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Camilla Marcus-Dew
of The Soap Co.

"If a company is not doing everything it can to put life and enjoyment into the local community then what’s the point of it?"

I first became aware of The Soap Co. when scouring the Big Issue online shop for a stocking filler present last Christmas. This may be controversial, but I’ve often found that when products have a strong social or ecological impetus, the branding aesthetics and design can be left behind. I suppose in the grand scheme of things it’s the least important component to changing the world, but I’m a photographer so I can’t help but be attracted to pretty things and Dan, as a designer, is a sucker for a great font.

The Soap Co. have found a way to fuse both with their expanding range of hand soaps and lotions and more recently with the launch of their pleasing handcrafted exfoliating soap pebble, cocooned in local wool at their Lake District factory. The bottles, with their bold monochrome design, would look great in any stylish minimalist home offering up a clean white label with just a strong black typeface to draw the eye. The logo duplicates in braille giving a clue to the raison d’etre of the enterprise which gives employment opportunities to people with visual impairment and other disabilities. With a keen environmental emphasis and a great quality product, future Christmas shopping just got easier.

We interviewed co founder of The Soap Co. Camilla Marcus-Dew at their East London factory.

Camilla Marcus-Dew of The Soap Co.

Can you tell us briefly about the background of The Soap Co. how it was formed etc?

The original idea was formed around 2013 but by 2015, when I joined the organisation, it had stagnated a little bit. I saw some early concepts of the branding, there was a big picture of a fig and a poppy that was brightly coloured. The organisation had gotten to the point where they didn’t know how they were going to launch this range, so I was given the role.

I was here with the On Purpose programme, quite a few of our staff are, but it meant I only had six months. It’s a tough job to launch a product in that time frame, but we managed to get a product in front of the Ocado buyer within seven weeks with a concept design very similar to what we have now. She picked it up straight away and said “I Love it!”. We ended up not going through Ocado but it gave us a sense that we were heading in the right direction.

As far as the social enterprise side of things is concerned, we don’t describe ourselves as a charity, we want to change the way people perceive charitable giving. It’s not about asking for donations, but more about making great products that people want to buy to create more jobs.

I have worked for big corporations, in banking, energy, media, in lots of fields, but I have also spent time over in India and Ethiopia working for charities. Some of these charities really didn’t have any commercial awareness and found themselves chasing after grant money which can set them on a losing course. If they say our mission is ‘X’ but someone comes in and says we will give you a million pounds if you change your mission to ‘Y’ most of these organisations will take that money to protect the jobs of the people that work there. They think they are doing the right thing but it means they are being led by the grant money providers and not by the social challenges, I just saw too much of this. If we can be self sustaining from a trade perspective we can then set our course and our agenda.

What have been the biggest challenges in getting to this point?

A larger company may have access to a load of venture capital money so if they want to launch a product and it fails they just try again with another one. When you’re working with charitable funds without that investment drive it’s a very different beast. You can’t take as much risk, you really need to get it right the first time and that adds a lot of pressure. That’s why the brand went through two years of thinking before things actually started happening. That need to get things right initially caused an inertia which was almost paralysing.

In terms of the people that you employ, what proportion are visually impaired, or have disabilities?

Of 106 staff 80% have a disability or a long term health condition. The majority of our staff are registered disabled, but there may be some who have had, for example, reconstructive back surgery after a car accident, have been lying down for 3 years and are ready to come back into the workplace. They need somewhere supportive where they can lie down in the first aid room whenever they need to during the day, and I think lots of employers aren’t clear on that.

The Braille on the front of the packaging sometimes misleads people to believe that we’re solely about visual impairment which isn’t entirely correct. About 40% of our staff have a visual impairment, but we have people here with a wide range of other ailments. For example epilepsy, anxiety conditions and stress related disorders, cerebral palsy, even things like sickle-cell anaemia. You can see when you walk around the factory, it’s really broad.

