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078 - Will your company going vegan put customers off?

What really happens when you make your company vegan? Many people want to align their personal ethics with how they make a living but the fear of what their customers might think stops them from making their company publicly vegan. The truth is, however, that most of your non-vegan customers probably won’t care. And those that do – well, they are probably not the type of people you want as customers!

In this episode, David takes a look at several companies that transitioned their existing businesses into vegan ones and shares what happened. He also explains the different paths you can follow to do the same.

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Episode transcript:

Hello and welcome to episode seventy-eight of The Vegan Business Tribe Podcast with myself David Pannell, co-founder of Vegan Business Tribe. And if you have a vegan business, or are thinking of starting one, then Vegan Business Tribe is here to support and inspire you not just to build a vegan business, but to build a SUCCESSFUL vegan business.

And today we’re going to be talking about what actually happens when you decide to ‘veganise’ your business. What happens if you decide that it’s time to put your ethics where your mouth is and announce to the world that, from this day forth, your business is now a vegan business.

What’s going to happen to the customers you already have, especially if they are not vegan themselves? What’s it going to mean for finding new customers, will they want to work with a vegan company? Well, it’s a conversation we’ve had with a lot of our Vegan Business Tribe members that want to align their ethics with how they make a living so I’ve got a lot to share with you on the topic today.

But before we jump in, just a shout out to our Vegan Business Tribe members and fans that we bumped into at the Northern Vegan Festival in Manchester this weekend. It was genuinely great to see such a packed-out in-person vegan event now that the pandemic restrictions have lifted, and Lisa and I had a lot of fun trying out all the free samples and chatting to the stall holders and taking photographs with our Vegan Business Tribe members. But if you have a show or fair coming up yourself – do go right back and listen to Episode 24 of this podcast where we talk about how to get the most out of vegan fairs and markets, because there were a lot of stalls where I was able to go up, have a chat with the owner, try out some samples, love what they were doing and then walk away without that stall holder having any mechanism to get me on their mailing list or even to just get me following them on social media before I moved onto the next stand. One notable exception though was our Vegan Business Tribe members Animal Think Tank who were both running a competition on their stand to get people to leave their ideas of how we can faster end animal suffering AND getting people to sign-up to their mailing list at the same time. So full points to Owen on that one and do go check out the amazing work that Animal Think Tank are doing at animalthinktank.org.uk because they are recruiting at the moment too.

And as always, if you too want to go beyond this podcast and properly get involved with Vegan Business Tribe then we have a full membership community to help you grow your vegan business. We have online events that you can join us to both learn and meet other vegan business owners, we have an academy full of courses, member-only content and interviews with successful vegan businesses. And we have our Community Hub where you can connect with other vegan business owners to ask questions and get help and support – and if you want to ask a question of myself and Lisa, then you can do that in the Community Hub too. At the same time as getting all this great stuff, it’s our members who fund Vegan Business Tribe so if you want to support us producing this podcast every week and keep doing everything that we do to support and champion the vegan scene around the world then go take a look at Veganbusinesstribe.com and click on the join button on the homepage to see everything you get as a member.

OK, so let’s jump into today’s session, but before we talk about what happens when your company goes vegan, let’s just ask why people want to make their company vegan in the first place. Well, when you first went vegan yourself, probably the first thing that you looked at is the food you ate – because that’s the obvious place to start. Next you look at the clothes you wear and start removing the animal products, then you start to look at what cosmetics and toiletries you are buying and what you put on your body – but at some point you start to think about how you are spending your time. Because if you are passionate about the vegan cause, and often it’s the new vegans who are the most passionate, then you want to do what you can to move that vegan cause forwards.

