Wednesday, September 2, 2009

On the Challenges of Building a Compassion-Based Business...

It is not often that I get to promote an all-vegan company - selling all-vegan products and run by all-vegan staff - nor is it often that I can claim an exclusive. But, on this one occasion, I'm going to do just that, as I was recently given the opportunity to look behind the scenes of a real-life online vegan store with a turtle-y cool 'spokesperson'!

Welcome to the face of Shop Vegan!

UK-based Shop Vegan, together with its sister store Vegan Health and Beauty, are co-owned and run by Rob Massey and his partner, Stacey, who have successfully transitioned their business from the traditional bricks and mortar model to a purely virtual venture. Enjoying a cozy long-distance 'chat' with Rob was an extremely pleasant way to while away an afternoon, and this is his story...

Cackleberry: Thanks for agreeing to this interview, Rob! So, to kick off, could you tell me a bit about the history of the stores?

Shop Vegan: We have been in business since 1999 (so around 10 years now!). The main company is called Green Valley Trading Co. and it began as a local health food shop in the Midlands 1999 with the original website a very small part of the business. Although the shop was well supported locally it became apparent after a couple of years that there were many more people outside the local area who actually wanted to order products online. As overheads were getting pretty high on the shop it was decided that we should close this and concentrate all of our efforts on the online market.

Cackleberry: And in what ways do you see your business as different from your competition?

Shop Vegan: There are a couple of vegan-run online companies in the UK that sell some of the same range of products, but as far as we're concerned this is great and the more choice that there is for vegan shoppers the better. We don't specifically try to differentiate ourselves from these companies as we're all swimming in the same direction really. We meet a few of the people behind these companies at various events and get on really well with them. I think the fact that we are a 100% vegan company selling vegan-only products probably distinguishes both us and them from the vast majority of other companies out there who may sell some of the same things but don't really share the same ethical beliefs.

Cackleberry: Could you tell me a little more about your target market, how you source your products and the kind of focus that is important to you?

Shop Vegan: Well, we had a good idea about what products it was difficult for us to buy locally [...] and we have always just tried to think of ourselves as potential customers. We have thought along the lines of "we're vegan...what would we like to see made available?" We're always guided by what people ask us for too. Obviously there are some limits on what we can easily send to people through the postal system but we always listen to suggestions that customers give us about what they would like to see on the sites. [Although we] visit the large natural health exhibitions which is good to get a feel for new products that are on the horizon, [...] most of the time we find companies through the internet and articles in magazines etc. and think that their products would fit in well with what we offer. Sometimes they approach us and we're always happy to talk to them. We are currently trying to shift the emphasis in our range a little bit away from the "health" type products... broadening it out a little more. I can envisage us having a range of mineral make-up included at some point as well as many other types of products that we don't stock at all at present.

Cackleberry: So, apart from your adorable spokes-turtle, is there someone who is 'the face' of Shop Vegan/Vegan Health and Beauty?

Shop Vegan: Well, we are essentially a family-run business so I'd have to say that the "face" of Shop Vegan/Vegan Health and Beauty would either have to be myself or Stacey, my partner. We don't really promote ourselves as such though and really prefer the products and the service to be what people associate with the company rather than any individual.

Cackleberry: In the decade you've been in business, in one form or another, what are the challenges you've had to overcome to build a compassionate business?

Shop Vegan: In all honesty I can't say that we've had any challenges that wouldn't apply to any other business really. Just like any other company there are always bits of bureaucracy that have to be dealt with, but I can't say that these have been any different because of the nature of the products or the business itself. The most difficult thing is probably having to accept that there will always be some people who won't ever understand or appreciate the reasons why being vegan is beneficial and that whatever the rest of us do the damage being done by the still massive meat and livestock industries will continue.

Cackleberry: In referring to 'damage' can we assume that was it environmental or ethical reasons that brought you to veganism?

Shop Vegan: As a youngster I never enjoyed eating meat. I'd often push it to the side of the plate and avoiding eating it. The realisation that what I was eating was once a living breathing creature that was just like me was certainly at the back of my mind somewhere but, like most people, I found it more convenient to keep it there and not really think about it too deeply. I went along with what others told me was "normal" at that point.

My journey towards becoming vegan really began when I saw television news reports about the protests against the live export of calves for the veal trade. This was going on quite near to where I lived and, although I was bordering on vegetarianism by that time anyway, I hadn't really given much thought to where dairy products actually came from and the suffering that was inherent in the system that produces them. I picked up some leaflets about the meat and dairy industry from a local stall and I went along to a meeting of a local animal rights campaign group. This really opened my eyes to the horrors that I had been ignorant of previously and I went veggie straight away. The learning process continued and after finding out more about the production of dairy products and a visit to a battery-egg producer where the smell of the place (as well as the conditions that the hens were kept in) brought tears to my eyes I made the step to being vegan. After this, staying vegan was easy. I felt healthier and happier not just from the weight that was lifted from my conscience, but from the wider range of foods that I tried that I wouldn't have considered trying previously. Everything I have learned since that time from the environmental damage that our reliance upon animal-based products is causing to the links between some major diseases and eating meat/dairy has only served to strengthen my belief that being vegan is the right thing to do. Not to mention the wonderful, inspirational people that I have met have along the way too.

Cackleberry: Speaking of which, how strong is the vegan community in the UK?

Shop Vegan: I'd say that it's as strong as it's ever been and growing. At least I hope so and I don't think that this is just wishful thinking. Previously most vegans that you speak to have become vegan for ethical reasons and have primarily been concerned with animal welfare etc. I don't think that this has decreased at all as a reason, but I do think that there are also an increasing number of people who are becoming aware of the wider environmental arguments for becoming vegan. The UK government is constantly pushing for people to eat more fruit and vegetables, but is still quite guarded about giving out the message to eat less meat. However, I think that the combination of these messages and the greater knowledge about the impact on the planet is starting to make even more people think about giving up animal products for good.

Cackleberry: Finally, do you have any stories of vegan outreach/education to share?

Shop Vegan: We encounter many little things on a daily basis. Because not all of our customers are vegan they do sometimes ask us for products that we don't supply, that are not vegan. It's surprising how many people don't realise what is in some of the products they consume or use, whether it's the glucosamine that they take being made from shellfish or lanolin in the lipbalm that they use many people are quite unaware.

Cackleberry: Rob, Stacey, thank you for taking the time to talk to me and for offering a unique insider's perspective into your journey to veganism, building a compassion-based business, and the state of veganism in the UK today.

Stay 'turtle-y cool' and stay vegan, friends!