As one of the world’s major start-up capitals, London is at the forefront of emerging innovative start-ups tackling some of society’s biggest issues. In recent times, it has also been home to a budding start-up with a sustainable take on retail: GoEthical, which is described as “an ethical retail alternative to Amazon, Etsy and Vinted all under one roof.”
Founded by Finley Cope, the London start-up boasts an ethical marketplace that features styles and products from brands that incorporate ethical practices and sustainable materials, ranging from luxury designer brands like Been London to household essentials such as Ecover.
Sustainability-minded brands are growing fast, as consumer adoption has been increasing, accelerated by the pandemic. Now two-thirds of UK consumers say it has become even more important to them to limit the impact of climate change.
However, whether savvy consumers will pay a premium price tag to support their values has always been a question. But trends do suggest this market has significant potential. For instance, consumer’s demand for sustainable products has risen tenfold in recent years. Further, shoppers demand concrete, demonstrable, and quantifiable claims. ‘Greenwashing’ practices create confusion among consumers and potentially will lead to public backlash against sustainability claims.
Although one thing seems to remain clear: with call for sustainability coming from many quarters, it’s here to stay.
I recently met with the 22-year-old founder to better understand why he founded the company, their vision, market and what they have in store for the future.Christopher Marquis: You’re a young founder, when did you start the company, how did you do this, and how are you getting grips on the start-up world?
Finley Cope: “The journey started back in school 3 years ago, it was at the time everyone was deciding what university they were going to, what career they wanted to pursue, and I had this really strong passion for the environment and to provide consumers with an exceptional and simple ethical retail experience, it was a burning passion that I knew would take me to where I wanted to go, so I went with my gut and started GoEthical.
We bootstrapped the technology costs from friends and family to create an MVP (minimum viable product) which we used to test market demand and get our first handful of retailers, using this we gathered vital customer feedback and data and worked out our product market fit. From this MVP we managed to raise over £200k in a crowdfund which was our first official funding round, this has enabled us to bring the technology and product to where we are today. It’s not easy! Especially without years of experience but I’ve built a fantastic team and support network which helps make up for that, most often passion is all you need to get on the way.”
Marquis: Tell me a little bit about the market you’re operating in and the direction you’re heading within this market?
Cope: “We have a huge £32.8bn UK market to disrupt, but the aim will be to get the everyday consumer behind it, the pandemic accelerated the market by 2-5 years so it’s on the right track but making the products accessible and trustworthy will be key and play a major part in being able to achieve our vision.
Society as of now still has an ingrained consumption problem - only 8% of the UK population purchasing sustainable goods, yet 45% of consumers are actively seeking them so clearly there’s a reality and demand mismatch. I think largely the problem here is there isn’t enough access to genuine ethical alternatives which makes it time consuming for the consumer especially as they look to avoid greenwashing.
Our market scope and opportunity are made up from a few segments, and vetted ethical brands isn’t our only retail vertical; we support the circular economy through our preloved segment, which in turn happens to be one of the best ways to shop sustainably, as well as supporting local British artisans. By bringing these three segments under one roof it ultimately provides accessibility to the three core areas of sustainable retail, whilst also supporting those with a lesser purchasing power.”
Marquis: One of the main consumer deterrents are the perceived extra expense for sustainable products. What’s your view on this?
Cope: “Perceived expense is still an issue but it’s one that’s been slowly busted... take the electric car industry for example, a salesman at a car distribution company said that the biggest pushback to buying electric cars is still price: Everyone says, ‘sure this looks great,’ but few customers buy electric cars. It’s fairly like our industry; everyone loves the idea of shopping ethically, but many are waiting to see if it’s a fad. Accessibility and pricing play an important role in consumer adoption, a lot of our brands ensure that pricing of their sustainable goods are in line with other options, or that their products provide distinct benefits, many of our brands are more cost effective in the long run, take wild deodorant – being slightly more expensive upfront is outweighed by perks such as cheap and easy refills.
Marquis: Greenwashing comes up a lot when talking about ethical retail, what makes you different from a company falsely claiming they’re eco?
Cope: “It’s a space that has traditionally been tricky for consumers to navigate, there are a lot of companies that commonly misuse phrases like ‘eco’ ‘green’ ‘sustainable’ on their products to appear environmentally conscious – but rarely pertaining to scientific standards, that’s where it becomes incredibly difficult for consumers to spot the difference. It’s something like 42% of companies that falsely state their environmental claims, so it’s not a small proportion.
We’ve a strict vetting process against 13 set criteria’s, which all brands need to go through. Most of our sellers hold third party accreditations from official body’s such as GOTS organic, which makes the process much easier for us. For those that don’t meet our values or can’t evidence their claims then we simply turn them away. It’s important for us to only let brands that are truly ethical onto the platform, it’s what we’re about and what we stand by.
Outside GoEthical the industry is getting better, government regulations are making their way through with the recent Green Claims Code by the CMA (Competition and Markets Authority) coming into effect last year, the lack of penalties and oversight previously allowed companies to get away with false claims to mislead consumers, so it’s good to see things are on track.”
Marquis: Tell me about your team and what the company stands for?
Cope: “Our number one value in the company is “committed to ethical”, this is not only how we run GoEthical but also how we build our brand. It is fundamental for us to work with ethical brands we admire and that we share values with, this is true from the people we recruit to the partners we work with. It’s amazing to see why brands join our platform, almost all of them join because of aligning value. We are also very happy to see how the team members individually represent what GoEthical stands for, in their everyday lives, the GoEthical team is filled with people who want to make our planet a better place in their own ways. Our goal is that we can empower consumers to make a small step change in sustainable living without feeling pressured or feeling the need to change their way of life.
For us, sustainability is at the heart of what we do and with this we’re currently B-Corp pending, which will prove the way we do business by embracing the highest standards in sustainability.”
Marquis: What are your plans for expansion?
Cope: “ There are so many exciting things down the line for us! One of our key 2022 milestones has already been achieved with the launch our e-commerce platform goethical.com in March 2022. Until that date we have been app-based only, whilst that speaks to our long-term strategy, we are always striving to expand domain authority, brand and product presence and the e-commerce site was a move in the right direction to achieve this.
In addition, we’re looking to expand to the US markets once we’ve surpassed certain milestones in the UK. We’ll be focusing on the California market first as consumer adoption in this market is trending, then looking to EU expansion. Followed by this we’ll also be looking into fulfilment and eco delivery to control quality, packaging, and delivery times. There’s still a way to go before we begin our expansion journey, so until then it’s heads down, building our seller and buyer growth and creating that dream marketplace flywheel.
We’re also going through our second funding round as we speak which is very exciting! Enabling us to build our brand and get our product out their quicker and get us on our way to secure a market leading brand by enabling everyday consumers to Go Ethical.