For some of us, that means getting involved with activism groups – getting on a coach at the weekend to go to a demo or event. For others, its about what activism you can do to educate those around you, starting with your friends and family. But for some people, and because you are listening to this podcast I am guessing you fall into this group, for some people we look at the skills that we’ve already got. We look at how we’re already making a living, we look at all the career capital we’ve built up over the years and think: how can I use THAT to make a difference? Because, when you bring together your passion with how you make a living, when you can align your ethics with your day-to-day work, that’s when the real magic starts to happen in business.

For many of us though, when we come to that realisation that we want to move the vegan cause forwards with a business, we’ve already built an established business doing something else. That’s what happened to Lisa and me. When we turned vegan, we were already running a successful marketing and business growth agency that was paying the bills. We had already built a particular skill set over years of running our own business – in my case, I’d run my own businesses for 20 years. So we said to ourselves: we’ve got all this experience helping companies grow so why not use our skills to help vegan businesses grow? And it didn’t quite work out like that because what we discovered really quickly was that vegan businesses had no money – Lisa and I were used to working on consultancy rates, so we were finding all these great vegan companies doing amazing things that we wanted to work with, but let’s just say when we quoted our hourly rate, not many of them returned our phone calls. So it took a couple of years of us trying out different ways of working in the vegan sector (which actually led to us working with some of the biggest food brands in the world to help educate them on the vegan market) before we stumbled on the idea of Vegan Business Tribe. And if you are interested in hearing that story in full, go and listen to episode 22 where I tell our full origin story.

But the reason I’m mentioning Lisa’s and mine professional vegan journey is because it mirrors that of a lot of our Vegan Business Tribe members. Our business at the time had an established customer base that had nothing to do with veganism. None of our customers were actively anti-vegan, we weren’t working with anyone in animal agriculture for instance, they were just what I tend to call ‘ethically neutral’ companies. But we needed to retain that customer base, we were on long-term contracts with many of them and we particularly enjoyed being able to pay ourselves every month. So we had this dilemma: we desperately wanted to align our ethics with how we made a living, but if we just came out and announced that we were becoming a vegan company, then what would those customers think? All of a sudden would we just not be relevant to them any more? Would they feel we just were not for them because they were not vegan companies, and look to go find a new agency? We simply didn’t know, and because at that point we’d had no experience of this we spent a long time trying to work out what to do.

And this is the place that we find a lot of our Vegan Business Tribe members who are looking to transition their company. The biggest fear is what will happen to your current customers if you start promoting yourselves as a vegan business. And what about potential new customers who are not vegan but you would still be happy to work with? Will they still buy from or work with a vegan business, or will it just put them off? Like I said, when you have your own business you like to keep paying yourself, meaning losing customers is a big thing! So that fear becomes so big that for a long time most people simply decide to do nothing that might rock the boat.

Not only have Lisa and I gone through this ourselves, we’ve helped a number of our Vegan Business Tribe members go through this transition too and the results – they might surprise you. First, most of your current customers won’t actually care. If they are established customers and are already satisfied with your product or service, then your company going vegan probably isn’t going to change that. Unless you’re actually stopping or significantly changing what you offer, for example if you’re a caterer and you’re now only going to offer vegan food. If not, then your company going vegan probably won’t have that much impact on your customers. They might not even notice. If they do, it will most likely be seen as a positive. Veganism doesn’t create the same negative reaction in many people as it did even just a few years ago. Most people have now had a positive experience of eating vegan food and probably have a friend or relative who is vegan – and to them, they see veganism as meaning someone is ethical and environmentally conscious – and everyone wants their suppliers to be ethical and environmentally conscious! I mean, why wouldn’t you?!

Everyone wants to decrease their impact on the environment, but many of us don’t have the impetus to actually go and do anything about it ourselves. So instead, we look to companies to make those change for us. Back in episode 64, we looked at toilet paper company Who Gives A Crap which allows people to be more environmentally conscious simply by changing who they buy their toilet paper from. So if you give customers the option to either buy a product or service from an ethical company who is trying to make the world a better place or from a company that isn’t, then everything else being equil, 9 out of 10 will choose the company that’s doing good. And the tenth person is probably the kind of person that you wouldn’t want as your customer anyway!

