Brian Linton founded retailer United By Blue in 2010 with sustainable living & conservation leading the brand ethos. Since its inception, the brand has removed over 2 million pounds of trash from our world's waterways through group clean-ups. We spoke with Brian about United By Blue's partnership with REI, why Gen Z consumers value environmentally friendly brands, and how the hospitality industry can do better - starting with the materials we use.
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What inspired United By Blue?
My upbringing in Southeast Asia was a big inspiration for why United By Blue exists because I grew up around the ocean - specifically, raising a lot of tropical fish. I had thirty fish tanks in my room growing up and I realized that I had these beautiful, high valued fish that I cared so much about and that if the water was not cleaned, the fish would die. When I came to the States, I originally started a brand that was focused on conservation of the aquatic world. It became evident to me that the best way to do that was to have a hands-on focus on cleanups, rather than giving money away for that. It would be more impactful for the long run.
ILC is committed to doing the best we can to be environmentally friendly at our events -no single-use plastic, as little printing as possible, etc. It’s not always easy and can be expensive. What obstacles have you faced in growing United By Blue?
Very true. It is not easy, especially when you’re trying to remove plastics from an industry that depends on it. There’s a lot of friction. I've had a lot of interesting conversations with supply chain professionals for the retailers that we work with. Frankly, often times it's a big deal to ask people not to use polybacks or not use plastics to send to retailers. Overcoming those obstacles are about painting a future that is imminent and is going to happen and retailers need to use United By Blue as a means to get there. That is how the supply chain and the retailer side of things.
Everything else that we do, there is real meaningful cost associated with not using cheap plastic. Plastic is by far the cheapest material that we can use, whether or not that's not using plastic poly mailers to send our e-commerce orders out or not using cheaper plastic in our cafes but using Biodegradable alternatives. We probably have a meaningful amount of money that we spend on the alternatives. The reality is that it’s core to our beliefs that we lead the way.
UBB partnered with REI on #OptOutside to encourage people to skip Black Friday hysteria and encourage people to get out and clean their communities. You also have a Waterway Cleanup Tour and you’ve hit cities across the country. This really helps to build community around a common cause while spreading the ethos of UBB. Can you talk a little about these initiatives?
We've been hosting clean-ups before we even sold T-shirts. It’s core to who we are. All these additional initiatives that we have, whether or not they are with retailers or other partners, are just an extension of our mission which is to throw away a pile of trash for a product that we sell.
Ultimately, what’s really exciting about UBB is, as we grow so to has our ability to reach into communities all around the world through these clean-up efforts. It was hard getting even getting a few people out to these cleanups ten years ago. Now we have hundreds of people. #OptOutside and REI’s cleanups that we help put together are a great example of that. For many years, #OptOutside was simply about going outdoors. Now it’s about going outdoors and being good stewards towards the environment and cleaning it up.
There’s so many people out there that want to be a part of doing something good but they need the infrastructure and the reason for doing so. It's not rocket science to pick up trash. What you need is a community. United By Blue unites people around this mission and creates this community for them.
A lot of our community is in the hospitality industry (independent hotel or restaurant owners, developers, operators, designers, etc.) Is there some insight or advice you can offer to those wanting to be more environmentally friendly but don’t really know where to start?
The most basic level of being the most environmentally friendly is looking at the material that you use. Plastics are the scourge of the planet right now. Even people that don’t understand the broader issues of climate change or sustainability can very, very easily change something small. That might be not offering plastic cups and instead using paper, or not using disposable plastic bags. If you’re a hotel, instead of using that disposable plastic bag for laundry, you use a hamper or get a cotton bag.
All of those things add up and they do matter because the amount of plastic that we use is staggering. Unfortunately, when it’s not properly disposed of and even if you do so, you don’t know where it will end up down the chain. It could end up in our oceans and waterways. So, plastics are the easiest thing for anybody to address.
Then you go from there, you can start looking for other parts of the business. You can start looking at your energy usages. There are so many easy ways to change your energy usage from coal or oil into renewable energy - even without installing solar panels. You can just opt to do it with your energy provider. Then you just keep on going from there. It's baby steps. No one changes entirely overnight, even at United By Blue. We are not perfect either but we are always looking for ways to improve.
There has been a lot of talk about the fact that young consumers are increasingly choosing to be more conscious consumers and believe in investing in a genuine brand committed to a people, planet profit business model. Are you seeing this?
Oh, 100% and I think the data supports it too. If you actually search, there is a lot of data out there right now about it. I think it’s like 70-80%, of Genz/ Millennials base their purchasing on social and environmental responsibility. This is real. When I started 10 years ago, the data did not support that. Sustainability was a luxury. That was what it was: a luxury item to sell something organic or recycled and often time even mass market retailers and others would classify it as such. That has changed. Now it's mainstream. It is no longer a “nice to have” but a “need to have” because the younger generation demand it and they are only going to be demanding it more.
Give us 3 Key ingredients to a successful social or environmentally conscious company.
Three key ingredients? You know I think some of these are buzzwords but you know transparency, authenticity, and quality.
Quality. At the end of the day, every business no matter if you’re sustainability focused or not, you need to be quality to be sustainable over the long run.
Transparency. You need to be honest and open with both your employees and customers about what you do, how you do it, what you make.
Authenticity is a great buzzword but it's really true. You have to be true to who you are. For us, if we started with a mission that I did not care about then it would not be authentic. If we made products that we did not stand behind and if we did not have 10 years of history, it also would not be authentic.
UBB opened its first store in Philadelphia. Let’s talk a little bit about the city. Philly isn’t known for the best practices in terms of sustainability. When I was out in California and Seattle, even big brand stores like Target relinquished plastic bags. We don’t see that here. How can we change that?
Nothing Changes over night. I think it's really important to recognize first and foremost everything takes. There is a cultural shift that is happening and the only thing that can really accelerate that people being vocal, people speaking up and people purchasing things that speak to that belief. Money is an incredibly powerful tool and everybody has the ability to spend money. I would argue that that is even more important than governmental policy that is usually flawed. True capitalism is powerful.