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Beyond The Buzzwords: The Businesses Getting Sustainability Right

Words: Ellen Kenny

District and BMW share the same belief that we need to tackle the current triple planetary crisis on climate, biodiversity and pollution. So we’ve teamed up to bring you features on Dublin’s dynamic and creative solutions.

Sustainability is the word on everyone’s lips. People want to shop green, and businesses want to make some green. Several large companies have begun to promote “sustainable lines” and ethical choices, without fully committing to the effort, costs and risks of being a truly sustainable business. For a lot of these businesses, sustainability is a PR campaign, rather than an overarching commitment to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals to promote truly greener business practices and the health and wellbeing of both workers and customers.

In the face of greenwashing, it can be a challenge to commit to sustainable business practices- why bother putting in the effort and face the costs, when bigger businesses are co-opting the sustainable image and still making money? But here in Ireland, there are countless growing businesses showing that you can develop an authentic sustainable model and still succeed. We partnered with BMW to speak to some of these businesses who are successful, not despite their sustainable commitments, but because of them.

HUH (How’s Ur Head) Clothing

Mark Donnelly

In 2021, Mark launched HUH Clothing, a startup focused on physical and mental comfort while normalising conversations about how we’re really feeling.

“I say ‘casual clothing, comfortable conversations’,” Mark tells District, “Ultimately we’re trying to make everyone turn everyone into a mental health advocate, by something like a t-shirt, a crewneck, a hoodie, a hot water bottle.”

HUH stands for “How’s Ur Head”, and all products from the brand have this logo with the intention of increasing awareness around mental health, with ten per cent of all sales going to local grassroot mental health charities around Ireland.

HUH’s products don’t shove mental health advocacy down your throat, but simply serve as a reminder that mental health is part of everyday life. Mark hopes that by getting his clothes out in the world, people will realise “Well if he’s talking about it, or he feels the same way as I do, I’m not alone here, this is not just me. I’m not the outsider. This is normal.”

All of HUH’s products are produced sustainably, with t-shirts, hoodies and body warmers made from organic cotton and recycled polyester. Mark explained that HUH has also chosen a sustainable shipping model so you know the clothes on your back are doing as much good as possible.

For Mark, the decision to make his mental health-themed business sustainable was an obvious one: “[Sustainability] really mirrors mental health and taking care of yourself. If you’re not practising good mental health and well-being practices and techniques on a daily basis, just like being a sustainable and ethical person within your business, it will all come crumbling down, whether you like it or not, so it really mirrors each other.”

Being complementary to mental health practices doesn’t mean that being sustainable doesn’t have its costs. Mark admitted that it can be tempting to find less sustainable but cheaper options for the business, especially if it would lead to higher margins donated to charity. He estimates that HUH could increase their margins by 60 per cent by going to a less ethical business model. 

But according to Mark, keeping an eye on the long term goals of HUH motivates him to continue producing ethically: “If you’re using unsustainable and unethical and immoral practices, you’ll get nowhere. Yeah, I guess I could make more money and make more margin, but five years down the line, I wouldn’t really be able to live with that.”

“Even if I’m the smallest business in the world, every little bit helps. You have to get started somewhere.”

Mark acknowledges the challenges of sustainable production for customers as well as businesses: “If you price [clothes] at 70 quid, who’s going to come and buy that? One time I sat down and asked myself, ‘Mark, when was the last time you bought something for that?’ And it was probably only like twice this year. So it is really expensive.”

In the current cost of living crisis, Mark doesn’t expect total eco-purity from customers, but he encouraged people to think smarter about the clothes they buy and their longevity: “If you are shopping sustainably, you have to shop less, or you will be shopping less. If you’re going to fast fashion, you’re going to spend more in the long run because you’re just going to keep churning through shirts, hoodies, whatever it might be.”

“Nobody benefits from the big fat cats who are making loads of money, but it really has a negative impact on people around the world, industries around the world, your bank account because you’re buying more that is of less quality.”