And that’s one of the main things you want to keep in mind. Anyone who is put off by your company being vegan, especially if it doesn’t impact the product they are buying or the service they get from you, then they are probably not the kind of person you’re looking to do business with anyway. Your company publically declaring it’s vegan is a great tool for rooting-out the kind of customers you just don’t want.

However, the key for your other customers is to just make sure you are being inclusive and to take them along on the journey with you. Most vegan businesses (at the moment) don’t just serve vegan customers, in fact we know that in almost every sector, from food to vegan business services, the biggest customer base for vegan products are non-vegans. So if you have a cleaning company and you have decided to go vegan, then celebrate how you will no longer be using cleaning chemicals that are harmful to the environment and haven’t been tested on animals – your non-vegan customers will be 100% on board with that and think it’s a great thing. And again, you are allowing them to feel that they are ‘doing their bit’ by using you as their cleaning contractor. Or maybe you already run an ethical online shop and you announce that your range will be going completely vegan and cruelty-free – your customers will see this as being a further extension of your company’s ethical standpoint.

And the point is, veganising an existing company is a bit like going vegan yourself. Most of us didn’t just go vegan overnight, it was a journey of learning little bits of information here and there, of making small changes that eventually lead to us taking that final step. And your business can do the same. Many people transition their business by first starting to talk about ethics before they talk about veganism. They will first replace the dairy milk in the meeting room fridge with oat milk, explaining to customers that it’s better for the environment. Or they will look to reduce their energy use or to get more of their electricity from renewable sources.

This is what we saw from Vegan Business Tribe members Bison Print in Maidstone Kent, here in the UK. They launched their Bison Planet initiative which saw them getting the ISO 14001 accreditation for environmental management: their factory now gets 85% of their energy from the solar panels they installed on the roof of their printshop. An upgraded heating and cooling system reduced their carbon footprint by 75% – and so when Veganuary came around, they simply saw this as another way to reduce their impact, managing to encourage over 80% of their workforce to go vegan for the month. They worked out that by doing so, they saved over half a million litres of water and more than a tonne of C02. THAT is a truly vegan company. Do they just employ vegans, of course not. Do they just SELL to vegans? Not at all. But Mark Bidewell who runs Bison has created a company run on vegan ethics to rival any Beyond Meat.

And the thing is, when put in context with everything else the company has done – to their customers, the fact that Bison Print only using vegan printing inks and vegan laminates in their printing is just a further extension of the company’s ethical stance.

We’ve also seen other Vegan Business Tribe members more directly embrace veganism in their business, such as design agency Kakadu Creative. It took a little time for Kayleigh and Lee to get comfortable with publically advertising the fact they were a vegan company, but now they proudly display a 100% vegan badge on their homepage and introduce themselves as an ethical, sustainable, VEGAN creative agency. And the interesting thing about Kakadu is how simply making that distinction, and embracing their veganism within the business, has led to business opportunities that never presented themselves before. Because once you set yourself on a mission, you will find that other people on that same mission will be attracted to you. Kayleigh, Kakadu’s business director and co-founder, is a very passionate activist with Extinction Rebellion – and with Kakadu having recently made public that they are a vegan company, she posted a photograph of herself on LinkedIn on an XR protest march in London. And let’s just say it was a bit of an action shot where Kayleigh was trying to keep hold of her drum whilst the police were trying to forcefully disperse the protesters. And you might think that LinkedIn is not the place for that, but that photo became, I believe, one of Kayleigh’s most viewed and commented on LinkedIn posts – gaining the attention of other ethically-lead business people in her contacts list who commended her on her action and passion. Because when you start to talk about your ethics, you start attracting other people who share those ethics.