Our Keswick site is just such a beautiful part of The Soap Co. It is really about having the time to consider every single product that gets made and not overlooking craftsmanship. I think some people come to the factory and think we could be more efficient, well yes I know we could, that’s not the focus for now, if you are always trying to chase efficiency then it just leads to bigger machines and less jobs for people. Actually, this isn’t just about making soap this is about socialising and making a family community.

Is it difficult to find the balance between having to compete in a competitive world and building a culture of caring?

I would love to say it’s easy but it’s close to impossible and that’s why not every business is a social business. It’s really hard but a strong proposition like The Soap Co. makes things a little easier. It’s a high end product so we have a bit more space to ask ‘How do we make this the best it can actually be?’.

If you’re selling soap for 99p it’s not about quality necessarily but more about creating a formulation and trying to sell tens of millions of units in every country in order to recoup the cost of production, it’s a very different philosophy.

We’re also focused on the environment, local sourcing, supporting other small social enterprises etc, there are so many things we do that aren’t about disability. We recognise the systemic nature of social change, you can’t fix one thing without being aware that there is always a problem somewhere else. We are trying to pay attention to the impact of the bottles at the end of their life as much as the impact on our staff when they move on to the next place. I really believe that business can be done in a much more cohesive way. One that considers people in the local environment but also the knock on impact of where your materials come from.

We talk about social enterprise being ‘good’ business, but it should just be business and the other stuff should be called ‘bad’ business. if a company is not doing everything it can to put life and enjoyment into the local community then what’s the point of it?

So what are your plans going forward?

Retail is a clear strategy of ours. We want to put our products out there in front of people that care about these issues and those who would appreciate the brand. I think it will be a slow and steady process but I would hope in a couple of years time for us to be in John Lewis or somewhere like that. I love to think that conversation could start fairly soon but it will definitely be a year and a half process of making it happen. At that point though we could have real scale. We are also talking to a lot of big businesses about getting our products into their bathrooms.

Extending the range is also something we are looking at. We will have three new fragrances launching this autumn which is exciting. We’re extending the hand wash and lotion range into bar soap, body wash, body lotion and bath oils.

A key theme of what we are pushing for in the imminent future is on the eco side. We have launched with a strong social message, you look at the bottle and see the braille on the front, the ingredients are good and prosocial, now we are really trying to push harder in communicating our environmental mission. It’s simple things like could we increase the percentage of recycled content from 25% to 50%? The outcome of that is that the bottles would be more grey because of the milk bottle tops that get thrown in which contaminate the colour. It’s not quite as appealing as it is at 25%, but, with good communication could we help to explain this to customers? I would love it if we could take our consumers and potential consumers on that journey with us.

What have been the highlights so far of this process?

I have had a lot of bars of soap to test at home when we were trying to decide how many grams of poppy seeds to put in!

It’s been so well received by people which is an absolute highlight. We’re going into buyer meetings and instead of them saying ‘no, don’t get the brand’ the response is more like ‘come on in show us your brand’ which has been really positive. People understand it and if they don’t get it straight away you just walk them round the factory for five minutes, they see the guide dogs, they meet some of our staff and it’s just so plainly obvious why we do the things we do. I love that sometimes I don’t have to tell the story at all.

I was invited to Latvia a few months ago to talk to a social enterprise there and present The Soap Co. There were a few questions about how this can be replicated there, I’d love to think that we would have production in other countries in the future. Why should other places struggle to work out how to solve these social challenges when actually the solution is right here already, it’s just about replicating and sharing success. Having said that, we are a local brand that means a lot to our consumers and we don’t want to lose that. There is a balance to be struck between who we are and what we stand for, and helping people around the world to imitate what we do.

What motivates you?

My motivation is fairly clear, I have a couple of disabled relatives, they are teenagers at the moment, but what are the opportunities for them in say five years time? Right now those opportunities just don’t exist.

People also have such negative stereotypes about those with disabilities. When we go on a product launch I hear things like, ‘people with disabilities can’t make luxury products’ and I say, ‘But they can and our products prove it. Our team are very skilled at what they do and The Soap Co. shows that’.

