Interviews

Plastic shopping bag levy could boost one particular SME with a social conscious

7 min read

06 October 2015

New regulations introduced this week, requiring shoppers in England pay 5p for a plastic bag and hoping to reduce the 7.6bn bags shoppers use every year, will please some consumers while annoying others. However, the change is music to the ears of one SME.

Supreme Creations is one of the world’s most successful ethical manufacturers of reusable bags and eco giveaways. From the very first Ladybird bag for Tesco to today’s Monty the Penguin John Lewis canvas bag, Supreme has been making sustainably produced and ethically manufactured bags for over 15 years.

All products are produced at its factory in Pondicherry, South India, where the company encourages every member of the teams to contribute to the ideas, logistics and production of products. Nine out of ten of its factory workers are women, and six in ten come from an underprivileged background. The company prides itself on the working standards and career opportunities that it provides.

“We absolutely welcome the 5p charge,” said head of Supreme Creations, Smruti Sriram. “As a producer of the best alternative to the plastic bag, of course we see it positively impacting our business. We urge supermarkets to provide an affordable, sustainable and desirable alternative to the disposable, plastic bag. If they take pride in the design and manufacture of the bag, shoppers will take pride in using the bag. An ethically made, sustainably sourced and fashionable, dare I say beautiful, bag, will be something that shoppers love to use.”

It was Sriram’s father, a successful entrepreneur, who started the company following conversations with Tesco and the Co-op – both of which were interested in a sustainable, reusable alternative to the standard plastic bag.

“His background is working with natural fibres, so instinctively he took the business in this direction,” she explained. She came on board eight years ago, and worked heavily on the design and marketing of the product. “My vision was to take our product from a functionally brilliant product, to a beautiful marketing tool.”

Securing a deal with Tesco provided the company with its big break. Since then it has been self-funded. “From day one it was about making good business decisions for the long term and for our employees and being careful with the pennies,” says Sriram. “Many startups are familiar with bootstrapping until they get investment, but we have bootstrapped past the point of needing investment.”

Read more about other businesses in the sustainable space:

However, it’s not all been plain sailing. Just after the company built its factory, the recession hit and supermarket purchase volumes fell. “It was tough, but our commitment to our staff kept us going, and pushed us to make some challenging decisions,” added Sriram. “Ultimately, it gave us the push we needed to expand into other industries. Some times you need a little shove to keep you on your toes.”

Staying ahead of the game when it comes to innovation in design and print techniques is just half of the success story, she believes. “Our ethical manufacturing supply chain lead us to create the Bags of Ethics kite mark, a highly regarded sign of our dedication. We unashamedly tell the stories of the people behind the products.”

Added to this is the cross pollination of clients such as fashion designers with supermarkets and charities to create new products. Examples include Matthew Williamson for Sainsbury’s and Comic Relief, and working on big campaign marketing promotions for Visa, London Fashion Week, TopShop, River Island – which all give customers Supreme Creations bags. With each bag being reused 5,000 plus times, these gifts produce an impressive marketing ROI for the brands, she argued.

“Our flexibility in bag shape and design, printing techniques, timings and volume make us the ideal partner to collaborate with on projects wild and whacky, or small and straight forward,” says Sriram.

“We want to help every business promote their brands through innovations in sustainable packaging,” she said. “Our products kill two birds with one stone, and also help our clients to improve brand awareness, communicate their key messages, and create their own army of walking billboards. Our message to our clients is clear: this is only achieved through good design.”

She advised other SME leaders to be agile so that they can stay ahead of the competition. Sriram herself has an impressive CV alongside Supreme Creations. Aged 18, she set up the Wings of Hope Achievement Award (WOHAA), a social-enterprise programme, offering 14-18 year olds in the UK the chance to raise awareness and funds for underprivileged children in India and Malawi. 

The aim is to help them develop skills such as project management, leadership, entrepreneurship, communication, teamwork and philanthropy. Today over 25,000 students have participated and developed these key life skills, ready to start building their own career.

More recently she launched the Wings of Hope Speed Mentoring event: an afternoon where 14-20 years olds get advice and exposure to over 60 young professionals from over 30 different industries, including DJing, banking, dentistry, fashion, medicine, sport, acting and architecture.

With Supreme Creations, Sriram explained: “Not only have we continued to develop with the changing needs of the supermarkets, but we have collaborated with designers and worked with top brands to create walking billboards. Beautiful little adverts that people love to carry around with them.”