“[Sustainability] really mirrors mental health and taking care of yourself. If you’re not practising good mental health and well-being practices and techniques on a daily basis, it will all come crumbling down”

Mark Donnelly

Click here to check out HUH Clothing.

GROUND Wellbeing

Peigin Crowley

GROUND’s products help people going through menopause, people with Alzheimer’s, people with anxiety and generally anyone who needs a relaxing moment in their lives. They also aim to create a more holistic view of wellbeing, catering to each individual’s needs: “Wellbeing is just what makes you feel balanced, yours could be completely different to me. Sometimes it’s having the laundry folded and done and eating eggs in the morning.”

As well as looking at the health of their customers, GROUND also focuses on the health of the planet, sustainably sourcing all their essential oils “from the best harvests worldwide.” Peigin explains that “you’re being strategic to get products that are effective that work. You’re being very mindful of your carbon footprint.”

From sourcing the oils to delivering the product to the customer’s house, GROUND is as green as possible. Peigin explained GROUND’s rigorous process of choosing suppliers of the oils, requiring manufacturers to fill out forms guaranteeing sustainability, and finding shipping companies that reduce emissions as much as possible. This wasn’t a perfect process from the beginning- Peigin recalled that when GROUND first launched, their labels were so biodegradable that when any of the oil products actually made contact with the packaging, it began to dissolve. Peigin joked GROUND returned to the drawing board in the instance, figuring out the smartest ways to be sustainable. 

“I love that challenge and I think more and more people are interested to know if their products are sustainable. To me, more people are going the extra mile. So it’s a full circle economy. We all help each other. It’s for our planet. It’s collaborative, it’s generous. It’s a nice space to be in.”

Like Mark, Peigin is aware that being sustainable comes with risks and lower profits. She is also aware that the increased costs on these products means it’s harder for customers to shop sustainably.

“It is a luxury to care beyond your essential needs, I think. I think it’s hard to go back to being careless and carefree about our planet- It can sometimes feel like a luxury to be doing the right thing.”

Peigin argued that people should be incentivised to shop green through a rewards system in our shops: “Wouldn’t you love if there was some kind of metrics by the time you’ve checked out that you get points on your sustainable choices?”

Peigin is fully aware of the laundry lists of problems right now making it harder to shop green. But she is also hopeful that climate change has entered people’s minds “in a more meaningful way” and people are making ethical choices in their shopping cart where possible. 

“I do think people are playing the long game, rather than the short game…  I do think we’re on the whole I think we’re more responsible. Sometimes there’s a therapeutic value in buying the real deal. That’s when I’m sure you’re doing good work.”

“You have to have to practise now what you preach and I do know the volume we’re doing in GROUND now, I know the difference we’re making. I feel it myself and I’m so proud of our team and the recycling that we do and the lengths we go to.”

“I love that challenge and I think more and more people are interested to know if their products are sustainable. To me, more people are going the extra mile. So it’s a full circle economy. We all help each other. It’s for our planet. It’s collaborative, it’s generous. It’s a nice space to be in.”

Peigin Crowley

Click here to shop at GROUND.

Finding sustainability in your life

HUH and GROUND are just two of the businesses getting sustainability right in Ireland. Within Dublin, there are countless businesses focusing on the wellbeing of the planet and the wellbeing of their customers and workers. Clothes shop Fresh Cuts has been a favourite in Dublin’s sustainable scene for years, while thrift shops run by charities such as NCBI, Enable and Casa offer a range of secondhand bargains that go towards a worthy cause. If you want to enjoy a sustainable diet, restaurants like Canal Bank Café and Craft are some of the most environmentally-friendly restaurants going right now. 

Making sustainable choices can seem like a big shift in your lifestyle from the outside looking, adding rising costs to your life. However, once you know the right places to go and the right people to support, putting your best green foot forward is as sustainable for you and your bank account as it is for the environment.

Elsewhere on District: Artist Spotlight: Khanyi Mbukwane