Within four months of getting a loan from Foundation East, BeeBee Wraps, a social enterprise manufacturing organic cotton, reusable and compostable food wraps, has created employment for eight people and sales so far have potentially replaced three-million single uses of plastic food wrap. Widespread media coverage is ensuring further traction, including news of a deal working with Sky’s flagship eco-programme, Ocean Rescue. It’s clear to see that for BeeBee Wraps, the story is just beginning ...
‘Wrap. Eat. Wash. Repeat.’ This is the strapline for BeeBee Wraps, an organic, plastic-free alternative to single-use clingfilm and the brainchild of Cambridge-based social entrepreneur, Kath Austin. The strapline’s direct simplicity captures the brand’s tone perfectly, yet growing this eco-brand may not have been quite as simple without Foundation East’s support.
Kath wanted to find a way to minimise her family’s use of plastic and became curious about how people kept food fresh before the invention of clingfilm. A friend advised her that historically people had used waxed cotton and waxed paper to protect food. This led to Kath beginning to make waxed cotton covers for her own use, from her kitchen.
“I spent a few years playing about with it, identifying the best formula and sourcing ethical materials until I was confident it was a good product. Prompted by friends, who were by then also using the waxed cotton wraps I made, I was encouraged to turn my hobby into a business. I listed the product on Etsy, the online handcraft shop, and within 12 hours had two orders, neither of which were from my mum! And the orders just kept coming,” explains Kath.
Based on early sales it became apparent that the product of Kath’s cottage industry had the potential to make a real difference in the world. People are becoming much more conscious of the impact plastic is having on the environment and oceans thanks to the BBC’s Blue Planet and Sky’s Ocean Rescue, but quite how Kath could develop her business to achieve what was needed to make real change, remained a challenge. That was until she enrolled on a Cambridge Social Ventures’ (CSV) weekend. CSV weekends are intended to encourage social ventures to explore if their social idea could be made into a commercial venture using tried and tested business planning techniques. If deemed appropriate, attendees are invited to join an intensive programme, which supports the entrepreneur through their journey from concept to creation and to scale up the operation to make real social impact. Kath was invited to take up one of the few places on the programme.
At the time, Kath was working part-time as a charity fund raiser, so had to make a decision on whether or not she was going to go for it and make BeeBee Wraps into a commercial operation, or to simply keep on doing it small scale in her spare time. After discussing it with her partner and family she made the brave decision to quit her job and concentrate on growing the business.
To make the best and most of resources and to minimise costs it made sense to buy in bulk and to find more efficient ways of manufacturing the wraps, which, at this point were still being cut and waxed by hand. As the order book filled up, Kath needed more staff, meaning that operating from the kitchen table was no longer an option. The first steps in the growth plan then, was to find fit for purpose premises from which to operate. Kath succeeded and soon the team grew from three to five.
To speed the process up, Kath had a vision of waxing the cotton before it was cut. This had the added benefit of reducing wastage, as any scraps could be used as fire-lighters or twist ties. A friend put Kath in touch with Cambridge Consultants, who helped to design bespoke equipment and processes. In order to pay for the new equipment, the business needed finance and Kath explored the options available to a business that hadn’t been trading for very long. Choices were limited.
“We had so much traction in the business that it didn’t make sense to give away equity right now, and, due to our short trading history, our bank was unable to help. We therefore applied for a social loan from Foundation East, who provide business loans and support to small businesses and social enterprises. Foundation East gets funding from individuals and corporations in return for Community Investment Tax Relief.
“Even though I knew starting a business was risky, I was not in a position to risk our family home, which the bank would have expected. Foundation East was able to consider our application on its merits and did not require us to provide any security.” said Kath. “The support we get from our Foundation East account manager is priceless too. This is vital and particularly important for social enterprises. Most of us are in business because we want to make a difference, not because we are business people, necessarily. Tapping into Foundation East’s expertise, alongside the loan has been brilliant.”
As a result of Kath’s hard work, her mentors at CSV and finance from Foundation East, BeeBee Wraps now employs four full time and four part time manufacturing staff, one part time events manager, a part time accountant and a sales and marketing associate.
BeeBee Wraps’ food wrappers are made from organic cotton, tree resin, British beeswax and organic jojoba oil. They are 100% compostable and all the materials are sourced ethically and sustainably, from cotton grower through to production. As each wrap is capable of being used around 100 times, the product is saving the planet from over three-million single usages of non-biodegradable plastic. Furthermore, the company pays their staff at least the Living Wage, and they support bee populations by working alongside beekeeping communities to perpetuate the pollinating population. "We strive to reach zero waste and low impact in everything we do," said Kath.
“We’ve produced BeeBee Wraps for Sky Ocean Rescue, who will be opening an ecommerce platform to sell eco products, and a pop-up shop in Carnaby Street over Christmas. They will be selling co-branded BeeBee Wraps designed by Kate Moss, Cara Delevingne, Fearne Cotton and Sienna Miller.
“The BeeBee Wraps brand is strong and we want to be more than a one product company. We will be looking for other partnering opportunities with organisations that are also on a mission to protect our planet,” concludes Kath.
It seems that Kath Austin has got her sustainable business model wrapped. Push repeat and who knows what could be beyond Sky …
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