Another of our Vegan Business Tribe members, Damian Sciberras who runs Short Stop video, is an amazing videographer but for years he ran a standard video business helping companies make product videos or corporate films. Then, devastatingly, Damian got diagnosed with bowel cancer. And that’s going to have a massive impact on anyone’s life, but while going through his cancer treatment and recovering from surgery, Damian spent time just re-evaluating everything. And thankfully he’s had the all-clear now, but Damien decided that was the prompt he needed to align his business ethics with his love and compassion for animals. So first, he joined us at Vegan Business Tribe, and because he had such an amazing story Lisa wrote about Damien in her column in Vegan Food & Living Magazine. This led one of our members to introduce Damien to an opportunity with Joey Carbstrong, one of the UK’s biggest vegan activists and influencers, to become his cameraman and editor for his latest series of street activism, with his camerawork getting seen by Joey’s quarter of a million Facebook followers.

Damien has since started devoting a proportion of his time to documenting his local animal sanctuary, Starfield Sanctuary, and his first short film ‘Saved By Jane’ profiles the sanctuary’s founder Jane Baker, who has rescued over 130 animals. And yes, Damian and Short Stop video still help companies with kick-ass product videos, and he still does corporate videos for non-vegan companies too – but he now does a lot more for vegan ones, and all these opportunities and new connections in the vegan scene came about because he simply started to talk more about his ethics, he embraced his veganism professionally. And any customers who might be put off that Damian has worked as the cameraman for a well-known vegan activist or produces short films about his local animal sanctuary? Well, they are the kind of people that he’d probably rather not work with anyway. His client base has become self-selecting.

You don’t need to make the move to presenting yourself as a vegan company in one leap. Just like many of our Vegan Business Tribe members, Damian usually promotes himself as an ‘ethical’ cameraman rather than a vegan one. Jai Street from Mindful Wealth talks about ‘ethical’ investment and personal finance. Motion Manor are the ‘ethical’ animation studio, and they prove this by working with other ethical businesses. And they let YOU decide if you fall into that category, but you will notice that they seem to shout about the work they do with their vegan clients the most.

And when you are openly a vegan company, this also gives you the opportunity to educate your non-vegan customers in a really positive way. And you don’t have to worry about coming over as preachy when doing this. From my many years of experience in business, it’s not unusual to be engaged by the personal passions of a company when you go and visit them. I’ve been shown how to put on a life jacket that was sat in the meeting room because the managing director was a sailing enthusiast, I even wasn’t allowed to start one meeting with a large public company until I’d taken on the sales manager at a game of table football – it was just the unwritten company rule! It’s all part of the fun and personality of a company, so if ‘vegan’ is your thing, then your customers will get that and probably be interested to learn more. So invite your customers to sign-up to the Veganuary challenge with you every year and share guides to help them complete it. Challenge your suppliers, or even your competitors, to a vegan cake bake-off and let your social media audiences decide the winner. When your customer comes to have a meeting with you, explain why you only have plant-milk for their coffee and challenge them to try a few different vegan biscuits to find their favourite.

And then one final point to consider when you are looking to veganise your business, is that it might make more sense to actually launch a whole new brand altogether instead. You might have heard me talk about Keith Lesser from Vegan Accountants before, because we’re big fans of Vegan Accountants and the work Keith does. And I always use them as an example of where the vegan business scene is at the moment, you can even use vegan accountants for your vegan business now! But Vegan Accountants is the vegan arm of Keith’s long-established family accountancy practice that he’d already built up before he turned vegan, in fact it was taking on a vegan cafe as a client that set Keith on his own vegan journey. Now, the Vegan Accounts division of the company has grown to the point where they have a full team of vegan accountants looking after their vegan clients.

