Interview 20th November 2020
Founder of Spruce Ethical Cleaning Products
"I thought there had
to be a better way…"
Concerned with plastic waste and the effect of toxic chemicals on her and her family’s health, Mahira Kalim left her career in tech to launch Spruce: the challenger brand in the household cleaning market.
A Studio of Our Own: We first came across Spruce on Instagram but for those not familiar with you, please can you tell us more about your story?
Mahira Kalim: Spruce is a range of non-toxic cleaning products that addresses the issue of household plastic waste. Without realising it, we produce a tonne of household waste mainly from single-use plastic: if you walk down any supermarket aisle, it’s lined with thousands of single-use plastic bottles. We sell a long lasting, aluminium bottle and concentrated refills which people dilute at home with tap water. So, we’re reducing the amount of single-use plastic that’s thrown away and we’re not shipping water. Most cleaning products are made up of 5% of the active ingredient and more than 90% of water, so customers are paying to ship water around the globe in a single-use plastic bottle. We are able to dramatically cut down our carbon footprint as a single refill weighs 140 times less than a typical 500ml cleaning bottle.
A Studio of Our Own: Can you tell me a little bit about you and your background please? What did you do before launching Spruce and why did you decide to go into this space?
Mahira Kalim: I started working on this last year but my journey began 10 years before that. After suffering from back-to-back health issues, I made lifestyle changes, including switching to less toxic home and personal care products and removing plastic – especially from kitchen and food storage as it interacts with the food contents. In doing that, I became much more aware of the environmental impact of plastic and became really passionate about it. I started switching to as many plastic-free items as I could in my home but could never find cleaning products that were aesthetically pleasing, convenient and most importantly, kind to our health and the environment. And that’s where the idea came from: I thought there had to be a better way. The turning point came after I had my second child – 90% of what comes with a baby is disposable! You create so much waste because you’re so worried about hygiene and my plastic waste doubled overnight. And that’s when I thought something needed to be done.
A Studio of Our Own: Was it difficult to find the right manufacturers and supply chain that could meet your objectives as a business?
Mahira Kalim: It wasn’t easy at all and there wasn’t a quick way to get the product out there without building a sustainable business model to begin with. But, eventually, I found people and partners who were aligned with our ethos and I’m delighted with the team we have in place. We do different elements of production with different partners. Spruce products are manufactured in the UK, and all the ingredients and packaging come from within the EU. We decided not to ship packaging or materials from further afield in order to keep a low carbon footprint.
"The turning point came after I had my second child – 90% of what comes with a baby is disposable! You create so much waste because you’re so worried about hygiene and my plastic waste doubled overnight. And that’s when I thought something needed to be done."
A Studio of Our Own: Did you have to compromise on your vision at any point?
Mahria Kalim: No. I knew I wanted to focus on everyday products that cut down on single-use plastic waste and avoided the use of toxic chemicals, palm oil or petroleum (which is found in the dissolvable tablets). I equally didn’t want to take an existing formula and white label it. My primary aim was to make sure I wasn’t doing harm in another way while addressing the plastic pollution problem. I stuck to my vision and found the right people to bring it to life.
A Studio of Our Own: The packaging design is so different to anything else in the cleaning product market. Did you have a very clear sense of how you wanted Spruce to look?
Mahria Kalim: It was a very concerted effort not to look like anything else in the market, especially brands that claim to be eco, but often have a hidden aspect that is not very environmentally-friendly. We did extensive testing and interviews early on to understand what customers are looking for when they switch to eco-friendly products. Convenience and ease-of-use were key priorities that became obvious. For example, if you are a busy working mum and still want to make the right choice for your family and the planet, you don’t have time to make your own products or adopt one that requires additional steps that add to your routine. This is about a great, end-to-end, consumer experience. What we try to educate consumers about is that what you inhale on a daily basis is just as important as what you put in your body and on your skin. While customers are overly conscious about buying expensive organic, pesticide-free food, and read the label when it comes to skincare, they often rely on cheap 99p cleaners that contain pesticides and many other toxic chemicals that are toxic both to humans as well as the planet. We believe our packaging, more in line with a beauty product design, reflects this concept. In fact, our products have been called “beauty products for the home”.
