Sunday, March 20, 2011

United by Blue - a company making a difference

Marine litter is a massive problem along our coastline and in our seas. As a society, we struggle to deal with the source of the problem and tend to treat the symptoms - the litter that washes up onshore. As we continue to work up solutions to this problem across govenrment, society and business, innovative ideas are emerging. One such approach is a novel, important and inspiring contribution by a business called United by Blue.

United by Blue is a clothing and apparel company that is committed to making a difference to our seas. Recently Sustainable Seas chatted to Brian Linton and Alexa Ahrem from United by Blue, and discovered a business approach that not only talks about saving the seas, but actually doing something about it. It is a refreshing approach in this day and age where a lot of companies push the 'green' mantra, but actually do little on the ground to support conservation. This company is clearly different....below we find out why...

1. Tell me about United by blue? What is the vision? How did the business come about? 

United By Blue is a brand of apparel and accessories, that for every 1 product sold, we remove 1 pound of trash from our world's oceans and waterways through company organized cleanups. UBB was built on the premise that business has the power to do a tremendous amount of good, however most of the time businesses ignore this power, and instead, leave a negative impact on the world.  Our core purpose is to use the power of business, education, and environmental action to save our oceans and waterways from pollution.  The UBB brand is just about one year old.  The business came about because I had been running another brand called Sand Shack (still running as well) with the premise of donating 5% of the brands proceeds to ocean conservation efforts. I realized the limitations of financial donations and wanted to do something more...something concrete and powerful.  By establishing UBB, we have created the systems within the company to accomplish the good that most other for-profit ventures would "outsource" to non-profits to accomplish for them.  By keeping things internal and building the structures and company culture around the issue of waterway and ocean pollution, we are creating a truly sustainable business model that as it grows, so too does the positive impact we can have on our environment.

2. What do you think are the challenges for a business operating with an environmental ethic? Why did you go in this direction? 

The challenges of operating with an environmental ethic are varied.  First of all, with an influx in green businesses, it has become a shouting match to get noticed.  There are many companies that tout green claims, but in reality are not as green as they say they are.  That's why we ignore the whole green claim altogether (we are blue, after all).  We strive to create products that are mainstream enough to be sold in stores as diverse as Urban Outfitters, Dillards, and Whole Foods. Our hope is that someone would buy a UBB product whether or not we removed a pound of trash from the oceans.  Many businesses with an environmental ethic become far too niche to accomplish a significant amount of good...we are working hard not to fall into that trap, while at the same time, preserving our ethics in the DNA of the company, so that we will never lose the essence of the brand.

3. What do you think are the key issues facing the oceans in your region and globally? 
The oceans are in trouble, and it is extremely sad.  There are numerous problems that they face, such as: overfishing, ocean acidification, coral reef destruction, etc... But as a company with a concrete focus on ocean pollution, we like to always put emphasis on how grave this problem is.  The sheer amount of plastic that makes its way into the oceans every year is staggering.  14 billion pounds of trash are dumped into the ocean every year, and much of this is plastic, which takes hundreds of years to break down.  Even as it breaks down, it just turns into smaller and smaller pieces which have the potential to make its way into the food chain, essentially poisoning those that consume it.  If we don't stop allowing trash to get into the ocean, our oceans will literally turn into a wasteland.  Plastics and marine eco-systems just don't mix.  At UBB, we realize that we are just a band-aid to an enormous problem. Heck, we aren't even a band-aid, we are smaller than that; because no matter how many cleanups we do, we will never be able to remove all the trash that is being put into the oceans every year. That's why education is so important, and it is embedded in our core purpose.

4. When and how did your personal awareness of marine conservation begin? How has your awareness evolved? 
My awareness of marine conservation began while growing up in Singapore. Singapore is one of the cleanest countries in the world...but only on the land. The shipping lanes that lay just off Singapore's coast make it so that the ocean is highly polluted. When I learned how to scuba dive off of Singapore, it was a truly sad sight. Other than a few fish, there was nothing around you; you couldn't even see your hand if you held it out in front of you.  This experience, coupled with travels to over 30 countries around the world, made me realize how integral and important the oceans are to life, and just how poorly we have treated them.  We are land-dwelling species and tend to forget about the oceans. 

5. How do you think we should engage the public around issues of coastal and marine sustainability? How do we sell the message? 
This is very difficult.  There is no overnight way to raise awareness about just how important marine and coastal conservation is.  My solution to engaging the public is to create a company with an interesting story, be a huge success, and effectively become the vehicle that raises awareness for these problems.  By becoming a mainstream brand sold in stores across the world, we have the opportunity to use that platform to educate those who interact with our product (or cleanups).  In this sense, distributing the message of ocean conservation goes hand in hand with the distribution of our sustainable apparel.  As a for-profit company we are able to use these business channels to reach people that non-profits or individuals would have difficulty reaching on the same scale.

6. Can you expand on how your 'litter reduction strategy' works? Can the customer be assured that the target is being met? 
In order to meet our promise of removing 1 pound of trash for every 1 product sold, we keep detailed records of our sales and the trash our cleanups have removed.  The sale of a product is what funds our ongoing efforts to organize and conduct cleanups.  Currently, we create a video of each and every cleanup we host and post them to our youtube channel (  We try to implement transparency into everything we do so that people can see that their purchases are indeed allowing us to continue our work.  On May 1st we are launching a new website that will allow online customers to apply their purchase to a specific upcoming cleanup.  All of our cleanups will be listed along with the amount of purchases needed to "fund" them.  As people apply their purchases to a cleanup, a bar graph shows the progress. Once a cleanup is "funded", it is carried out, and all those who applied purchases towards that particular cleanup are sent an email with video and pictures so that they can see the impact their purchase enabled.  We are really excited about this. Check around May 1st to see it.

7. How do you incorporate other marine issues within the United by Blue? What would you like to do in the future? 

There are many marine issues; however, we believe that we are able to accomplish the most good by focusing on one issue for right now.  Ways we subtly incorporate other issues are through our designs...for instance, we have a shirt that will be in stores this summer that is a montage of shark fins, symbolizing the problem of shark finning (for shark fin soup).

8. In your experience, what is the broader role of business in supporting and driving marine conservation and sustainability in general?

All businesses have the ability to support marine conservation, whether they know it or not.  Healthy oceans are not only important to those who live around them, but the entire world. All businesses should be working to lower their carbon footprint since ocean acidification is a huge issue, and is largely due to business activities such as manufacturing, shipping, IT, and just about everything.  Businesses should more actively look for alternatives to petroleum based particular, single- use plastics that are used for packaging and wrapping products (for instance, all UBB products now come in banana-fiber paper bags, as opposed to industry standard poly-bags made of plastic). 

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