Turning economic tides with sustainable soaps

Olivia Bayne interviews Robyn Brady on her small business: expenses, ingredients, and shopping locally

Endocrine disruption, rainforest depletion, and confounding greenwashing are some of the hurdles we face today as conscious consumers. There often seems little that we as individuals can actually do to choose wisely, take control of our own destinies, and protect the health of ourselves and of our planet. These tasks are especially difficult while trying to protect our own wallets — money being another frequently extorted resource.

Society has become increasingly aware of the effects of anthropogenic devastation. Through media and politics we are constantly reminded of the unconscionable scale of environmental destruction, and are thus compelled to act and contribute to the solution.  But it is no secret that sustainable lifestyles are more accessible to those who can afford them (slow fashion, organic vegetables, and those fun little glass jars to store grains in the kitchen). Many corporations charge significantly lower prices for their conveniently-accessible, industrially-produced goods which draw in the eye, featuring neon-coloured sale labels. But less obvious to our immediate discernment are the alternative payments factored into that low price; not only the inevitable expense of product quality, but also the less apparent externalised costs, such as unethical treatment of employees, ill-health of consumers, and increased environmental waste. The relatively high price of consciously-sourced products undoubtedly alienates the consumer, but this disparity is the result of the ostracisation of smaller local businesses, who are forced to compete with the impossibly low prices of international corporations, which serve a larger patronage. It is difficult to attract the consumer to the pricier, albeit healthier, option when it may not be economically feasible.

“‘If I want to be ethical it’s expensive. That’s not right. Being ethical becomes elitist when it should be a possibility for everyone.’”

This problem became glaringly apparent to Robyn Brady, a Waterford-based entrepreneur as she began her eco-blog last year. “If I want to be ethical it’s expensive. That’s not right. Being ethical becomes elitist when it should be a possibility for everyone”, she stated. As well as being focused on the morality and economy of shopping sustainably, Brady’s interest is also in our physical well-being. Struck by recent literature regarding the ill-health effects of unsafe chemicals found in plastic food containers and polyester clothing, Brady became conscious of the synthetic, toxic materials found in the very things we use to keep ourselves healthy: cleaning products. Taking matters into her own hands, Brady’s online shop and blog, Not a Trashy Gal, makes healthy and sustainable options accessible to all shoppers, through her modestly-priced and ethically sourced handmade soaps and cosmetics (with more products on the way!).

Brady’s shop, named both for its proper social etiquette and its zero-waste ethos, was originally based on Etsy, but the listing fees, earning percentages, and shipping costs grew too significantly to support the shop’s size, with Etsy deducting over €100 at the peak of Christmas shopping last November. “I tried a couple of different hosting platforms afterwards, but I wanted to have space for my blog and room for an interactive forum in which customers could ask questions or get advice.” While the benefit of selling on an established platform means reaching a wider consumer base, online markets can at times resemble a “pyramid scheme” in that a large percentage of all retailer profits go straight to the web-based company itself. This is a disappointing realisation with which any of us who sell on Depop will be familiar. “Amazon can be a great search engine tool though. You can look for individual shops and then go on to purchase from vendors’ own websites instead, where you know your money is going straight to the producer.” Brady’s new website [notatrashygal.com] has been ultimately successful without the help of larger online retailers, thanks to the close-knit community of female entrepreneurs in Waterford, who continuously support one another’s businesses via social media and giveaways. Such online promotion tools have become essential during Covid-19 restrictions because products can no longer be advertised and sold at large in-person markets.

“Community endorsement systems like these are an essential aspect of sustainability, and throughout the interview Robyn continuously stressed the importance of shopping locally to support small businesses.”

Community endorsement systems like these are an essential aspect of sustainability, and throughout the interview Robyn continuously stresses the importance of shopping locally to support small businesses. “You know [the product] is coming from just down the road. You know the people who make it and that they’re not underpaid and overworked.” There is a certain level of trust involved in buying from a personal vendor, as well as a guaranteed reduced carbon footprint, and far less room for production morality illusionism.

The strength of local identity shines through in Brady’s products themselves. All of her core fragrances are inspired by, and find their namesakes in, the lure of powerful Celtic gods and goddesses. “I am Irish, and I identify as a proud Irish person. I wanted there to be something innately Irish about my product; not some trendy L.A. eco-buzz, but something that felt like it belonged here.” When asked how she designed her fragrances, Brady replied, laughing: “I picked my favourite characters and I thought, ‘what would this person smell like?’ and took some inspiration from that. But really, I am also very interested in aromatherapy, what fragrances do emotionally, which links back to Druid herbal medicines, back to our eco roots, how things were and how they could hopefully be again.” Brady’s favourite scent from her collection is ‘Lugh’, inspired by the Celtic god of truth, smelling of sandalwood, orange, and ylang-ylang. Brady also recommended ‘Dadga’, a tea tree and lavender microbial soap bar. “I keep this one in the kitchen because it’s antibacterial. It’s also perfect for hand washing in Covid times!”

Brady is incredibly scrupulous in her selection of ingredients. “I am very concerned about the ethics of where things come from. I try to be organic as much as possible, as well as vegan, but some of my lip balms are based on ethically-sourced beeswax. All my ingredients are naturally occurring, the perfumes are from pure, distilled essential oils. No chemicals and no palm oil!” (A huge relief to myself who spent the previous evening sweating over phthalate research papers). As well as recyclable packing and shipping, Brady also offers 100% recyclable gift wrapping, complete with sisal twine and acid-free tissue paper.

“Establishing sustainable consumer habits is not just an ethical or environmental battle, but an economic one.”

In practicing conscious consumerism, it is essential to shop at small businesses, not only for increased reliability in ethically and ecologically sound production habits, but also for the economic sustainability of supporting local communities. Brady’s business is based in Waterford (though she ships throughout Ireland), but she was keen to provide me with additional locations for sustainable shopping closer to those of us in Dublin, including The Refill Mill, Minimal Waste Grocery, AnniePooh, and in Mullingar, Reuzi. Establishing sustainable consumer habits is not only an ethical or environmental battle, but an economic one. It is a struggle which can be eased by supporting local businesses and shifting favour away from the overly-appealing corporate empires, who currently control the rules of pricing and ingredient games. If the consumer has the money, they have the power to enact change.