In today’s interview, I’ve had the pleasure of diving into the incredibly productive and highly-inspiring mind of Sian Conway, Founder of Ethical Hour and ethical business extraordinaire.
I first came across Sian when searching for ethical businesses to connect with on Twitter. Up popped Ethical Hour, a community page connecting consumers and companies alike that have a shared passion for sustainable and ethical living.
Unlike most online communities, Sian has created a living, breathing, and highly engaged group of people through hosting chats (join us every Monday at 8pm GMT) and serving up relevant content relevant to the ethical niche.
It’s been a pleasure to see the chat grow to thousands of members, and I’ve personally made meaningful connections through the network. Sian has nailed what those business books talk about: she’s built a brand, created a tribe, and kept us all oh-so engaged.
Alongside Ethical Hour, Sian is the Marketing Director of Studio B61 and she’s a business mentor to ethical start-ups. I hope you’ll glean as many gems from her answers as I have!
1. What got you started in ethical living, and indeed, ethical business?
I’ve always been interested in environmental issues since I was really young. In fact, I recently cleared out some childhood stuff at my mum’s house a I found a drawing I did about ways to save the o-zone layer, so I’ve obviously been a bit of an activist from an early age!
At university I helped a friend who was studying fashion to set up and run the ethical fashion society. We did a big on-campus campaign to educate people on sweatshops and got involved in the ‘Say No to Sweatshops‘ campaign. This was well before the Rana Plaza collapse and the True Cost film though, so some of the big issues in the fashion industry weren’t really known. We used to organise clothes swaps which really appealed to students – you get a different outfit for every night out without spending any money!
After university I went travelling – I spent a summer living in Sierra Leone and working on social impact projects. We were helping set up an eco-friendly tourism resort and helping the local women start their own businesses. It’s a very poor country with a difficult history, but everyone was so friendly, welcoming and driven to change their situation. I came back feeling inspired but also extremely frustrated and disillusioned at how much we over-consume and waste in our daily lives.
I then started working on community projects at home and then got a job at a university helping students start their own social impact projects, which is where I learnt a lot about social enterprise business models and really got interested in marketing too.
In 2015 I went travelling again (I’ve got the bug!) – this time to Cambodia. While I was there, I met artisan women who use traditional handicrafts to produce beautiful fabrics and their own silk. That night, I noticed that my New Look trousers I’d been wearing were made in Cambodia. It felt like such a contrast to realise that these were probably made in terrible conditions by a garment worker, unlike the artisan women I’d spent the day with. After that I started looking into fast fashion and learning more and that’s where my lifestyle really started to change, and when I launched #EthicalHour.
2. Ethical Hour is a big success in terms of growth, but also in the incredible engagement of its community. What helped build your tribe?
Thank you! It’s amazing how quickly it’s grown. Within the first few weeks we had some major ethical brands like Divine and Oxfam involved. When I first launched it was a way for me to learn more about ethical living and connect with like-minded people. I was genuinely interested in building relationships and connecting with people, because ethical living is not something that the people already in your life always understand or can help with. I think that played a big part in forming the connections that were made.
My background is in marketing so I had a really good handle on how to build a brand and use social media, which helped. I approached it as a brand from the very beginning because I knew that would be the best way to unite people under the same umbrella.
I’m also really careful about the language I use when it comes to #EthicalHour. We’re a community and it’s a collective effort, so I try to talk about ‘we’ and ‘us’ as much as possible. I’m really inspired by Seth Godin (the marketing guru!) and his TED talk: The Tribes We Lead. He’s also written a book called ‘Tribes*‘. It’s a must-read for anyone interested in marketing, branding or building any sort of community if you ask me. From the very beginning of #EthicalHour I knew that I wanted to create a tribe of people who share my values and desire to create a better world, so I use that word a lot!
It took a lot of work in the beginning (and still does to be honest). The personal touch is really important. I really try hard to personally welcome new members to the Facebook group or Twitter chat – which is getting harder now we have multiple new members every day. If you want to engage and grow a community (online or offline) you have to be present and active in that community – they say that to get engagement you have to be engaging and I think that’s true. I spend a lot of time listening and talking to the community, finding out what they’re interested in and what they need and trying to deliver content that aligns with that.
3. Who or what keeps you so highly motivated?
I can see the difference the work is making and that keeps me going! There have been some incredible collaborations between #EthicalHour members and I’ve worked on some in-depth projects with some of them to help them grow their business. Everyone is really kind when it comes to giving feedback and I often get messages saying what an impact the community has had on someone’s business, blog or even confidence when it comes to ethical living. That’s so rewarding!
Personally, I’ve met some amazing people through the network. Every week we sit down on Monday nights to chat and it feels like catching up with friends, even though a lot of us have never met! And it’s the same every time you log into the Facebook group or onto Instagram. If you’ve got a problem you can be open about it in the group and everyone will help you out – and you can almost guarantee someone will have the answer.
In the summer last year I visited London for the Ethical Consumer Conference and the Blue Patch Business Awards and had chance to meet some members in person. It honestly felt like meeting up with old friends! We greeted each other with hugs even though it was our first time meeting! The quality of the relationships within the community gives me the motivation to keep going and build something amazing that helps us all.
Plus we’re all working on something bigger than ourselves – we all want to create a positive change. Whether that’s for garment workers, animals in labs, the ocean, the rainforest – whatever it is, everyone comes to #EthicalHour because they want to live and work more ethically and make the world a better place, and it’s working! Ethical spending in the UK was the highest it’s ever been last year, they’re talking about banning paper cups (or at least charging for them) to reduce plastic pollution, and the microbeads ban has come into place now. All over the world people are trying to make a change and the government, media and big business are starting to listen. I’m excited to see where we can go and what impact we can have in the future!
4. What’s one ethical business mentor tip everyone should listen to?
Don’t compare yourself to others – it’s honestly so much easier said than done! Social media makes it so easy to see what everyone is doing and to connect with people – which is amazing, but it can be negative too. It’s too easy to compare yourself to others because they’ve got a bigger audience, or their content is better, or they get more engagement or whatever. But what you have to remember is that their profiles are their ‘shop front’ and highlights reel, and there’s no sense in comparing the back end of your business to the front end of someone else’s.
Don’t worry too much about the competition. Get really clear on your mission – why are you doing this? Put that at the heart of everything you do and everything you put out there and you will attract the right tribe.
5. Finally, do you have any exciting future plans you can share with us?
Since switching to ethical clothes, I’ve changed to cruelty-free beauty products, and I’ve gone vegetarian for the New Year (although it’s a permanent switch!) I’m really trying to cut back on plastic waste now too. It’s amazing how quickly small swaps and steps in the right direction soon add up!
Business-wise, there are so many plans! The main thing that I’m working on right now is our ‘Little Black Book of Ethical Living‘ which will be launching in a few weeks. It’s a directory to help people find ethical businesses to buy from and work with, so right now I’m trying to connect with all the brilliant brands in #EthicalHour and get them signed up! A lot of my time this year will go into promoting it and encouraging people to shop ethically by making it as easy and accessible as possible so the more people that join the better. We will all benefit as #EthicalHour grows!