Following on from OLIO, we spent time talking to Rebecca Winckworth, one of the three female co-founders behind luxury linen company White & Green. Sari, Rebecca and Danielle founded White & Green in 2015 with a mission ‘to create the best bedding in the world’.
What sets White & Green apart from their competitors is that all their products are Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) certified, Organic Soil Association certified and Fairtrade. Working directly with their Fairtrade factory and organic cotton farmers in India they ensure the highest standards of safe working conditions and Fairtrade Premiums for their partners’ community.
Operating for just three years, their products have proved hugely popular with rave reviews and recommendations online. We spoke to Rebecca about co-founding White & Green, her role as Development, Labour Rights and Fairtrade Expert and what it’s like to work as part of a mother-daughter trio!
1. It’s amazing to hear how adamant you were that everything sold through White & Green would be certified, organic and fair trade. The organic and Fairtrade sections of your website do a great job at educating consumers on these crucial issues, how important to you was it to get your message across?
The whole idea for White & Green came about because we were becoming more and more conscious about ethical consumption and we as consumers couldn’t find enough companies that were seriously considering their environmental, economic and social impact. We also didn’t think that in general, people were talking about these issues, so we wanted to create a company that very gently educated people about how consumerism impacts lives all over the world. We were adamant though that the message would always be portrayed in a positive light.
So, rather than making ourselves feel guilty about our habits, more of a ’let’s all make small changes which have a major collective impact’. At the end of the day, we are a company that needs sales to survive and if your marketing and messages are constantly guilt-tripping customers, then sales simply won’t come in. Customers want to buy into something that makes them feel great and I think the messaging we carry out with White & Green certainly achieves this goal.
2. On your website it mentions you went travelling, where did you go and what did you see that made an impact?
Our family is passionate about travel. Our parents never had many things; instead they invested in experiences, and this passion for seeing new places and meeting new people was instilled in all of us kids. So I travelled around East Africa and Asia extensively, and then I lived and volunteered in India for a while. It was predominantly during my time in India that I saw ‘behind the scenes’ of the garment industry. I met a human rights lawyer in Delhi who represents garment factory workers and he took us to visit some of the employees of a major clothing factory. It was a harrowing experience actually… Hearing from the employees firsthand the impact of fast fashion and the way they work incredibly long hours, for minimal pay, living away from their families in the squalor of Delhi slums.
As we were leaving that day, one of the men said to me “please help us”. I couldn’t sleep for a week. I could not believe that the high street brands I bought from were allowing their clothing to be made in factories with such dismal human rights violations. From there I went on to complete a Master’s degree in International Development at the London School of Economics and then created White & Green with my family. We didn’t have expertise in making clothing and we reckoned that most people have beds with cotton sheets, so making ethical bedding would be a wonderful way to have a positive impact on the industry.
3. In your role as Development, Labour Rights and Fairtrade Expert, what are your primary responsibilities?
I liaise with our producers in India - our smallholder farmers, their cotton farming cooperative and our factory. I also work with the Fairtrade foundation to ensure all compliance is adhered to. Further to this, I have the wonderful job of ensuring the message of ethical and sustainable consumption is relayed through our marketing in a way that interests and engages people.
4. What has been White & Green’s greatest success and challenge to date?
Two years ago, we went on Dragons’ Den. We discussed and debated between ourselves for months about whether to apply or not. One of us was adamant we should do it, one was adamant we shouldn’t and I was stuck in the middle! At the end of the day, we decided to go for it and we got in!
We spent a month preparing ourselves, our business plan - learning the pitch and all possible questions and answers they could throw at us. By the time the day of shooting arrived, we were absolutely exhausted and panicked by the thought of millions of people watching us! We ended up being in that studio for over an hour, we absolutely nailed every question they gave us and had some of the dragons really pondering over whether to invest.
In the end, none of them felt they had the right skillset to be valuable to us and so we left without investment. But our feature was the longest on the show that night, we had rapturous feedback from the press and media and we managed to turn this huge challenge into a huge success. People still recognise us from that TV show- so I suppose you can’t put a price on that valuable marketing!
