Hand to your heart, when was the last time you cleaned your room, flat or house? And what cleaning products did you use? Most cleaners come in plastic spray bottles and when they’re empty, we usually through them away. UK’s Homethings saw a problem in that and decided to get creative: their refillable cleaning products are in tablet form that you can dissolve in water at home. Julia talked to Matthew Aubrey, co-founder of Homethings about bringing fun to cleaning, whether sustainability and profitability can go hand in hand for a business and their future thing.
Julia Brunner (JB): Where did the idea for Homethings come from?
Matthew Aubrey (MA): We started working on the idea in 2019. The whole premise of the idea comes from the fact that when you look at your sort of standard household cleaning sprays, just how they’re being produced, it’s a single-use plastic bottle with 90 to 95 per cent water, and then five to ten per cent of the ingredients that do the cleaning. So, when we found that out, we thought ‘that’s actually a little bit ridiculous’, because you’re producing this plastic bottle which is just going to be used once and you’re going to be shipping the bottle often halfway around the world. We thought we could do this in a way that makes a lot more sense for the environment, for the customer and for the business as well. As a business it’s great that we don’t have to be producing all that sort of needless stuff.
JB: Can you take us a little bit through the process of when you started with the idea to the finished product?
MA: We came up with the concept and saw that there was a gap. We were motivated by doing something that had an impact to it and set out thinking about the different ways that you can change the status quo. We started off by looking at the refill model where you as the individual would go to a zero-waste store, fill up your bottles, and then take it back home. That’s a great idea, but we thought that it’s not really that scalable. Also, for people living in the countryside, or people in cities where there weren’t many zero-waste stores and that was an issue. These places are often quite expensive as well, I don’t think they’re sort of mass market enough. We want Homethings to be a mass market brand. There are also a few companies doing sort of like delivery and refill. We got down to the idea which we of course personally think is the best approach. That’s to be sending the concentrated stuff that actually does the cleaning directly to the consumer. We wanted to do tablet sized because we think it’s a more efficient manufacturing process. There’s less water involved in the manufacturing of those products. When we were doing a lot of focus groups, we found that people really enjoyed the theatre of a tablet fizzing in a bottle. So, we decided to go down that rabbit size route for the theatre, the environmental benefit, and it’s a very easy thing to transport as well. We partnered with a number of chemists and formulation experts to develop our own formula with lots and lots of prototypes. There’s so much you need to consider from the cleaning power to how long it takes to dissolve the tablet, to how it’s going to perform in hard water areas versus soft water areas. We tweaked and honed that formula for a good old period of time, and then got to a position where we were happy enough to sign off the formula, and then start production.
JB: Well, that sounds like a complicated process. But I completely understand the enjoyment of the fizzle like in a bubble bath. When I was a child it was always really cool.
MA: Yeah, and I think it’s really important to try and bring some fun to this. Cleaning has not really been thought of as sort of a fun thing to do. And then also in terms of the sustainability space as well, I think it’s a good way to engage the customer and engage the wider market, if you can bring some enjoyment and some fun to the space. You know, there is a lot of doom and gloom in sustainability. Businesses need to do a lot to sort this out and governments as well. But if you can bring those little moments of fun and enjoyment to the space, I think it has quite a lot of benefits.
JB: I also saw that you had a Kickstarter campaign last year, and you reached your funding goal within one and a half hours. How did it feel to reach your goal so fast?
MA: It was so awesome. I think Kickstarter was a great way for us to launch the brand because it gives us the capital to be able to release these products to market but also you build a real community behind you. The Kickstarter community is full of people passionate to try out new products and to support small businesses. We put a lot of work into it. However, you’ve done all this work, and you’re sat there ready to click ‘go’ on that Kickstarter campaign. And you have all sorts of thoughts going through your mind, you know, ‘is anyone going to back us so we’re going to meet our target, was all this work worth it?’ So then to hit the target within one and a half hours was a really, really great feeling.
JB: What has the response from customers been so far?
MA: The feedback has been really positive, which has been amazing. Across we’ve been getting great feedback on the products, the packaging, and the brand, and then sort of the community that we’re trying to build as well. There are always things that we can improve, of course. I think that with all sort of sustainable and eco-friendly products, there is still a bit of scepticism in the consumer’s mind. That ‘is this going to perform as well as what I’m currently using, because it’s sustainable’. And the great thing is, the products do perform just as well, because the status quo is just diluting it in the factory while we’re diluting it at home. So, people are really pleased with the efficacy of the product, how well it performs. We will be continually making improvements to our formulas, which is super exciting, and something that we’re really pleased that we can do ourselves. One of the other things that people do really love about our brand is that we’ve got a Spotify playlist that people can listen to while they’re doing their cleaning. And we get recommendations from customers to put onto the list.
