I don’t think I need to sum up the last few months. We’ve all been glued to our newsfeeds, have read the headlines, and have seen the chaos unfolding in countries around the world. Whilst our hearts go out to those who are suffering, many of us are also deeply worried about our jobs and businesses.
Ethique is primarily an exporter, with 85% of our revenue coming in from offshore. Of this, the vast majority comes from the USA and UK. Both those countries have been hit very hard by Covid-19 and no one expects to see a significant improvement in some months. And when the health crisis recedes, another, which is already an enormous concern, looms even bigger. The economic one.
I am getting a lot of questions about how Ethique is handling the crisis so I thought I would jot what we have done down, in the hopes it may well help another company.
My Chief Operating Officer, Tristan, saw this coming weeks before most of us did – including me. I was relatively blasé as so many of us were. He put the kibosh on traveling in February (we do a LOT of it), implemented an infection prevention and control policy for our head office, obtained sanitisers and started looking hard at expenses. Thankfully, the technology we needed to work remotely he had already implemented years ago, which took a lot of pressure off when the time came.
It took me a little longer to appreciate the coming crisis. But several weeks before the New Zealand lockdown, it became clear that this wasn’t going to be reined in quickly and we needed to start preparing. Thanks in tremendous part to Tristan’s forward thinking, we were on the front foot to transition our team to working remotely, before the decision was made for us by the government.
Keeping a happy, healthy team has come easier than expected. We are insistent on daily morning video calls where everyone is dressed, with a cup of tea or coffee, where they talk about their previous day, their tasks ahead, any obstacles and usually tell a joke or something personal to reinforce our close bond. We have always had a wonderful atmosphere in the office, where it often feels like going to work with friends, rather than coworkers. Whilst there is of course a line that shouldn’t be crossed between friendship and manager, this close bond has ensured every team member feels supported when they needed it. We have always had additional paid time off and steps in place to maintain income for our team in the event that they become unwell or are unable to work. We have also implemented additional support structures for our team and immediate families should it be required.
With, what is probably the worst timing ever, two of our team started on the day we all began working from home. So some of them haven’t even met in person yet. Despite that, they are performing beautifully. The team is as productive, capable and as passionate as ever, despite our new normal.
We haven’t stopped paying our lease and typically pay our suppliers on the day they invoice which makes their lives easier. We’ve maintained our charitable commitments and continued paying all our staff. Yes, we applied for and received the subsidy which we are incredibly grateful for. I know some companies have had to make awful decisions around each of these already and I feel deeply for each of them. I am incredibly aware that we are lucky to be in the position we are in.
So, once we were more comfortable with where we were, we started to look to where we wanted to be.
Where were the opportunities to fill in the gaps that were already starting to appear?
Which countries were doing better than others? What channels were doing well?
Being in the hygiene business and supplying both grocery & pharmacy, we have been deemed essential from the beginning, so we have been fully operational throughout lockdown (though of course all working from home). Since lockdown, half of the team has been devoted to ‘business as usual,’ while the other half are looking at opportunities that we can take advantage of to keep the business running and doing good.
We are looking at online sales, as are so many other businesses. It keeps businesses operational and lessens the numbers of people congregating in stores.
We are looking at offshore markets which are showing early signs of recovery and where there may be a way in.
We are continuing to invest in research and development and whilst the schedule has been a little pushed back, we have some very exciting products ready to go when the time is right.
The biggest challenge we are faced with is moving freight offshore. With few aircraft in the sky, airfreight space is tight and extremely expensive. Sea freight is picking up the load but is becoming just as competitive. This isn’t a situation we expect to improve in the short term, but like all challenges we are facing, it can be managed.
And then there is the other facet to all this… what can we do to help others who are not as fortunate?
I am so inspired by companies around the world making a difference. Companies like Little Yellow Bird who reached out to their community for help, then passed that on to their suppliers in India by providing 2500 meals.
That was an easy one, so we matched their donation and together we’ve provided 5000 meals for migrant workers who would otherwise get almost no support. Want to help too? You can – get in touch with LYB here.
We are helping small businesses who are struggling through mentoring and advice, both in NZ and offshore. We have donated product to frontline health workers and operate a cashback discount for any who order from us too.
I watched Allbirds donate 500,000 pairs of shoes to frontline health workers to help them in their fight against Covid-19. Companies around the world donated bottles of hand sanitiser to help protect them. We tried to do this (in glass bottles), and would you believe it, we couldn’t get enough ethanol or isopropyl alcohol to make it.
So, we have turned to what is natural to us, and what happens to be the single most effective agent against this virus, which is plain old soap. Something that seems to be ubiquitous, yet over 2.3 billion people don’t have access to it. A simple method of protection, yet unavailable to so many.
We make bars, and lots of them, but very few of them are actual soap.
So today we are launching our ‘Super Soap Project.' Something I hope may well become a permanent fixture in some form or other.
And whilst I love the idea of donating as much as we can, we need to be so careful of cash right now. We may have a big international footprint (in 16 countries), but we are still a small, rapidly growing business with global aspirations. Since I founded Ethique in 2012, we have donated 20% of our profit to charity, but there is no point being the "world's most sustainable cosmetics company," if that doesn't include financial sustainability.
So, we have come up with a compromise.
We are directly donating 10,000 bars to our charitable partners who will distribute it to where it is needed.
Additionally, for every full-size bar of any product sold on our website to any country in the world, we will donate another soap bar to those who need it.
Super Soap is our newest project and I hope you will join us.
We fully expect to survive this. And we want to help others do that too.