Interview by Mike Sullivan
Hi, I’m Mike Sullivan. Thanks for joining us today again on MO.com, where we feature small owners and entrepreneurs and then bring you hints, tips, insights, and perspectives on what it takes to be successful.
Joining us today is Brian Linton. Brian is founder of United By Blue, an ocean-friendly apparel company. Brian, thanks for joining us today. Can you start off by telling us a little bit about your background and leading up to United By Blue?
Yeah, so, my name is Brian Linton, and I originally spent my early childhood in Asia actually. So I grew up in Singapore and Japan and that is what spawned my interest in a lot of what I’m doing currently with my business. It’s traveling and seeing the oceans and the waterways of 30, 40 countries growing up. I saw the good, the bad, and the ugly. So my background is really Asia and then I came to the U.S. for college. It was actually in college that I started my original venture. It’s what’s grown into what I’m doing now.
So let’s talk a little bit about what you are doing now. Tell me about United By Blue.
Sure. So United By Blue is a sustainable apparel company that for every one product sold, we remove one pound of trash from the world’s oceans and waterways through company organized and posted clean-ups. So we actually use the power of business, education, and environmental action to do the most possible good possible. That’s why associating every single business transaction with an environmental action.
So rather than just giving money away, well, we don’t give money away. We actually have structures in the systems within the company that enable us to not conduct business without creating a residual good. We sell apparel like organic T-shirts and bags and jewelry.
I understand your apparel utilizes biodegradable tags made out of elephant dung. Kind of gross, but I mentioned that the tags don’t maintain the original properties of the dung. Is that correct?
Well, the thing is the apparel industry and, actually, any industry uses a tremendous amount of plastic in their packaging and labeling. In my five year’s background in this industry, prior to United By Blue, I was really disgusted by the fact that the jewelry I was manufacturing and selling was all individually wrapped in plastic bags, and even the fasteners to connect the labels to the jewelry is plastic. A lot of the times the labels of a lot of jewelry, even some, unfortunately, that I was dealing with before, is plastic and this is all single use. This is all use once and then thrown away.
Plastic nowadays in unavoidable, and so the real issue is that there are billions and billions of these plastic bag and plastic hang tags used every year. In cleaning up the oceans and the waterways, we’ve done over 30 clean-ups now and we’re going to do 50 clean-ups this year, so we’re going to be about like at the end of this year we will be at 75 to 80 clean-ups total. Through these clean-ups I’ve noticed just the tremendous amount of plastic that makes its way into the environment.
So, one of the many things that we’ve tried to do is cut down on plastic use within the company. So all our hang tags are made from, like you said, elephant dung and it doesn’t stop there. The elephant dung is infused with flower seeds, Bluebell flower seeds, so that when you plant a United By Blue hang tag, it grows blue flowers. So it’s also creating something that’s not plastic, but also creating something that goes back to the Earth in a very natural way and it actually grows life from something that most people use petroleum-based products from.
All our garments as well, our shirts are actually, as an example, this table here, so our shirts are actually wrapped in banana fiber paper, and this is another thing that is just a very, very simple step in cutting down on plastic waste. The unfortunate thing, even something as simple as a T-shirt like this would be wrapped in a plastic bag at the manufacturing facility and then sent to the distributor and then mailed out. The end line consumer, like that shirt you’re wearing, you wouldn’t have seen that in a store wrapped in plastic. But, fortunately or unfortunately, they take it off in the back room and then they put that out on the shelf so that the consumer doesn’t know the problem.
The problem is that every single thing that’s ever made, almost nowadays, is wrapped in plastic. So what we do instead is we wrap in these, so we have our shirt flat packed on recycled cardboard, and we have banana fiber paper that is biodegradable. So, granted it takes energy and resources to make the paper bag, but it’s a substitute for plastic.
Clearly United By Blue is concerned with the environment, but how important is it for other businesses to conserve the environment when conducting their day-to-day operations?
I think it’s incredibly important because really business is based upon creating an entity that has longevity in mind, basically, if you want to build a business to last. There’s that iconic book “Built to Last.” What is a company that is built to last? Well, I think there is this new thing that’s coming in the business world that, if you’re not creating sustainable systems within the business that are not just sustainable in the fact that they’re generating profit because that’s a big part of business obviously, but also that they’re sustainable for the world because a business cannot last without a healthy planet.
We only have one planet and the reality is with the rapid, I mean we’re talking very rapid decline of the environment, of plastics in the ocean, ocean acidification and the die out of all large fish species, 90% of the fish stock of the large fish species is gone. So all these issues don’t make any sense for longevity of business. You can make the argument for the environment, and I don’t even see myself as an environmentalist. I’m a very optimistic capitalist basically, but I believe that in order for the business to have longevity in mind, you have to actually impact the environment because there is just no way around it.