JB: I also saw on your website that you say you’ve already saved 70,000 plastic bottles. What kind of impact did you think you would have when you started?
MA: We think we can have a much bigger impact. We were doing some research on a few brands about the number of plastic bottles that they use. And, you know, no one actually releases the exact number of units that they’ve sold per year, but we think that they’re producing around 30 million plastic bottles every year. There are so many brands that are at that size, and we feel that we can start to get a number of these different customers coming to us. And then the impact of the amount of plastic bottles saved will be huge. From our data, we are seeing that people are using around about 15 to 20 of our everyday cleaning spray bottles a year. Our solution is saving that many bottles from being produced for each customer every year. If we start getting large customer numbers, the savings on the amount of plastic being produced will be huge. The other great thing is that we’ve calculated the carbon emission savings between transporting a tablet compared to a bottle of cleaning liquid, and it’s around about 94 per cent emissions saved compared to that bottle of water.
JB: Is it difficult to ensure that every aspect or as many as possible in your company are eco friendly? Like you just said with the bottles. Your bottles are glass bottles, but they’re also shipped in from China. How does that go hand in hand?
MA: We as a business constantly have to evaluate what we’re doing now and what we’re going to do in the future to make the best decision for the business and then also the environment. We’ve recognized that glass bottles have higher carbon emissions than if we used for example recycled plastic and then also shipping bottles from China compared to having them produced in the UK are of course going to have a lot more emissions as well. We did that when we started up with the business because it was the right decision to make at the time. I think we will make moves to bring out different bottles that will have lower carbon emissions and we’re also working on bringing our supply chain much closer to home as well. Our tablets are currently produced in the UK and a lot of their packaging are produced in the UK. It was really difficult to find glass bottle manufacturers in the UK where we could achieve a price that the customers would be willing to pay at our stage. So, doing that in China, with good manufacturers over there was the right thing to do at the time. It’s something that we’ll be exploring changing actually relatively soon. We are also B Corp pending at the moment. We really believe in the framework that the B Corp organization has put forward because it evaluates us now, whether that’s on our environmental performance, our societal performance or performance as a business and then also gives us ideas of how we can improve moving forward. We’re always looking at ways that we can reduce our emissions, make better decisions for the environment, and make better decisions for us as a business as well.
JB: Do you think that sustainability and profitability can go hand in hand? Or is that kind of excluding each other?
MA: No, I’m a big believer that they can do. I think it’s a lot easier for me to say that as a co-founder of a business, which has impact at its core, because for us, the more impact that we have, the more profitable the business will be. It’s a different question for companies where impact isn’t core to their business model. You know, for example, an oil and gas company. They’re going to really struggle to increase profitability while increasing their environmental impact unless they completely change their business model.
JB: Do you have any advice for budding sustainability entrepreneurs?
MA: Yes, I do have lots of bits of advice. Advice would be to speak to as many people working in the industry that you’re interested in. Get as many contacts as you can do, get as much advice as you can do. Look for organizations that are supporting those sorts of businesses as well. There are a number of different networks and investors that are wanting to support companies in this area at the moment. And I think that it’s really important as a founder to find those sorts of networks and areas of support, because it’s difficult setting up a business. Oh, and I think the most important thing is to find something you’re also really passionate about tackling. You need an area of business, and you need a mission to tackle something that is going to get you out of bed every morning, and something that’s going to keep you really motivated. And I think going after something that you as an individual or as a team are passionate about is really important.
JB: You’ve got Baththings, Shinythings, and Allthings as your products. What’s the future thing? Do you have any plans already?
MA: Yeah, we do have some plans afoot. Homethings wants to be able to have a suite of everyday cleaning products. From dishwasher, to tablets, to handwash, to laundry, to floor cleaner to toilet cleaner. We’ve got a few products that we’re working on at the moment. So, keep an eye out and hopefully we’ll be launching them later this year. We always want to be innovating on either the product or the packaging. There are certain products where there’s going to be less innovation possible. You know, if you think about dishwashing tablets, the innovation there would be to either improve the packaging of those tablets, or to make them more concentrated and smaller. We’re always going to be looking to release products that have a positive impact for the environment that are innovative. And that also still clean really well and provide a great experience for our customers.
This interview had been edited and condensed for clarity.
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