There is only so far you can push the vegan angle with some businesses, so at some point it might just make sense to start-up something new as a vehicle for your vegan passions. Take a look at Veganuary co-founder Matthew Glover. Matthew’s background was originally in the windows, doors and conservatories sector, having founded West Yorkshire Windows with his brother when he was 21. Matthew could have tried to push veganism through his windows company but that would have had very limited potential. Instead, he launched Veganuary with his wife Jane as a separate project. And it might be that you are in a similar situation. Is there, genuinely, the opportunity to support the vegan cause by veganising your current business, or is it the case that your current business and customers instead provide the stability and income to allow you to launch something else alongside it? In my experience, it can take up to two years to get a new business to the place where it can pay you a wage – so having that other income keep coming in from your current business while you build a new vegan one can give you a real boost.

So there are obviously a lot of options and routes to veganising your business. And it’s fair to say that there isn’t a single blanket answer for all companies. Some will find it really easy to just switch over to publically being a vegan business, especially if you make food, and for others it might have to be done in a few steps, exploring the ethical side of your business first with your customers with your veganism being a logical extension and result of that. Others might decide that their current businesses are’t really much of a platform for veganism, and so launch a new brand like Vegan Accountants did or start something new alongside an established business.

What I will say though, is veganising your business is a bit like going vegan yourself – you will always wish you had done it sooner.

So let’s wrap up by taking a quick look back at the points we’ve just covered with a bullet-point round-up where we ask the question, will your company going vegan put your customers off?

  1. The biggest fear is what will happen to your current customers if you start promoting yourselves as a vegan business. And will potential new customers who are not vegan still be happy to work with you? It’s this fear that stops many people making the change sooner.
  2. But the truth is most of your current customers won’t actually care. If they are established customers and are already satisfied with your product or service, then your company going vegan isn’t going to change that.
  3. Anyone who is put off by your company being vegan, especially if it doesn’t impact the product they are buying or the service they get from you, then they are probably not the kind of person you’re looking to do business with anyway. Your company publically declaring its vegan ethics allows your client base to become self-selecting.
  4. When you set yourself on a mission, other people on that same mission will be attracted to you. You will find that new opportunities present themselves and other people reach out to you who share your ethics.
  5. For many businesses, going vegan is done in steps. Like BISON print who launched an environmental initiative first, from which their veganism was a natural extension.
  6. Other companies decide to describe themselves as ethical rather than vegan at first, and they let YOU decide if your business falls into that category as a potential customer!
  7. You might, instead, decide to launch a separate brand for your vegan company and customers, like Vegan Accountants. Or you might decide that there is only so far you can push the vegan angle with some businesses, like Matthew Glover and West Yorkshire Windows, so it might make sense to start a new vehicle for your vegan passions.

And that is it. And I’ve enjoyed this one because, like I said, it’s one of those really common questions one of our members have. And if you haven’t yet declared your vegan ethics as a business yet, then have a good think about the different scenarios we’ve spoken about in this session. I haven’t yet found one business who has transitioned from an established business to a vegan one that has regretted doing it or found they lost customers. In fact, the opposite has tended to happen – it’s been the missing jigsaw piece to them building a successful business, and all of a sudden they have found new opportunities as people connect with their mission.

And that leads me nicely into my ending segue there! Because if you connect with our mission to help vegan businesses skill-up and scale-up and you’re not yet a member of Vegan Business Tribe, then go take a look at the website because I would genuinely like to hear more about your business and what you are doing. And it’s your membership that helps keeps this podcast on the air and means that we can keep supporting vegan businesses world-wide. Just head over to veganbusinesstribe.com and click on the join button to find out more how we can support you and how you can support us in return.

And finally, just one thing before I let you go – if you are listening on a platform that lets you leave a 5-star rating or a written review, I would forever be in your debt if you can do either of these things just to let people know that this is a podcast worth listening to. iTunes especially lets you leave a written review and I think Google Podcasts lets you give a thumbs up or a five-star rating, and it is genuinely a massive help to us if you can do that.

So thank you so much for listening, Lisa and I – and I know I say this every week but they are not empty words – we really appreciate giving up your time to listen every week. And I will see you, on the next one.

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