So that’s really what I, to answer your question, that’s what I would think is the most important part of business finding a way to get involved with the environment is to just keep that in mind. If I don’t create a healthy environment, if I don’t leave the world the way I found it, well, this business, once I’m gone, if I really want it to be passed down or grow into a publicly traded company, well, everything is going to fail if the Earth fails.
Tell me about Product Mate, which I believe is a venture you’re involved in that aims to help entrepreneurs.
Well, Product Mate is really based upon the realization that a lot of people, entrepreneurs, in the apparel and the consumer goods industries, they really have all these ideas. They want to make a shark fin T-shirt, they want to make a bag made out of canvas, and it’s very simple stuff when you really dig down into it. But the resources really aren’t there to do it, and there is no platform that helps people start and manage product development and manufacturing.
So, in a way, I’m using my experience in this industry to create a software as a service company that is empowering individuals to better manage these processes and ultimately save time, money, and minimize the risk associated with making products. Finally, the thing that I really think very strongly about, even though it’s not communicated in Product Mate at the time, is by creating better systems and allowing people to better manage product development, there is actually less waste associated with making poor selling product or poor quality products.
So you’re actually helping the environment in the long run, as well. Ultimately, it could be looked at Product Mate is helping people make more stuff, or it could be looked at United By Blue is selling more stuff which consumers are the problem that the environment is in such bad shape or the thing is make things with the least amount of impact possible and then do a greater good by doing something in return. Ultimately, Product Mate is helping reduce the amount of waste. Hopefully, that cost.
I know you’ve had other adventures in your past. How has that entrepreneurial past helped you with United By Blue?
Brian: United By Blue is completely funded by my previous activities and what I was doing with my jewelry lines and stuff like that. So United By Blue has gone, in the one year of existence, actually, United By Blue as a brand is only one year old. It’s from May of last year. It just turned one May 1st of this year and completely funded by the company, completely just took such a huge step in one year that my other venture never took because the experiences were all just compiled into this brand that just has a strong message. It has a strong product line and it has a strong team and strong distribution from previous connections, as well as that.
So, yeah, the past entrepreneurial experience is very important for where United By Blue is now.
Can you tell me about some of those earlier entrepreneurial lectures that you’ve been involved in? Anything still going today?
Yeah, sure. The real thing, and it’s actually something that still goes on, it’s like the parent, basically, of United By Blue. It’s called Sand Shack, and it’s still a line that I sell and it’s still generates a large percent of the profits that this company runs on. It’s a line of boutique jewelry, like discount boutique jewelry. It’s like chunky turquoise stones and different things. We sell to about 1,000 stores in the United States. That I started in 2006. That’s what I started in college.
The premise of that is that we’re giving 5% of our proceeds to ocean conservation, and about two years ago I realized a) I’m not able to wear any of the products, so it’s not that exciting for me to make, b) giving away money is not good for a small business and giving it away to non-profits is ineffective because 5% of my proceeds in a non-profit that’s run with a board of directors and all these other people, it doesn’t really do anything that’s traceable. So the premise was to create a brand that would be a lot more powerful because we’re not having to spend much more than that amount, but we’re actually creating a concrete environmental action.
So that one pound of trash might be, depends on the location, depends on time of the year, but that might be 5% of the purchase. It might be 20%, it might be 40%, it might be 105%, but the point is we’re able to actually track the impact. So that was Sand Shack and that’s how it sort of spawned into this new brand, United By Blue.
Now they run together. They run to two different customers. Older customer demographic, older, suburban women, 40, 50 plus is Sand Shack, and then United By Blue is our 18 to 35 prime demographic of eco, environmental, urban consumers.
What would you say is your ultimate goal as an entrepreneur?
The grand vision is to use the power of business to leave a positive impact on this world. I think that no matter what I’m doing and most likely it’s going to be something in this realm, United By Blue is something that I love it so much and I know that’s usually a weakness in an entrepreneur to love their venture too much because they get too passionate, but whatever. There are worse things to love in life to love your business too much.
My real goal is to leave that impact by using business because business is powerful. I really believe that. But there is no better way than to create good and lasting change than through the power of business. So whether or not that’s through software or whether or not that’s through consumer goods or coffee or apparel or health care, whatever it is, it’s to leave that impact. My heart is really in the oceans and in the waterways because everything, no matter what you are, if you’re alive, if you’re a leaf, if you’re a tree, if you’re a frog, if you’re a fish, if you’re a bird, if you’re a dog, if you’re you, if you’re me, the one thing we share have in common is that we all require blue water, the water parts of this world to live. There is no life without water, and in this essence there is no green without blue and that’s why United By Blue is called United By Blue because we are all united by blue.
So I would say whatever I’m doing it’s going to be something in the realm of the ocean and the waterways.
Hey, Brian, great to talking to you. Thanks. I hope to talk to you again soon.
Yeah, I appreciate it too, Mike. Thank you so much.
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