It’s the end of November, and that means I’m winding down my second year of running South Shore Sea Salt. It’s actually a little wild to type that out – this salty gig might actually be the longest running job I’ve ever had! Blame that on the grad school cycle of contract work.
My initial motivations for starting this business were pretty self-serving: I wanted to learn the ropes of being an entrepreneur, and I wanted to earn an income while having fun and without relying on anyone else. Well, that didn’t last too long – we’re now a team of people behind the scenes – but the joy and learning have continued and grown!
One thing that became really clear to me early on was that I would feel like a tremendous hypocrite if I didn’t take a strong environmental stance on my business. We make sea salt: obviously preserving the cleanliness and safety of the ocean is paramount to our success. I knew that I couldn’t just start using whatever packaging and processing materials seemed convenient; I had to make decisions that I could ethically live with.
For a small business owner, this means constantly juggling what will sell vs what is ethical for the environment. Take our packaging, for example: the product is sea salt. This means it is very slightly damp and also super corrosive (salt eats through metal). This rules out paper/compostable packaging, and metal tins. Then we’re left with glass or plastic. I’m obviously not going to go with plastic, except for 100% post consumer recycled containers – the downside is that these are still fairly rare and usually sold in huge lots of 15,000+ units. That’s more than we can afford.
So we turned to glass. Our little glass jars are a bit more expensive than their plastic counterparts would be, but they’re recyclable and, more importantly, super reusable. I have them all over my house doing different jobs: holding spare change, almonds, hair ties, even paint. I love them!
The downside is that they are heavy. This has been the biggest deterrent to setting up an official online store for the business. We just haven’t figured out how to make the cost of shipping low enough to accord with the low cost of our units! I believe the solution is to adopt a special packaging option just for mail orders, which will probably involve packets that get decanted into actual jars or containers by our consumers once they receive them. But after putting in all the work of designing and sourcing our jars, it’s frustrating to have to sell something that doesn’t quite fit with our brand and vision.
The fact is that transparency sells products, especially when it comes to foods like ours. Being able to see the actual salt (especially the flavoured ones, which are lovely colours) is an important part of the decision to purchase it. We’re really proud of the quality of our product, as we have heard feedback that competitors in our market occasionally have bits of organic matter mixed in with their salt. We’re not here for that, and so having our salt super visible is important.
This brings us to the matter of the gift market. It’s a big deal for us. Since we’re not selling an instant consumable or a food that runs out on a regular basis, a big part of our sales plan relies on people gifting others (especially people from out of province) our products. So how could we package several small jars together in a way that is both aesthetically pleasing, environmentally friendly, and cost effective?
Right now, we’ve settled on two different options. Our longest-running gift set is cloth-wrapped. We purchase cotton from the fabric store, sew it into handkerchiefs, and use it to tie up sets of two salts (with a little wooden spoon tucked in for good measure). This looks extremely precious (I’m biased, of course, but people also say so!), but there are some downsides. Purchasing the fabric and cutting and sewing the handkerchiefs adds up to a lot of extra expense and labour. The jars themselves aren’t visible, so unless the customer spots our deconstructed example or asks us about it, they often miss the point of the gift set.
The upside of this method is that the handkerchief is totally biodegradable (cotton) and easily reusable. From the environmental perspective, it’s a win. We can also absorb the extra expense/labour at our current stage. But if gift sets aren’t selling as fast as they should be simply due to the visibility of the product, we have to consider another option.
Enter eco-plastic. This season we’ve started making a few different gift sets out of cellulose or other plant-based “plastic” bags. I was skeptical at first, as I was nervous that we were getting duped by someone trying to capitalize on the eco trend. However, my research ended up prevailing: I saw time-lapse decomposition videos from other sources, and did my own tests. I feel really good about the choice to use these bags now, and our holiday gift sets look great!
Nothing is perfect, of course. These bags are more expensive than their plastic equivalents, but worth it. The biggest challenge that we face is actually educating our customers about these materials – seems like there isn’t enough signage in the world to convey to everyone that it isn’t real plastic! However, I’ve put paper inserts into each bag with information explaining how to dispose of it, so fingers crossed this is enough to spread awareness.
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Presenting another perfect Nova Scotian partner for serving our delicious Sea Salt. Our Hubbards neighbour David, of Fox's Folly Wood Works, turns these gorgeous salt cellars from Nova Scotia maple and hand finishes them with beeswax polish. They are little works of art. Limited number. Find us at Dalplex this weekend! We are there 12-9 pm today!
At the end of the day, I’m not just a business owner; I’m also a consultant who helps creative business owners with their planning. I work hard to factor in environmentally ethical decision-making when I work with people that sell products. That means I’m constantly researching new tech and options for them while also keeping small startup budgets in mind – and I feel so strongly that I have to practice what I preach. Entrepreneurs are trying the best they can to make it all work, and we have to strive to do the best we can within our means. I’m also a consumer, and align my buying habits with my ethics.
If you have a suggestion or an idea how businesses like mine can continue to improve their footprint on the earth, I’m all ears! With an open mind and good intentions, we can make a real difference in the future. I hope you’ll join me – and if you need help figuring out better options for your business, just reach out and we’ll brainstorm together!