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Blog: Towards a greener Leicestershire part 1: Tunde Sobola, green entrepreneur

9 June 2021

(originally published 28 May 2021)

Business Gateway has a series of Zero Carbon webinars running in May and June.  It has also launched a unique green initiative with Zellar to enable 100 Leicestershire businesses to measure their carbon emissions and take action to reduce them.  In this series of articles, we’re looking at businesses in Leicestershire who are already working in an environmentally friendly way.   

Tunde Sobola is a born entrepreneur with green issues at the heart of his business – or businesses, as he has more than one.  First is a cleaning company (www.greenheartclean.co.uk) that only uses eco-friendly and sustainable products, which Tunde founded while still a student at Loughborough University and second, a retail operation (online and on the High Street) that supplies eco-friendly cleaning and other goods on the principles of zero waste (www.thecleaningcabinet.co.uk).

Did you always plan for your business to be sustainable and eco-friendly?

“Yes, I’ve been interested in this for a long, long time.  I’m not a fanatic but I am passionate about it.  People just want convenience and for the sake of convenience, I think, people have lost touch with the cost to the environment.  If we allow ourselves to connect with what’s happening, we can present a better solution.

A lot of people understand that we need to reduce plastic waste, but they don’t know how.  We started the Zero Waste shop in 2019 inspired by what we saw with my cleaning company; the eco-friendly cleaning products that we used worked very well and we initially decided to make them available online to retail customers where we encouraged them to buy in bulk to keep the packaging down.  When they bought a 5-litre bottle, it lasted longer, and we saved using 10 smaller bottles.”

While Tunde’s cleaning business continued to clean schools, hospitals and offices, he branched out into selling cleaning products on a stall at Loughborough Market, mainly to raise his profile locally but also to conduct market research.

“Over time we talked to customers about what else they might need so that we could become a one stop shop for these sustainable cleaning products.  People started asking us about vinegar, and oxygen bleach which is a natural stain remover, bicarbonate of soda for cleaning and unblocking sinks and we added those things to our stock.  The principle was just to stay away from plastic packaging by using paper and customers’ own containers.”

The high street shop (opened in January) sells mainly cleaning products but also offers an expanded range including vegan food, oat milk, loose teas and ground coffee and hot chocolates.  “We just want to be a bit innovative.

One thing we’ve done to test the waters is we were selling hot chocolate in tins, but we didn’t like the waste that came with smaller 250gm tins.  So, we started selling refill hot chocolate and it was selling really quickly.  I think the principle of reducing waste is not limited to plastic

Slowly people started to realise that they could bring in their own containers and we’d fill them rather than them having to be thrown away.  We started to realise that actually we’re all paying for this plastic that our products usually come in.

We started to educate people about that and how cost-effective it is for them to bring their own bottles or containers rather than buy a new one.  You save yourself around 50p on a lot of items so people have also realised how much cheaper it is compared to what they thought it would be.  That’s what keeps people coming back.”

How do customers react to your approach?

People who are organised, do their shopping in clusters and bring their containers with them.  For those who are new to this, they haven’t got into the habit yet but if someone is interested in reducing their waste, and they see the solution in front of them, they will connect with it.  Not everyone is interested yet, but more and more people are.

What are the cost benefits for the customers?

With our cleaning range, our products go through a series of test to make sure they don’t irritate the skin.  That means that we use natural, plant based and organic products to deliver the higher quality we want and so they cost a little more.  A lot of people don’t yet think that deeply about the hidden costs that we’re saving like preventing illness for example.

For simpler products where you’re buying a refill instead of a brand-new package, it is cheaper to shop with us.  And we’re always looking for suppliers who are happy to meet the requirements attached to selling refills for things like oat milk.”

What type of customers do you attract?

“Initially we used to attract school children because they’d learned about recycling and zero waste at school and they would pull their parents into the shop!  Over time, we’ve seen a lot of people in their twenties taking an interest.  We now know that our core market is women between 30 and 50 and they bring their partners in too.  And we also have older customers.”

What is the future for your business?

“I like testing ideas and putting them into practice.  I might not be able to guess what’s coming next but I’m always looking for opportunities. We’re looking at different ways of getting our products to people when and where they need them and using reusable containers; taking the products right to them and getting their neighbours involved too.

I think that’s an opportunity because, with lockdown, people have changed their view of shopping and going into town to do that.  One thing I want to do is to make our products affordable for everyone, not a niche.  It’s important to me that as many people as possible come to us.

How did the Business Gateway support you?

The help we had from Joanna Moore was in thinking through our options.  It really helped to discuss my ideas with someone who had a wider experience.  She helped me create an action plan and understand what our gaps were and how we could go about fixing them, including managing my team of 27 between the two companies.

Tunde was speaking to Business Gateway’s Peter Allen

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Find out more about Business Gateway Zero Carbon webinars here: https://bizgateway.org.uk/events/zero-carbon-travel/

Find out about the Zellar Project here: https://bizgateway.org.uk/100-ways-to-go-greener/