Manufacturing consumer outdoor products in the U.S. is how one company decided to do something tangible to help clean up the world’s oceans.
By Scott Boulbol
Many businesses and entrepreneurs are united by the almighty green. But Brian Linton, the 28-year-old founder and CEO of Philadelphia’s United By Blue (UBB), wanted to create a brand that was united and motivated by something else entirely: water; more precisely, clean water.
“United By Blue will always be focused on water – it’s built into our DNA and the very name of the brand: We are all united by blue, by water,” he said. “I don’t see us ever looking to focus on other causes because the issue we are addressing with ocean and waterway pollution is just so huge. The brand [launched in 2010] was conceived out of experiences from my upbringing in and around the ocean all throughout the world.”
But rather than create a business that directly works with water conservation, Linton, along with 26-year-old co-founder Mike Cangi, went an entirely different route – one that could not only help the cause, but could help spread the word about the cause far beyond his own back yard: retail consumer goods. This would allow people all over the world to support the cause through their purchases and spread the word through the products, which cover a wide array of categories from dog accessories to home furnishings to t-shirts to two of their signature products, Bison wool socks and custom wood paddles. And much more.
While their consumers are generally young, outdoor types – typical of the outdoor industry as a whole – this unique model transcends the typical outdoor brand. “We don’t categorize United By Blue as an outdoor apparel brand because we are very much more than that. We are an outdoor lifestyle brand, and therefore, everything from shirts to oars to face wash can fit into that,” Linton explained.
“Everything we sell is united by our tagline, ‘responsible durable goods,’” said Linton. “Is it responsibly made of responsible materials? Will it be durable and long lasting? One of the most important parts of creating a sustainable product line is making sure the quality is good, so they don’t need to be replaced regularly. We make sustainable outdoor products that are designed to explore the world with you, and get better with age.”
The market seems to want these “responsible durable goods,” as UBB’s sales doubled last year, according to Linton, and will double again this year. And they’ll soon be opening another store –right on the boardwalk in Asbury Park, NJ. This location is especially significant, said Linton, “because it will connect us with the ocean. Our flagship store is about one block from the Delaware River, so this connection to oceans and waterways is important.”
And like the others, it will house a coffee shop – another of UBB’s favorite “causes.”
How it Works
UBB bucks the typical model with respect to charitable efforts. Rather than simply donate a percentage of sales to chosen causes, the company takes a more hands-on approach – a get-your-hands-dirty approach. For every product sold, UBB removes one pound of trash from oceans and waterways through company-organized and hosted cleanups.
But they don’t just organize. The company’s 20 full-time employees actually do the work. According to UBB PR man Chris Dickey, “It’s what seems to keep them inspired and motived to come to work every day.”
“By associating a concrete environmental action with every business transaction, we are able to have a measurable impact on this important issue,” the company’s website says.
But they don’t do it alone. These cleanups become community events – lead by UBB staff. Social media and web-based event sign ups are coupled with recruiting from more than 400 stores nationwide, and in two UBB brick and mortar stores, plus one they don’t own, that carry their goods.
“We accomplish our mission by continuously organizing and hosting ocean and waterway cleanups across the country, bringing together thousands of volunteers to help us pick up things like plastic bottles, tires, cans, appliances, and everything else that makes its way into the aquatic world,” according to their website. “So far, we have hosted 118 cleanups and removed over 200,000 pounds of trash from rivers, streams, creeks, and beaches across 21 U.S. states.”
Their efforts have not gone unnoticed. The Philadelphia-based brand has just been recognized by B-Lab – a non-profit that serves a global movement of entrepreneurs using the power of business to solve social and environmental problems – as a “B-Corp Best for their Community” brand, awarded to companies creating the most impact for a better world.
Linton hopes the recognition they’re receiving – and more importantly the work they’re getting done – will help drive other young entrepreneurs in this direction. He sees his model as representative of what will be the next wave of socially responsible outdoor brands.
“Our generation will redefine business in the coming decades. Causes will be more of a forethought than an afterthought,” he said. “This change has already begun and is evidenced by many of our peers running other exciting and successful ventures.
“But it’s only just beginning, and it’s an exciting time to be involved in what we are doing. I credit United By Blue’s success to having an incredible and talented team that is making great product with meaningful stories,” said Linton. “That’s what people want. Great product, great stories.”
That, and abundant, clean water.