Not a typhoon or an earthquake or anything of the sort. Something more subtle. Dimples La’O had a store in Boracay, and there was gnarly stuff happening in the water that had to do with algal blooms, coliform levels, and bacteria. Pollution. "We had to close our store there, which kind of impacted our lives in a lot of ways," says La’O, president and founder of sustainable company Meaningful Ventures. "The whole island of Boracay was closed." This was 2018.
"I think it's important to mention that we weren't always focused on sustainability when we started. We were just going about regular business. We were focused on engagements, travelling," La’O says. It's also important to mention that her store wasn't the number one culprit behind the island's water. The problem was systemic. Beachgoers not throwing their trash, tourism going wild, the whole island getting commercialized as nature wasted away. Other factors played a part in the closure of Boracay, of course, but here was a problem caused by man's wastefulness. And when that problem happens near the beach, La’O had to reevaluate things, as a producer of beach accessories and swimwear. After all, she's behind four beachwear brands: Cabanna Living, The Shore, Nothing But H20, and Salt & Sun.
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After that, her perspective as a businesswoman shifted. "We really wanted to put an emphasis on the environment because we knew how much we had depended on it, and how much we had lived on it for so long, and never really looked at giving back." She took that experience, along with the eight years under her belt working at Toms, the famously philanthropic shoe company, to develop and fine-tune a sense of entrepreneurship—one that is mindful of its impact on the environment in a way that never sacrifices the bottom line.
La’O realized early on what many other local businesses need to catch up on. Sustainability is not just a marketing buzzword or an ethical call to action, although it is brandished as both. It is also a profit-generating business strategy. While many companies are churning out plastic and peddling tragically disposable trash with no hope for reuse, La’O is running her company with entrepreneurial mindfulness. As a result, her businesses are enviably sitting pretty in the Philippines' most beautiful seaside destinations: Boracay, El Nido, Coron, and Siargao. This is how sustainability got her a ticket to paradise, and is getting others on a one-way trip to mindful living.
The Philippines is apparently one of the largest producers of ghost nets, which are basically the nets of fishermen abandoned in the open water. These stray meshes of nylon end up floating adrift, basically trash, harming aquatic wildlife in the process. They are left there because it would simply cost too much for the fishermen to get their nets back. It's especially harder in harsh weather.
How do you deal with such a problem? Ethical entrepreneurship has one answer, and it comes in the form of a chain of trade. One company harvests the ghost nets and turns them into pellets. A small Italian factory-town called Carvicle buys the pellets and spins them into recyclable nylon. And then finally, Meaningful Ventures buys the recyclable nylon, and turns it into swimwear. Pretty wild that the same material ends up right back in the ocean, but that's the beauty of it. Much was gained and nothing was lost.
But here's what's really interesting. La’O was able to link up with Carvicle, which has apparently worked with brands as reputable as Adidas and Lululemon, because she wore her sustainability advocacy proudly. Being up-front about her beliefs has helped her make a lot of friends in the industry, too. In her Boracay store, she set up water refill stations for customers who come in with tumblers and jugs, and that’s why she’s professionally tight with the Plastic Battle campaign and Save the Seas Philippines.
“Now we have a lot of people—and it's weird, it's still happening everyday, you still find people you wanna work with,” Dimples tells me. “You believe in similar things. That's one of the greatest things that can come out of it: all of the collaboration.”
Law and community
El Nido is apparently very strict about cleanliness and waste. If, as a business, you are caught using plastic bags that are not recyclable, you get fined PHP 2,000. Such a restriction is unthinkable in retail stores and groceries here, where they pack your purchases in plastic without asking you first, and tote bags aren’t always available.
“So we had to completely change our packaging,” La’O tells me. “Sometimes our suppliers use plastic. Before it gets on the island, we had to repackage everything.” Sometimes their El Nido store, Salt & Sun, would even get random checks. To make things easier, La’O just made the packaging of their products in the store totally recyclable, wholesale. “When that happened, we just implemented it with the other stores.”
Not only did the packaging follow the law of the area, it also looked beautiful. There’s just something elegant about a product that isn’t ostentatiously packaged in plastic or styrofoam. “Kaya naman pala in El Nido, why can't we do it in Boracay? Why can't we do it for the rest?”
This might be what really appeals to businesses looking to pursue a more sustainable kind of entrepreneurship: the demographic. Tapping into a new market of consumers that care deeply about where their products come from can translate to greater gains, larger profits.
But building a customer base that commits to your brand can only come from establishing a meaningful relationship with them.
In their Nothing But H20 store in Boracay (ever since reopening), La’O set up a freedom wall. On it, people were free to write well wishes for Boracay, suggestions and ideas for how to keep it clean, basically any sentiment that had to do with helping the community and the locals therein. “So when we started it [in 2018], I'm like who's actually gonna write [on it]?” Little did she know, this was just the thing she needed, not only to help her get to know her customer base, but also to refuel her fire for ethical and sustainable business. “My last trip there, oh my gosh, the whole wall was so thick with post-its already. And I'm thinking, should I take it down and make it into an album? There's no place to stick na!”
This is where the practicality of the freedom wall comes in. That freedom wall got a lot of shares on social media, and that in turn allowed the store to gain more visibility. The benefit of that exercise of free speech was twofold—it promoted good will, and it got the store free PR. Imagine how much money it takes to think up a ridiculously elaborate marketing campaign, complete with promo material, banal hashtag, and expensive celebrity endorser. Now imagine how little the freedom wall cost, and how many customers that brought in, discovering a store that makes swimsuits from recyclable nylon and sells sandals made from repurposed plastic?
That’s the magic of sustainability. Where is the waste? Where is the expense? In a world where almost all businesses come at the cost of the natural resources on which we so desperately depend on, sustainable business is the most efficient way to make a living, next to just living off the land directly.
While Meaningful Ventures might be an outlier in terms of how many local businesses do things here, Dimples is not the only testament to how sustainable a business can be when it pursues sustainability. You have the likes of Uniqlo, which has committed to reducing the use of single use plastic and accepts used clothing to recycle.
There’s even HP (yup, the company behind your printer), looking out for its carbon footprint and staying in the forefront of technology to keep things as clean as possible. According to Jessie Poon, representative for HP, “We believe sustainability is about more than just respecting the environment and conserving natural resources. It goes far beyond just being a good corporate citizen. It makes us better at fulfilling our corporate objectives and meeting our customers’ needs. Better at engaging and developing our people. And better able to deliver profitable growth and business stability over the long term.”
Sustainability, of course, is not an easy entrepreneurial virtue to uphold, nor is it a perfect moral philosophy. It can be hard for emerging businesses without enough capital to get their hands on recyclable or biodegradable material, and capitalism is an economic model that can, at best, reduce exploitation, not eradicate it completely.
But in this era, where ecological collapse seems to happen everyday, the least that companies can do is take the burden a little off the customer. We shouldn’t just be the ones thinking about how we consume. Producers must reevaluate how they manufacture and produce.