I first came across permaculture in a remote cabin, in northern British Columbia whilst living on a blockade with indigenous First Nations. My main job was household help and keeping the cabin occupied so the loggers or oil company didn’t burn it down when the First Nation family left to do their campaigning (as had already happened three times). Two hours by snowmobile and truck from the nearest town, with limited electricity there was often little to do but read. Then another supporter turned up who was a permaculture gardener with a set of books including a large permaculture textbook. I read that book avidly. It was a lightbulb going on in my mind. I’d repeatedly find myself nodding and saying “Of course!”. A year later, my sister and I started a small organic toiletries company. I’d never felt drawn to the world of business, but what if business could be done according to the Permaculture Principles? What if the economy could mimic the ecology? What if one day business could become regenerative?
A permanent culture means changing every part of our culture, including our economy, to something sustainable. But how do we transition from here to there? If you’re thinking of incorporating permaculture thinking into your business here’s some advice from the last 7 years as we’ve walked that path.
Talk about Permaculture right at the very start How you design your products and systems at the start will determine whether it is easy or hard to reduce your environmental impact. For example we decided to do a jar return scheme so we knew from the start we needed to price that in and get stockists where the jars could be returned easily. You’re designing a business, but you’re also part of designing an economy. What you do will affect others in the economy. Making sure all the business partners are on the same page will save a great deal of conflict when the pressure is on later. Being clear about your ethics will change how you interact with other businesses and customers in all manner of subtle ways. When we were thinking about legal structures, the products we wanted to do and how we wanted to interact with other businesses Permaculture was the language and framework. When we talk about other businesses, some are within the same biological ‘family’ as us and some the same species. Other small organic toiletries companies would be the same species as us. We don’t refer to them as competitors but rather sisters or potential friends and mates - they want to see the same world that we do. A large predatory multinational however would be a competitor. They compete with us for the business but also work directly against our aims, trying to disrupt smaller brands.
Keep coming back to the Permaculture Design Principles regularly At first we only did an annual review, looking at the business strategy against the permaculture principles. This wasn’t enough and over the course of a year we could have a lot of creep in direction. I recommend having the permaculture principles in front of you whenever you’re making business decisions and going down the list and thinking about each one as you make the decision. In addition to this doing an annual input/output review will help you work towards a circular system. Recognising the hidden environmental impact of all aspects of the business will save you time and money later. For example putting your website on a green hosting platform at the start is a lot easier than moving your large website over to one later.
Make public commitments From the outset we decided to be organic, synthetic free and plastic free. At first that was often extremely difficult. We had difficulty sourcing packaging. It heavily limited the products we could make - without the use of artificial preservatives or thickeners everything had to be naturally preserving, and would have shorter shelf lives and be harder to store. It also greatly increases the cost for ingredients to be entirely organic. For example there is a huge price difference between organic and non-organic hazelnut oil or rose essential oils. There are also some products that are simply not available as organic. But then that’s the point isn’t it? By making a clear public commitment it shows you where the human world needs to change to be able to survive. By having that strictness we were able to hold firm to a course which otherwise we would have compromised on, and over the years it's become easier and easier to source alternatives to plastic, and only having organic ingredients has shaped us in a beautiful way. So when the world catches up you’ll find yourself ahead of the game. We also decided to give 10% of our profit to climate action and knowing that from the start makes it easier to put the money aside. You can read about 'our mission' here...
Make friends and get help Unlike traditional ideas for competitive business, permaculture businesses can collaborate towards the shared aim of a sustainable planet. To be resilient against larger predatory capitalism we’re stronger together. As well as being part of the Permaculture Association, last year we joined a new business network called Positive. They have a great resource of seminars, events and publications about Regenerative Business. Longer term we’d like to have direct collaborations with the growers of our ingredients and stronger networks and friendships with other businesses so we can help each other and share resources.
