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Being an Ecopreneur: Lily Tran and BoxUp

As temperatures rise around the globe and our natural resources seem to dwindle to lower levels every day, a new breed of entrepreneur has emerged to address something that’s been ignored for far too long: sustainability. While it’s no secret that businesses large and small have been focusing more and more efforts on adding sustainable practices, it’s clear that ecopreneurs are here to stay.

These new entrepreneurs are building their businesses focused heavily on offering sustainable products or services. These “ecopreneurs”, as they’ve come to be called, are refreshing age-old industries that are in desperate need of some sustainability.

Lily Tran is one of these ecopreneurs. Tran saw a problem with the moving industry, and how little has changed in the industry in over a hundred years.  She’s working to change the way the industry works.

One woman’s vision

Tran’s company, BoxUp, rents reusable moving supplies to New Yorkers. BoxUp crates can be used by customers hundreds of times before needing to be replaced, as opposed to a cardboard box which can be used three times if you’re lucky.

BoxUp also supplies reusable glass and dish partitions, wardrobe boxes, recycled linen stuff stacks and garment bags. Tran’s goal is to build a one-stop shop for green moving supplies. Just about anything you can find at U haul, she is looking for a greener alternative. And she makes going green easy; BoxUp delivers the customer’s entire order to their current location and, picks up the order at their new location.

Tran knew she wanted to solve a problem, while also making a difference. This intersection is where the idea for BoxUp came from. As BoxUp continues to grow throughout New York, Tran has faced a specific set of challenges that many entrepreneurs don’t have to deal with.

An ecopreneur’s challenges

Running a company that focuses on sustainability, no matter what industry that company is in, faces specific challenges that other companies in that industry do not.

According to Tran, in order to be considered a true ecopreneur, you have to do more than just offer a green product or service; you have to consider the environment in every decision that you make for your company.  That is no small task, because “only Mother Nature is truly a sustainable entity, “said Tran.

“The ecopreneur continuously seeks, but never perfects, to do things the way Mother Nature does it,” she added. The best you can do is to evaluate your options and choose the greenest option based on your limited resources.”

As more and more companies adopt green practices, ecopreneurs face the possibility of appearing as a “greenwasher”. Around 95% of eco-friendly products on the market today are greenwashed to a certain extent. Greenwashing refers to a sort of spin put on by a company to make their products appear green, or at least greener than they actually are.

To reduce appearance of greenwashing, Tran advises that ecoprenuers ask their suppliers if their products are third-party certified and, if not, if the suppliers would be willing to self-certify the products. Further, Tran suggests, “don’t just say it’s green, understand and explain to your customers exactly how it’s green.”

Another serious challenge that ecopreneurs face is where to source their green products. Small business owners already have to pay more for products than large corporations, when you throw in the green factor it can be even more expensive.

“Most green products are more expensive than conventional products, that is, if you’re lucky to even find the credible green products you’re looking for to begin with,” said Tran, adding that you’re essentially asking customers to pay a premium for a product that may be readily available somewhere else for cheaper (albeit, not green).

Since this added cost of going green is eventually passed on to the customer, a challenge is convincing them to pay for your product.  “If you can’t pass your cost to your customers, find another way,” said Tran.

BoxUp, for example, used to offer certified eco-friendly paper labels, which cost three times more than conventional labels.  After many months of testing and trying different solutions, Tran came up with the idea of switching to reusable labels.  BoxUp recently made the change to reusable labels, which Tran estimates will help her company save on buying and printing 10,000 paper labels annually. “Running a business with sustainability in mind is wonderful. Sometimes finding greener solutions can benefit your bottom line,” said Tran.

Lastly, Tran said that measuring your greenness is a challenge that ecopreneurs face daily. While she says that some types of data are easy to collect on how green your company truly is, others are not as easy. “Even the Fortune 500 finds measuring their sustainability performance an enormous task, imagine the challenge faced by us little guys. Try finding out the carbon footprint for your products, good luck!,” she Tran.

With all these extra challenges, why become an ecoprenuer?

General advice for budding ecopreneurs

Almost every industry nowadays can be adopted to incorporate more green practices, and ecopreneurs are showing up all across the market. One of the most important things that those interested in becoming an ecopreneur need to remember is that you need to offer something more than just being green to your customers.

“Most customers won’t buy your products just because they are green,” said Tran. “You still have to offer a good price and value product and deliver excellent customer service.”

Aside from making sure your business offers more than just a green alternative, Tran says it’s important to be well versed in sustainability, and understand how different environmental issues affect your business. Each industry is affected differently and thus requires different solutions. Between government regulations, rebates, or more, knowing exactly the different risks and challenges associated within your industry is absolutely vital to success.

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