We also did a lot of research on what customers think about packaging and ingredients. 100% of the respondents confirmed that they associate the bright colours used in existing cleaning products with fake and harsh ingredients: they clearly don’t look natural. Also, for decades, companies have been using “fragrance” as a way to hide chemicals and secret ingredients without having to disclose them. This is why we always wanted to steer absolutely clear of any bright, harsh colours for our brand as well as fake fragrance and added colourants. We’re not trying to mask anything, or become yet another brand that greenwashes customers by overstating its green credentials. Otherwise there would be no reason for us to exist. I think the first time I saw the final bottle it actually felt like I was holding a brand-new baby! I was overjoyed with how gorgeous it turned out. Who wouldn’t want it in their home?
A Studio of Our Own: How have you told your story? Have you found one method of communication more effective than others?
Mahria Kalim: I have to say that the product aesthetic and our bullet proof ethos have made it easy to get people’s attention: it hasn’t been a challenging story to tell. But we’ve used a combination of social and PR because, usually, as a consumer, when you see a product several times, often in different places, it’s what makes you decide to buy it. Reviews have been so important and every time I see a positive review it makes me so happy! That validation is the most important thing – we can have all the eco credentials going and use the smartest packaging but if the product doesn’t work, it doesn’t matter.
"Consumers trust has been broken time and again. We strictly stand against greenwashing. We want customers to know what goes into our products and how they’ve been made."
A Studio of Our Own: You promise to remove 1kg of ocean-bound plastic waste with every order in partnership with Plastic Bank. How easy was it to put the structure in place to enable you to fulfil this?
Mahria Kalim: I always believe in brands that have a charitable aspect, so it is not just circular in terms of physical materials being reused but actually has a regenerative aspect.
The reason why I chose to support Plastic Bank is because I grew up in a third world country and saw first-hand the extreme poverty and unhygienic conditions people live in. The West – including the US and the UK – sends its plastic waste to these poor countries to be recycled, where they have very poor infrastructure to recycle their own waste, have major hygiene problems and don’t even have clean drinking water. Most of the waste sent to be recycled arrives contaminated, which cannot be recycled, so it is incinerated instead which makes the pollution even worse in these countries that are already struggling with air pollution. That waste? We call it “recycled waste”. Because we’ve shipped it off and washed our hands of it.
Our contributions are used to help local collectors in high poverty coastal regions in developing countries. Plastic Bank ensures that collectors are properly compensated for it and the proceeds from turning it into recycled plastic is invested back into communities for their social development. And, the reason why we picked 1kg is because it’s the equivalent of 25 plastic bottles: if you were to look under your kitchen sink, you’d probably see enough bottles to compensate for a year’s supply!
A Studio of Our Own: You have applied to become certified B Corp registered – something we’re in the process of doing too. Why do you think accreditations like this are important?
Mahria Kalim: I think that for a new brand that does not have as much recognition or huge marketing budgets, accreditations add a lot of value in terms of third-party validation. But B Corp is more than that for us. To achieve it, you have to change your legal status to ensure you’re putting the good of people and the planet before profit. It’s really important. I get asked a lot by people why we are not doing things differently to save 50p here and there e.g. by sourcing cheaper quality ingredients or sourcing cheaper packaging from China. But then we’d be the same as everyone else and we wouldn’t be doing the right thing. Saving 50p is not what drives us, if it has a negative impact on the planet or people. B Corp is a structured and holistic way to enforce responsibility throughout the business’s supply chain. I haven’t come across another framework as thorough. While many customers don’t recognise it yet, as a company, if you can work through that framework and get accredited, it’s a really big deal.
A Studio of Our Own: 2020 has been one helluva year but your story is a really positive one. What are your plans for 2021?
Mahria Kalim: We will be launching our website soon, primarily working on a business-to-consumer model because it lends itself well to a subscription model. We’re launching with just two products: a multi-purpose and a bathroom cleaner but, even going forward, we’re keeping it minimal. We really don’t need 50 speciality products under the kitchen sink: why have 25 bottles when you can have two or three? My biggest win is someone is attracted to the brand, buys it, uses it and gets inspired to make further changes to convert into a low waste household, which is how it started with me.
A Studio of Our Own: We founded our agency on three guiding principles: to be nice, honest and brave in the work we do. How important would you say these principles are to you?
Mahria Kalim: Honesty is one of our core principles. The reason why we exist is because, as consumers, we are sick of greenwashing. Consumers trust has been broken time and again. We strictly stand against greenwashing. We want customers to know what goes into our products and how they’ve been made.
And any challenger brand has to be brave by definition, because if not then you’re not doing anything worthwhile.
Visit Spruce and say Hi! From the A Studio of Our Own team:
Spruce Instagram: @we.are.spruce
Spruce Facebook: /wearespruce
Spruce Twitter: @wearespruce