Below are some specific examples of how we at The Green Woman have used each Design Principle:
1. Observe and Interact We ask staff to look for trends or changes in customers, other businesses and the market and use that to look ahead.
2. Catch and Store Energy We save money when we are prosperous to help us with unexpected difficult times. This was very useful for COVID. We seek out mentors and help and knowledge from others. We gather staff and customer ideas for later use. We would like to one day buy premises where we could generate our own electricity.
3. Obtain a Yield We look at ways that staff can be nourished by the business, for example through healthy pay, verbal appreciation, enough holiday, socials, celebration and training. We arrange the business to keep our work healthy and avoid stress. If we’re getting stressed, it’s a sign that we need to change what we’re doing.
4. Apply Self-Regulation and Feedback We do not borrow from investors but instead have grown slowly within our own capacity. We monitor our jar returns and want to improve the proportion that get returned. We listen to customer feedback and change products or develop new ones. When the lockdowns closed lots of our stockists and reduced business we planned the closure of one of our units to reduce our overheads and reorganised our roles for more sales focus. This lead to some beautiful improvements in staff roles. 5. Use and Value Renewable Resources We used renewable energy at our Bristol unit and are trying to persuade our landlord at Ludlow to switch. We use recyclable and compostable packaging.
6. Produce no Waste Our unwanted cardboard went to a neighbouring company and they shred it for use as packaging. We are trying to find local people and companies to use our cardboard at our Ludlow unit. We take jars back from our customers and give them a deposit back for their next purchase. We then sterilise and reuse the glass jars.
7. Design from Patterns to Detail We think about the bigger picture of the brand and company before specifics of a product idea. We look at the pattern of how we want the company to grow and live before the individual tasks within it.
8. Integrate, don't Segregate We have staff that work in different locations so keeping them integrated is important. Before COVID we had meeting calls three times a week with all staff so they can share how they are and what they are working on, we then switched to Zoom calls and find them really enjoyable and helpful to keep us together. We all come together once a year to review and celebrate.
9. Use Small and Slow Solutions When we do new product launches we do 'soft' launches to allow us time to see how the product is in the market and use feedback from customers. We avoid large sudden changes that can destabilise the business. We avoid large step changes which would require loans or overstretch us. 10. Use and Value Diversity We planned for as many of our jobs to be able to be done from home. This was partly with the idea that it would be easier for parents with childcare. We also personally like working from home and it meant we could delay renting premises. When COVID hit this was a great advantage as we were already set up for people to work from home very easily and we didn’t have to close. We would like to have a larger diversity of products to provide a broad stable base as the market changes. We would like to have a more racially diverse staff to help underpin our decisions and outlook so that we can be more connected to the desires and difficulties of all customers and other businesses.
11. Use Edges and Value the Marginal We turned a car parking space at our Bristol unit into a small garden and seating area for staff. We want to use social media to connect with customers at the edge of our business. We want to listen to staff who have different experiences and viewpoints. We converted an unused storage shed into an office for Eve to work at home.
12. Creatively Use and Respond to Change With growing numbers of small natural toiletries companies starting we want to use that to amplify our messages of healthy business and still have our key selling points stand out. We decided to pay for organic certification so that customers can easily see that message. The COVID pandemic highlighted the importance of soap so we began development of natural, quality soaps that could be used for frequent washing. We try to look ahead to what are the coming needs and gaps for natural products. We would like to be able to source UK grown alternatives for imported ingredients like coconut oil and Shea butter.
One of the big inherent advantages of a permaculture approach is the focus on resilience rather than efficiency. In a highly predictable world, efficiency wins out but in our increasingly changeable social and economic reality it is resilience and sustainability that will last through the storms. Don’t be afraid to do things in a less efficient or less ‘normal’ way, to take the slow and steady path. Change is coming in increasing waves and the diversity of fresh thinking is what will give us a resilient business economy.
Ready to learn more?
Find out more about The Green Woman by visiting our 'Our Story' page.