I’d love to think that what we are doing here is actually creating hope for people with disabilities. On the employability side we are doing something magical, we already have 106 staff but there are well over a million people with disabilities out there that don’t have the opportunity to work. It could be something simple like sweeping the floor. If they are able to do that then they are employable. Our job is to work out what’s right for each individual, which can be challenging but very fulfilling too.

What does success look like to you?

I think we are finding the balance now between a social business and a traditional business but I think we have a bit more work to do to get there.  So success, in one way, is in being able to keep an eye on social and an eye on commercial with both of them growing at the same time. It’s very natural to want to scale quickly. Imagine if John Lewis came to us tomorrow and said we want 2,000 of your soaps bars by next week, we would have to tell them we couldn’t meet that deadline and that it just takes us a bit longer. We need a bit of luck, with a resource of people coming and going and orders coming in at the right time.

Do you find that retailers are sympathetic to your challenges?

It’s not about sympathy but it’s about understanding that things may take longer. As we build relations with individuals within companies, this doesn’t tend to be an issue.

If you said Billy was going to struggle to make 500 hundred soaps by next week, on a human to human level it’s easier for people to empathise. Sometimes we are in a conversation where a company might need products on a certain day because they have a launch on that day. They might be being inflexible but that’s the nature of business. If we are going to make an income for a social enterprise or a charity from selling products in a commercial space then we have to be very comfortable with hitting these deadlines. We have to do a lot of juggling but it’s very possible.

"I’d love to think that what we are doing here is actually creating hope for people with disabilities."

What Characteristic do you most admire in others?

I think it would be integrity. By that I mean if more of us said we were going to do something and then actually did it, I think the world would be a pretty awesome place. I don’t think it takes much, we meet a lot of people who say things like, ‘Oh yes I am not going to buy plastic bags anymore’, if they just remembered what they said in that moment and stuck by it, then it would be pretty epic. So integrity of words into actions, I think it’s something I really look for when I am hiring staff and in the people I choose to spend my time with outside of work.

When you are having a bad or tough day what cheers you up?

Chocolate, cheese and wine…but maybe not all at the same time.

We have a sales bell that we use to celebrate when an order comes in. I can be deep in conversation, or trying to figure out how are we going to make the budget work this month or how are we going to make those production volumes in the year, and I’ll hear that little bell ringing and it reminds me why we are doing it all. It’s a recognition that someone else thinks we have got a really cool thing going on here.

What are the biggest sacrifices you have made to pursue this?

Champagne! I used to have a fairly well paid job in corporate. I think it fundamentally changes your life if you choose to work at a social enterprise. It’s all encompassing in a way that a corporate job really wasn’t, I was kind of there and doing the work but I wasn’t really present. I love it now. It is certainly hard but I wouldn’t change it.

What’s the best piece of advice you have ever received?

I went travelling when I was 21 and my mum bought me a little card that said ‘Go into the world and do well, but more importantly go into the world and do good’. I still have it, on the back it says ‘safe travels love mummy xx’.  She didn’t know what she had started back then but she had sown a seed. Good on her!

What piece of advice would you give to your 21 year old self or someone starting out?

Get yourself out there and have as many inspirational conversations as you can, particularly with people that you don’t agree with or who seem like they are from a different planet. Those moments are great and they shape who you will become.

I could say to just go travelling, but if it wasn’t for my corporate life I wouldn’t be doing what I am doing now. The skills I learned there were invaluable. It’s really easy to say don’t work in a corporate job, but actually there are enough social enterprises out there, there are enough social products, there are enough charities the question is how we grow and scale them and how we help them work with each other and across the market.

My advice to my 21 year old self would be to keep doing what you’re doing it’s cool, just enjoy it; enjoy the moment. I like the Buddhists philosophy of just living, living pretty much in the present.

Is there a motto or principle that you live by?

I think it’s something about acting purposefully. I mean I just have to trust that human intention is mostly good, so if people do everything with purpose then it will all work out.

"Get yourself out there and have as many inspirational conversations as you can, particularly with people that you don’t agree with or who seem like they are from a different planet."

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