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  • Writer's pictureChristina Sjahli

United by Blue: United by a Future Without Plastic with Maria McDonald

Did you know we produce around 300 million tons of plastic waste every year? Of that 300 million, 14 million tons end up in the ocean, year after year. For many entrepreneurs, plastic is just a normal part of the business. We rarely think about using a different material or, at the very least, reducing our plastic use. Some say it’s too costly to change, while some say supply chains make it hard to be more sustainable.

Today, we’re challenging these myths and excuses. You’ll learn that a business can be for profit as much as it is for the environment and sustainability.

Maria McDonald is the Director of Sustainability at United By Blue, a B corp certified business. They are on a mission to clean up the world’s oceans of trash and provide sustainable products and slow fashion.

In this blog, Maria shares their Quit Single Use Pledge and details how they reduce single-use plastic in their operations. She also shares valuable insights on compromises in sustainability and how to work with your finance team to create a profitable business.

The Journey to United By Blue

Maria has always felt connected to nature and even took environmental and climate science as her academic course. Before joining United by Blue, Maria did a study on the interaction between biological and cultural diversity in the Amazon rainforest. She realized how global environmental issues like pollution affect delicate ecosystems and how the world is interconnected.

At first, Maria expected to only have work opportunities in non-profits and the government, but she found out about B corporations.

She is a staunch advocate for the environment, but she recognizes that capitalism has its good points. She says, “It’s good with innovation. It’s good at speed . . . If you could attach environmental solutions to a capitalist model, then that could scale.”

This is how she delved into business sustainability and eventually worked for United By Blue.

How United By Blue Works

United By Blue’s business model is similar to the buy one give one model. But instead of giving one product per purchase, the company removes one pound of trash from oceans or coastlines.

Different companies across industries often keep their environmental endeavors and activities independent of their business efforts. For instance, they sometimes work with nonprofits to do waste cleanups. United By Blue does both in one organization.

The business is slow fashion and prides itself on being an antidote to fast fashion. United By Blue needed to be very clear with its mission to set customers’ expectations, including the following:

  • Price point. Unfortunately, producing things ethically and sustainably is more expensive than fast fashion.

  • Design. Designs are more timeless rather than seasonal or trendy.

Pricing in the Fashion Industry

There are several aspects that affect the pricing of a product. These aspects are materials, manufacturing, distribution, and packaging.

1. Materials

It’s more expensive to purchase recycled materials compared to virgin materials. United By Blue depends on certifications for visibility and certifications in the supply chain to identify whether a fabric is recycled, organic, or repurposed. Certifications also increase the material price.

2. Manufacturing

The reality of paying factory workers a living wage translates to higher costs.

3. Distribution and Packaging

Similar to raw materials, packaging materials cost more if they’re recycled. For distribution, a more sustainable system can mean longer lead times or specific packaging requirements.

It’s easy to think that sustainable fashion is more costly. However, an environment-friendly business model can eventually result in cost-effectivity due to fewer materials, packaging, and even miles used for transportation.

Businesses can accelerate environmental solutions given the right demand. For example, if demand for recycled materials outweighs virgin materials, this incentivizes suppliers to modernize their recycling systems, making them even more effective and more profitable.

The #QuitSingleUse Pledge

United By Blue aims to help reduce and clean up oceans and waterways. In fact, the company has cleaned up over 4.5 million pounds of trash. But they realized that the plastic waste they were collecting from their cleaning programs was the same type of waste they were producing themselves.

This prompted the company to further challenge traditional business practices, pledging to reduce single-use plastics in their operations. It started on June 2018 and invited customers to take the pledge with them.

This is how United By Blue stayed true to the pledge:

  • The company immediately created a QSU, or quit single use, task force in every department.

  • They created an inventory of where their operation would use single-use plastic.

  • They measured across three scopes of impact. First, what they own and control. Second, what they control but don’t own. Third, what you don’t own and control, but are caused by your business.

Tune in to the episode to learn more about how United By Blue reinvented its operations through the three scopes of impact.

Thoughtful and Intentional Packaging to Reduce Plastic Use

Maria observes that removing plastic from their operations mostly involved source reduction. United By Blue does this through intentional and thoughtful packaging. For example, their bottles often come with a single sheet of plastic. This plastic serves no purpose, and the decision to remove it came easy to them.

