Tara Milburn of Ethical Swag: Five Strategies Our Company Is Using To Tackle Climate Change & Become More Sustainable
An Interview With Penny Bauder
Stand up for what you believe in, even if it isn’t popular. Kids are influenced by their peers. That has been the way of the world for centuries. We need to build a world of thinkers, not followers. We told our kids when they were younger that they will find their “people” but it might take some time. We helped them understand that even adults don’t always get it right and how to articulate their opinions while maintaining respect for others. The biggest lesson we tried to convey was we can hold different opinions without us being right and someone else being wrong.
As part of my series about companies who are helping to battle climate change, I had the pleasure of interviewing Tara Milburn.
Tara Milburn is the Founder and CEO of Ethical Swag, a sustainable branding company that makes it easy for their clients to offer personalized promotional products that come at no cost to people or planet. One of only four B-Corporations in North America, Ethical Swag has been audited to the highest global standard for sustainability.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Honestly, it has been 30 years in the making! At a conference in 1995 in Chicago, Horst Rechelbacher, the founder of Aveda, spoke about how we can run profitable businesses while staying aligned with our values. Moved by his keynote address, I was shocked to hear feedback from other attendees in the audience who did not resonate with his message. I never forgot that keynote, and filed away his words of wisdom as I continued through my career. Then there was the time I was questioned by my boss, a woman, in front of the President, “Why are you wearing pants?” (instead of a dress or a skirt). Those are just two examples of many that I experienced throughout my career. I knew I wanted to create a different kind of for-profit business that set employees up to thrive on their teams, and to minimize the harm on the planet. I just needed to wait until the time was right for me and my family.
What is the mission of your company? What problems are you aiming to solve?
Our mission is Equity for All. We work with clients and suppliers that put people and planet first, paying fair wages and thinking about the footprint our operations leave behind. Our vision is a world where we all have access to success.
Can you tell our readers about the initiatives that you or your company are taking to address climate change or sustainability? Can you give an example for each?
Sustainability for us is more than finding balance in nature, it is about finding balance personally and professionally. Our corporate governance model is very flat, not hierarchical, and we make purposeful decisions regarding how we grow. For example, every decision I made when I started Ethical Swag was based on allowing employees to work from their desired location. Your physical location should have no bearing on finding meaningful work with us. We also offer part time or full time, depending on your needs. With regards to climate change, we purchase offsets for all shipments and operations at Ethical Swag and seek suppliers that work to minimize their footprint. For example, we have apparel and notebook manufacturers that are powered by solar energy. We source products that are either recycled, biodegradable, and/or made from rapidly renewable resources.
How would you articulate how a business can become more profitable by being more sustainable and more environmentally conscious? Can you share a story or example?
It is our belief that people want more environmentally conscious products to choose from in their professional lives. Unfortunately, those products can be hard to find, and the validity of the source can be hard to understand. Government and corporations are run by people, and with increased awareness, we are all seeing the value in making better choices. That is universal.
The challenge is not demand, it is transparent supply chains and sources we can trust. It is also all about making it easy to find and buy the right choices. Time is money and if your clients need to spend too much time researching in areas that are not their core job duties, they will default to hitting the easy button. Ethical Swag has not done any advertising to date. We set about building a different kind of business and the market has responded! This is a great example of how we need to focus on how and why we do things as business owners. We are proof that the sales will follow!
The youth led climate strikes of September 2019 showed an impressive degree of activism and initiative by young people on behalf of climate change. This was great, and there is still plenty that needs to be done. In your opinion what are 5 things parents should do to inspire the next generation to become engaged in sustainability and the environmental movement? Please give a story or an example for each.
- Lead by example — It’s difficult to be what you can’t see. One of the reasons I started Ethical Swag was because I didn’t see any international businesses where we live run by women. I have two daughters. I wanted to show them you can start something from nothing and run it according to your values. All of my kids have been involved in the business over the years from my son doing video production to my daughters doing swag pack assembly, social media and customer service calls.
