us about impactful businesses more broadly.
The company began life back in the late 1990s when husband-and-wife team Guy and Jo Schanschieff launched a nappy laundry service – an idea they’d heard about when they were travelling (it was big in North America and Australia but largely non-existent in the U.K.). However, they subsequently pivoted into product sales: they felt that as a business model, it was much more scalable than driving round in a van at 6am picking up dirty nappies! At the time, the concept of ethical consumerism was still in its infancy (despite some notable successes like the Body Shop). Although some of their customers had started to ask about products, only about 3% of parents nationally used disposable nappies. However, Guy and Jo correctly recognised that by helping to solve this big environmental challenge, they could potentially tap into a huge growth trend.
(I feel as though I’m meeting more and more entrepreneurs like this – who are building an impact-driven business not just because they want to make the world a better place, but also because they see it as a big market opportunity. Guy and Jo were arguably ahead of the curve though).
It hasn’t all been plain sailing for Bambino Mio. The company had looked to expand overseas at a relatively early stage – but in the aftermath of the financial crisis, it lost some of its key distributors and growth went backwards. However, after a tricky few years, Guy and Jo were able to turn things around. And for the last few years in particular, Bambino Mio’s growth has really taken off.
So what changed? Clearly in the belt-tightening years that followed the crisis, the financial argument for washable nappies (i.e. that it generally saves parents money) became much more compelling.
More significantly, though, we’ve seen an evolution of consumer attitudes: people have become increasingly aware of the social and environmental impact of their buying decisions, and they’re much more inclined to act as ethical consumers (when they can afford to do so). It’s not just Bambino Mio that has benefited from this, of course: it can also be seen in the success of impact-driven businesses like glasses-maker Warby Parker, or Toms Shoes, or the giant Brazilian cosmetics business Natura, and many others.
Some of this evolution has been driven by governments and the media. For example, the recent policy focus on single-use plastics – prompted in part by the Blue Planet documentary series – has been hugely beneficial to Bambino Mio: given disposable nappies are among the worst culprits, the core environmental message behind washable nappies suddenly feels even more important and timely.
But the other critical point is that technology has made it much easier for impact-driven brands to communicate their benefits directly to consumers. When Bambino Mio first started selling products, it relied on finding distributors to place them in stores (especially overseas); so the power was all with store buyers, who generally cared less about environmental arguments. Guy credits much of the business’s recent growth to its enhanced use of digital marketing and social media, which has allowed it to speak directly to customers rather than having to go through intermediaries. (In fact, he says, the power balance has now tilted the other way: retailers recognise that brands with strong customer relationships can actually drive people into their stores). Brands like Bambino Mio can tell their impact story to their target audience in a much faster, cheaper and simpler way – which is accelerating this change in attitudes.
The numbers tell their own story: today, over 30% of parents have used washable nappies, according to Guy. Like Warby Parker and Natura, Bambino Mio is proving that an impactful business model can actually be a driver of commercial success. Let’s hope this inspires a few more entrepreneurs to follow suit!
December 19, 2018 at 10:53AM
Forbes – Entrepreneurs