Having polished her e-commerce sites and quit her full-time job, Tara Milburn is building Ethical Swag, a business that helps companies buy sustainable branded products.
Sydney-based Milburn began Ethical Swag in 2010 and, until recently, worked on it part-time. Now, with many businesses becoming concerned about their purchasing decisions, Milburn is making it easy for companies to buy ethically made items such as T-shirts, pens, plants, seeds, and tech and novelty items.
She said that purchasers want to be able to have confidence in supply chains and Ethical Swag’s products are curated for sustainable criteria.
“We only work with suppliers that have passed audits related to social compliance, environmental impact, supply chain security and product safety and quality,” she said.
“We look for sustainable goods which include recycled content. We watch carbon footprint when shipping. … It can be complicated but we make it easy.”
Milburn said her company works with ethical sourcing partners such as Fairware and QCA to ensure standards.
Recently, Ethical Swag has expanded into the U.S. with the launch of a U.S. e-commerce site. Milburn said it made sense as more than half of Ethical Swag’s clients are in the U.S.
“We are making it easier for American clients to buy from us; we are developing relationships with suppliers in the U.S. We have done lot of work on who our customer is and what they are looking for,” she said.
“We have simplified the technology for buying on our sites. …In the next 12 months, we will streamline the buying processes.”
Milburn has competitors in her sector but says many of her competitors follow an agency model and help larger clients design advertising campaigns that incorporate ethically sourced promotional products.
She prefers to offer e-commerce to smaller businesses.
“For example, a lot of startups care,” she said. “The startup community is interested in buying swag anyway so why not buy sustainably?”
Buying sustainably makes good business sense, she said. She cited a recent consumer study by Get in Touch, which states that U.S. consumers rank promotional products as the most effective advertising vehicle.
Promotional products help create resonance, which is marketing that develops customer loyalty by expressing a business’s core values.
“When you buy sustainably and can communicate that, it has positive connotations,” Milburn said. “It’s about knowing and sharing the positive story behind a product.
“Customers want to know a garment is not being made in a sweatshop…We can verify how workers are treated. This is about equity for people everywhere, how to ensure a buying decision is equitable for everyone.”
Before going full-time with Ethical Swag, Milburn worked for Nova Scotia Business Inc. as Director of Foreign Direct Investment and also assisted a startup client.
Now, she is focused on building a profitable business. Her existing clients include American technology startups, the Governor General’s Canadian Leadership Conference, Indiana’s Centre for Social Change, and universities such as the University of Toronto and Simon Fraser.
She has been fully self-employed for the last six months.
“It’s not easy to take that leap into entrepreneurship and give up the paycheque,” she said. “I needed to feel confident we’d have a significant impact while being profitable. We feel we’ll be more impactful the more profitable we are as a business.”
After founding Ethical Swag in 2010, Milburn later brought on partner Jane Mitchell who now runs her own similar venture, Halifax-based Oyster Promo Inc.
“We are both doing our own thing now,” Milburn said. “There is lots of room in the market. There are not enough people doing what we are doing.”