- Stand up for what you believe in, even if it isn’t popular. Kids are influenced by their peers. That has been the way of the world for centuries. We need to build a world of thinkers, not followers. We told our kids when they were younger that they will find their “people” but it might take some time. We helped them understand that even adults don’t always get it right and how to articulate their opinions while maintaining respect for others. The biggest lesson we tried to convey was we can hold different opinions without us being right and someone else being wrong.
- Meet people where they are — don’t judge; encourage and support. I think this is something every parent can work on! Life moves quickly, and we don’t always react in the moment the way we want to. But I’ve found the no-judgement principle a fundamental pillar in running a sustainable business. If I wasn’t able to meet my team and my clients where they are (and wherever that may be) on a day to day basis, my company culture wouldn’t be the way it is today. Kids deserve to have that demonstrated; I think they would have a much easier time enacting it as they grow up if they always saw more encouragement and support around them than they did judgement.
- Progress over Perfection: We seem to have a focus on perfection these days. Youth need support in understanding that progress over perfection can also be a goal. They can think of it as something to work towards; it’s not easy to let go of a need for perfection! Adults are working on it too! But we run the risk of disengagement if kids strive only for progress and don’t see the outcome they are hoping for immediately. In business and in life, progress isn’t linear.
- Inspire, don’t depress people into action: With youth especially, they can feel heightened anxiety and believe the sky is falling with all of the negative news out there. Success breeds success! At Ethical Swag, you won’t see fish dying in the oceans, plastic washed up on beaches, fires raging out of control. We focus on the positive outcomes of making different choices. Our mission is to make it easy to make a difference and make it fun!
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?
Throughout my career, I have been watching and waiting for the right time. Having grown up in an entrepreneurial environment I knew I wanted to start something from nothing. At the same time, I recognized the commitment and sacrifice that is required to do that. I was 50, and our kids were older, before I decided to quit the secure corporate job and venture into building Ethical Swag. So, I had a little more time to learn my ‘5 things’ because I was late to the game of entrepreneurship! Here’s what I would say to anyone thinking about it:
- Building your business should not be at all cost! Family and relationships are what bring purpose into our lives. Make sure your social and familial sphere is strong before you start.
- You can’t do it alone. This doesn’t mean you need a partner, necessarily, but it means return to #1!
- There is never a right time. However, there are times in life that you will never get back. Think long and hard about the different stages of your life and avoid moving on anyone else’s agenda. I made a purposeful decision not to start my business while my kids were young. Selfishly, I wanted to make sure I was there for all the ages and stages and I recognized that would not be possible while I was building my business.
- Watch the advice you get from “experts”. Everyone has their own lens when offering advice. Your job is to listen and then glean those elements that work for you and your business. I had many “experts” tell me I was wasting time and I should just sell, sell, sell. I was focused on our foundation as a company to ensure that as we grow, that vision will not get lost. It felt slow and it certainly was difficult but it has been worth it! Don’t be in too much of a rush.
- It takes longer, costs more and is harder than you think! The quote you always see from entrepreneurs is “if I knew then what I know now I would not have started”. I don’t believe this because I would absolutely say do it again but the journey was longer and harder than I thought it would be; there is a cost of entrepreneurship that that is hard to define.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
My father was an entrepreneur who went bankrupt at 52 with two kids and a stay-at-home wife. He woke up the next morning and started again. He embodied perseverance and showed that when things go wrong, learn from it and continue on! Success is not a straight line and I witnessed that first hand. Just as important to my father continuing on was the support he received from my mother. It never wavered. The lesson is we can’t do it alone and press on.
If you could inspire a movement that would bring the greatest amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I would love to see companies that are starting to be less focused on scaling quickly and more focused on sustainable and profitable growth. Hurry up and raise money, hurry up and hire more, hurry up and sell at any cost — that is what I see and hear in the incubators these days. In my experience, that kind of pace paired with those intentions rarely leads to a sustainable foundation.
Do you have a favorite life lesson quote? Can you tell us how that was relevant to you in your own life?
Press On — I have it hanging in my office and I have carried it with me since university when my father faxed it to me.
Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence.
Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent.
Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb.
Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts.
Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent
What is the best way for people to follow you on social media?
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!