5. As a co-founder, do you find it difficult achieving a work life balance?
Yes, there is no doubt about it - I eat, breath and sleep my company. In the past I have tried to turn off the laptop between certain hours but nowadays with email on phones, it seems I can’t help myself but check in last thing at night and first thing in the morning. My saving grace is horse riding and hiking. I have to go out at least once a week for my sanity and once I’m out in the mountains there is no phone reception - so the phone stays firmly in my pocket and I have a few hours to reset my system.
Finding a work-life balance is something I do regularly try to improve by booking myself into language classes, gym classes or social events with friends- in those circumstances I simply cannot look at my laptop, but it is easy to slip into old habits of working 24/7. Maybe it’s not such a bad thing though, after all the company wouldn’t be so successful without all of our blood, sweat and tears!
6. How do you enjoy working with your family? Are there any difficulties? What do you enjoy the most about it?
Working with family has been incredible and challenging at the same time. Our Mum is an inspiration to us kids- she is a huge thinker, ideas person and go-getter. She does not see barriers to anything and so once she sets a goal, she pushes everyone to achieve that no matter what the obstacles.
As a family company, we have an innate bond, honesty and loyalty that can never be broken. No matter how many disagreements or debates we may have, we always move on and get over them. I wonder if non-family Co-Founders would really be able to do the same? That’s what I love the most about working with family, we will always be there for each other. Companies may come and go, but family is here to stay.
7. Who’s in control of White & Green’s social media? And which social media channel works best?
I look after all social media. We use Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, Email and Instagram but by far email is the most powerful platform. Facebook is becoming more and more important for our sales but you have to spend a huge amount of money on marketing to actually reach consumers. Our email list is built up of people who are interested in our brand and want to be part of our story - so I do find that the highest conversion rate is through our email campaigns.
8. How do you fund your company, and from your own experience, would you say there should be easier access to funding for startups and SMEs?
Our company is predominantly self-funded- this has been a challenge and thankfully we individually have other income streams which keep us afloat. For example, I am a professional singer and I actually perform most evenings or go on tour and work for White & Green remotely for a few weeks at a time. Had we more access to funding earlier on, we would have grown at a much faster rate, without a doubt.
For the first 2 years we ran entirely on free marketing, i.e. we had no money for any advertising at all. The trick for an ecommerce company is of course to spend large budgets on digital advertising, and once we had some money available to do this (in the past six months) we have grown exponentially.
But then where do we get the money to fund the stock for the rapidly growing demand? It’s a constant struggle and certainly I wish it was easier to get funding but it seems all the drawstrings of banks and other financial institutions are tightly drawn. Especially for ecommerce companies where they would be betting on future sales- we cannot show the purchase orders because our customers don’t buy anything three months in advance!
9. Biggest piece of advice for female entrepreneurs?
I would actually say ignore the fact that you are female. I know that seems totally contrary to the question, but sometimes you can focus too much on the barriers of being a female entrepreneur rather than just smashing them and achieving goals. In the business context, I have not had any issues being a woman. I find that men, and the several male mentors we have, go out of their way to help us. Luckily in a country like Ireland or the UK, being a woman in business in this day and age is not that extraordinary, though the same cannot be said for other countries around the world.
I suppose I would also say that if you are kind and make a conscious effort to help people, especially younger women, that is the kindest thing you can do for others and for yourself too. I have mentored several younger women, just as I have received guidance from successful career women too, and rather than these things being seen as ‘favours’ it should just be our modus operandi. Our mum is the kindest and most generous person I know- always helping other people and she has instilled this in us too.
10. What are your main plans and goals for White & Green in 2019?
We are focusing on purely online growth. We have tested out wholesaling and realised that the time and effort it takes to man this is not worth the lesser margins you achieve. Our problem however is that we are sold out of most stock right now due to our online sales taking off so much faster than we could have ever imagined over the past few weeks. So we need to speed up production to fulfil demand!