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Ethical values providing a financial fillip for Cornish surf brand

While not something that is traditionally implemented to boost the bottom line, ethical values have helped Finisterre stand apart from competition and boost sales.

Back in the early 2000s, Tom Kay would look through surf magazines and be baffled by all the ads for bikinis and board shorts. All he had to do was look out of the window at the raging Cornish winter to see they clearly weren’t talking to him. Where were the woollen jumpers, hats, warm jackets and thick wetsuits?

In true entrepreneurial style, this glaring discrepancy was the motivation to throw himself into the choppy waters of business. In 2003, Kay founded Finisterre, a cold-water surf brand, from a flat above a shop in St Agnes, Cornwall.

Creating a distinct offering

The company had ambition embedded in its DNA right from word go. Kay had studied marine biology at university, and had a desire to work in tune with the environment, not at its expense, so he placed sustainable design right at the core of the company.

However, towards the end of 2016, Kay had a realisation: his sustainable company was adding to that waste, and no one else was doing anything about it.

“There had been no motivation from the wetsuit industry,” remembers Kay, “with some giant brands out there not even close to interested in looking at this sort of thing. The advantage of us being relatively small was that we could have an agile, innovative outlook. We’re also a business that’s committed to using innovation to achieve sustainability, so we’ve set out to make wetsuits from wetsuits.

Finisterre estimates there are 500,000 surfers in the UK, and each will have several old neoprene wetsuits sat around in garages or driveways, making their slow way to landfill. In the UK alone, wetsuits could equate to 380 tonnes of non-biodegradable chemical-based waste.

Developing new technology with external partners

As an SME of around 60 staff, Finisterre didn’t have its own R&D department to work out how to recycle a complex material like neoprene – but Kay didn’t have to go far to find a partner that could.

Over the border in Devon, the University of Exeter’s Centre for Alternative Materials and Remanufacturing conducts research into the sustainable use of polymers and composites – exploring, for example, how to make vehicle brake pads from hemp. Finisterre approached the centre, and the two parties launched a Knowledge Transfer Partnership, a collaboration of between one and three years, part-funded by the government.

“We really wanted to look at closed-loop manufacturing, not just sit here recycling old wetsuits into laptop cases,” he explains, “so we needed that level of heavyweight scientific support behind it to push us in the right direction. And because the university didn’t know much about the surf industry, they came at the problem with a truly open-minded approach.”

Fitting ethical values into the business plan

Through the partnership Finisterre has been able to recruit the world’s first full-time wetsuit recycler, who now works three days a week at Finisterre, spending the other two at the university being mentored by a professor of material re-engineering.

The process of that recruitment provides telling insight into how Finisterre approaches these big problems. Not only was partnering with a leading academic institution in tackling a global issue uncharted territory, but it meant employing someone in a role that wasn’t going to generate any sales. Kay admits he had no idea where it was all going to lead, so he simply made that a selling point of the role: he placed a job ad that mimicked the legendary advert placed by Ernest Shackleton ahead of his Antarctic expedition: “Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful.”

“Our ad said, ‘freethinker wanted for unknown journey, stubborn materials, tough industry, success not guaranteed…’ and that really sums up our approach to this problem. We’d never intended to have a full-time wetsuit manufacturer, but a problem materialised in our world and we took a half-right turn to commit to try and do something about it. We never questioned whether we’d do it, even though it wasn’t in the business plan: it’s true to who we are and why we exist as a business – so it just gets written in.”

The good news for Finisterre’s accountant is that the ethical values do appear to be working from a business perspective as well. Finisterre has grown around 30 per cent year-on-year over the last five years, and it’s about to open its seventh shop, in Edinburgh, following a successful presence in Cornwall, Devon, Bristol and London. Its customers clearly respond well to a company that has tied its ambitions to clear and relevant values and remained committed to both.

That’s not to say the ride has been easy. Finisterre is by no means different to any other SME, and risks coming unstuck on the same rocks. “Seven or eight years ago all I was doing was fighting off cash flow demands,” remembers Kay. “We nearly went under five or six times. You soon learn you can state the ideology of the business, but under the bonnet you still have the reality of what it’s like to pay rent, to feed mouths. We’ve seen it all. But when it comes to these ambitions there’s never a perfect time to start. Take our wetsuit recycling: all the parts have come together, but if I’d waited for the answer to come at the start it would never have got off the ground.”

Further ambitions

This year, Finisterre celebrates its 15th anniversary, and it is now toasting another success. In February, Kay announced the company had been certified as a BCorp, one of around 2,500 businesses around the world, like Ben & Jerry’s and Patagonia, committed to meeting rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency.

The award not only provides Finisterre with external recognition of its successes in responsible business so far, but means the company’s directors are now legally bound to take its ambitions of sustainability and responsible design even further.

BCorp accreditation, Kay said, acts as yet another marker on what he calls a journey of “fresh iterations, adventure, curve-balls and speed bumps”.

“The thing with ambition is you never get there and go: ‘Hey, we’re there,’” he says. “It’s a continually evolving process. For us, each fabric is more in tune with why I went into business than the last one we developed. That’s exciting – it’s like a living thing. Finisterre is now becoming the brand I hoped it might do one day. In fact, it feels like we’re just getting started.”

If you’re interested in better mapping out ambition at your business then utilise our benchmarking tool. We’ve also got some helpful quick tips below.

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