Socielle founder, Rechelle Coombes

Entrepreneur Rechelle Coombes is setting an example for ethical retail

The truth is, we’ve drifted into some bad behaviours when it comes to consumerism and yet, we appear to carry on blissfully ignorant to the consequences. Entrepreneur Rechelle Coombes describes it like this:

“See. Want. Buy. Wear once or twice. Put it back of cupboard. See more. Want more. Buy more. Repeat process above.

“It's this endless cycle of never feeling like we have enough or always wanting more and not using items for their true purpose.”

So what are the consequences of this behaviour? According to Coombes, it causes industries to mass produce items – to make them as cheap as possible; and for that reason, she’s adamant the current way we buy is unsustainable.

Coombes says “fashion is now the second most polluting industry only to oil. People lose their shit when oil gets leaked into the ocean but don't seem to have the same care-factor when billions of tonnes of non-organic textile waste are packed into the earth, or with the ridiculous amounts of chemicals used in crops and chemical plants that create/treat/dye/change fabric.”

Admitting that she, herself, has lived most of her life that way, Coombes says after a bit of research and digging around, she felt it was time for change.  

“Fashion is now the second most polluting industry only to oil. People lose their shit when oil gets leaked into the ocean but don't seem to have the same care-factor when billions of tonnes of non-organic textile waste are packed into the earth."

“I'm shocked at how much I didn't know and even more so that I know most of our planet is living blissfully unaware just as I was.” 

It may be time for change, but let’s face it – no one is going to change the world’s retail habits single handed. But anyone can lead by example.

For Coombes, that example is her start-up Socielle, an online retailer that hopes to change how not-for-profit organisations receive funding for their projects. And it works like this: For each purchase made through Socielle, the buyer will be given points which they can then allocate to a cause of their choice, helping to fund important projects being run by a number of different charity partners. It’s what’s called ‘shopfunding.’

Through this model, Coombes hopes to demonstrate how businesses can make frequent, ongoing contributions to charities while getting ethically made products into the hands of consumers. Coombes says “the problem with existing social enterprises is that they’re not targeted at a mainstream audience.

“I knew that retail was the way to cut through and educate the mainstream and be at the forefront of what I think will be a movement in the next 10 years.” 

And now really is a good time. “Socially responsible retail is probably where organic produce was 10 years ago – at the head of a tidal wave of change. We're ready for it,” says Coombes.   

“We're also seeing a huge rise in the space of socially responsible activities from businesses with B Corp, Global Goals and the huge number of success stories in the relatively new 'social enterprise' space. 

“I think people genuinely do want to buy better, it's just that our surrounding influences don't make it easy for people to understand or to find those products. 

“Research suggests that millennials are becoming the driving force behind this movement. Mainly where two like brands exist; if they know one is more socially responsible, they are going to make that their first choice when making a purchase.” 

"I knew that retail was the way to cut through and educate the mainstream and be at the forefront of what I think will be a movement in the next 10 years.”

On the cusp of change, Coombes hopes that this business model will become prevalent in the retail space – where consumers are the driving force for change, influenced by “passions, preferences and hobbies. Consumers “who see merit in making socially responsible choices every time they shop.”

But Coombes admits, as a business, being both ethical and profitable doesn’t come without challenges. Setting herself a target to give 50 per cent of her profits to charity when she first started out, she quickly realised how unrealistic this was. “I wouldn't turn a profit in the first year or two which did not sit well with me,” says Coombes.

“I quickly switched to a percentage of sales model which meant the immediate ability to impact and easier distribution.”

So there has been some fine tuning required – but Coombes has proven her model to be a successful workable solution at a time when the retail sector needs to wake up and change its ways. Like many entrepreneurs, the biggest and most real of all the challenges she has experienced have been personal. She says tenacity and resilience has been key.

“It's hard enough starting a business on your own in an industry you have never worked in and with a budget that has no more than three figures in it. Let alone dealing with life's tragic surprises and a chronic illness at the same time.

“Podcasts became my best friend. Every time I thought about giving up I listened to an inspiring business owner telling a story about overcoming a failure or a set-back so I could shake it off and keep moving ahead. And here I am, ready for the long haul and as bloody resilient and tough as ever!”

Dan Jacobs

Dan Jacobs is the Editor for ShortPress and an experienced business writer across a range of industry sectors. 

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