Another example is swapping materials. Their suppliers for home goods would typically send the products protected by bubble wrap. United By Blue created custom cardboard molds for them to use instead.

United By Blue works with retailers and wholesalers to sell its their products, but most of them have specific packaging requirements involving plastic. Last year, the company worked with two wholesale partners to do trials without plastic packaging. The result showed that it was possible to do away with the plastic.

Following the success of the case studies, United By Blue was even able to sell to Target with no plastic packaging. The partnership was different since United By Blue wanted to create a custom line that was more accessible and cheaper, without compromising their values.

Ensuring Sustainability Across the Supply Chain

The company’s supply chain spans across the world, including China, Vietnam, Europe, and North America.

For United By Blue, sustainability should be present in all departments, especially with the staff who interact directly with suppliers. Their suppliers also prioritize sustainability and are certified with good labour and production practices.

Instead of imposing environmental philosophies on the manufacturers, you can make adjustments yourselves. This can mean designing products without plastic and planning the distribution process with little to no need for plastic.

United By Blue also implemented a code of conduct across its supply chain. This includes baseline requirements for working conditions, wages, and environmental practices.

The Difficulties of No Single-Use Plastics

Of course, not everything is perfect and the company cannot completely cut out plastic just yet. Maria shares how they have tried different solutions for pallet wrap but found it impossible since the requirements are not in the company’s control.

They also saw a resurgence of plastic brought about by the pandemic and have to redo the work with cleanups and partners.

Brand Partners and Sustainability

United By Blue is a marketplace to be inclusive and because the company realized it cannot do everything by itself. They sign vendor agreements with brand partners to align everyone with the QSU policy. However, there are still times when plastic is unavoidable.

Environmental work is all about trade-offs. Maria says, “So what’s better . . . more emissions without plastic or no plastic but more emissions? . . . These are just [examples] of the trade-offs you face in sustainability.”

The company is now moving away from the marketplace concept to focus on a smaller assortment of products. Maria notes that while the company has sustainability standards for both its inline products and third-party brands, exceptions are often made for the latter. The number of products also spread the focus of the company across different missions.

Maria says, “I think we’re finding that we can be more effective if we’re more focused rather than spreading ourselves really thin across a lot of different causes and products and brands.”

How Sustainability Works with Finance

Sustainability works hand in hand with finance at United By Blue. The one-for-one business model requires a corresponding budget, and it’s usually taken from a percentage of revenue from the previous year. They typically use B Corp frameworks to determine the percentage.

The QSU policy yields both savings and increased costs. The company works within its operating budget for the year to determine priorities and product margins.

“The whole point of sustainability being in a business model is that it has to be profitable . . . It has to be a successful business in order for the mission to proliferate, to scale, and to grow. So we need to make sure we’re balancing those expenses for sustainability against, you know, still being able to operate as a business.”

As Maria reminds us, we cannot do everything at once. There needs to be a balance.

Cleanups and a Future Without Plastic

United By Blue’s cleanup programs are held all over the world. They run community cleanups, typically in the US. This volunteer program accounts for less than 3% of the removal they do. The focus of most of their programs is on high-yield projects in North America. They also have a partner in Indonesia who does cleanups in Bali.

Single-use plastic has become ubiquitous only in the past 50 years. As business owners, we have a vital role in creating a future without plastic. Change can mean different things to everyone. Whether it’s through policy changes or using better raw materials for your products, the important thing is to take that first step forward. That’s how people can see that you care.

More About Maria

Maria McDonald is the Director of Sustainability of United by Blue, a B-corp certified and women-owned company dedicated to cleaning up waste from the world’s oceans along with providing quality and sustainable fashion. United By Blue has pledged to clean up a pound of trash per product sold and has adopted the Quit Single Use Plastic policy in their operations. They also advocate for low-waste materials for their products and only work with ethical and certified manufacturers. .

If you wish to reach out to Maria, you can visit her LinkedIn.

Do you have a purpose-driven business and want to elevate your profit and environmental impact at the same time? A CFO can help you figure out your next best move. Schedule a discovery call with our team at Profit Reimagined™. We can help you move the needle forward, make an impact, and help more people — all while remaining profitable.


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