Unpacking the Ethics of Sustainable Food Shopping – Ireland’s ’30 under 30′, Laura Brennan and Lara Páirceir discuss their business ‘EthiCart’
“Green”, “eco-friendly,” “sustainable,” “climate neutral”, “ethical” – sound familiar? These terms are just some examples of words that have inundated product packaging to appeal to eco-conscious consumers. Yet, the shift towards a more environmentally educated and knowledgeable consumer base does not always translate into the purchase of sustainable products. In reality, eco-labels can result in the provision of confusing, misleading and contradictory information to consumers.
EthiCart, an app developed by Trinity Computer Science and Business alumnus Laura Brennan and current Trinity Sociology and Social Policy Student, Lara Páircéir, bridges the gap between the sustainable and ethical food standards demanded by the majority of millennials and what brands are delivering. A desire to “help the everyday person who cares about climate change but does not know where to start” motivated the entrepreneurs to create EthiCart. With a simple scan of a product’s barcode, users can quickly avail of easy to understand information regarding a food product’s sustainability and ethical standards. The main goal of EthiCart is to remove confusion around the myriad of certifications and terminology used on packaging by explaining them clearly. This enables EthiCart users to not only become more sustainability-conscious but it also affords them with a large degree of purchasing power.
The Product Development Process
The product development process is essential for an idea to transition into a viable product. What did the journey look like for the entrepreneurs? Laura and Lara describe Tangent, Trinity’s Ideas Workplace, as a “crucial base” that allowed EthiCart to springboard into the market. After receiving € 10, 000 in funding to work on their idea the entrepreneurs could successfully begin their business endeavours. Lara describes how “Tangent is very well-connected within Ireland” to point student entrepreneurs in the direction of mentors and resources that match their needs. The entrepreneurs also took part in the “Women Who Wow” programme which connected them with female industry professionals.
The first steps in the product development process involved a “tonne of market research to understand the problem” they were trying to solve and who they were trying to solve it for. Laura mentions how she and Lara “surveyed hundreds of people”, spending a considerable amount of time “researching sustainable food”. To better understand the challenges faced by their target market, Laura and Lara attended the same events as socially conscious consumers.
The entrepreneurs then built a minimum viable product with the Computer Science School in Trinity which ended in the launch of a pilot version of the App within Trinity College in 2020. This involved Laura and Lara collaborating with the Trinity Communications team to develop a go-to-market strategy and the launching of a college-wide campaign giving students the power to vote for sustainable products to be stocked on campus. Laura described the launch as a “key learning moment”, and the team will be launching the latest version of EthiCart in 2022, incorporating the feedback from the first version.
Entrepreneurship for sustainability isn’t just a buzzword, Laura describes it as “a business that thinks beyond just profits and helps the planet. It involves innovating and creating new methods to battle climate change. Most importantly, at an intrinsic level, it is about building a positive impact on how a business makes money, not just having sustainability as an add-on”. Since first developing EthiCart, the entrepreneur’s priorities shifted with the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. For Laura, change has been a natural part of the process since “graduating and moving country”. When her business partner moved to the USA, the challenge of being in different time zones and countries required the entrepreneurs to reassess how they could develop EthiCart. The entrepreneurs continue to develop their idea with the support of students from the Enactus Society which helps them to manage their workload alongside the rest of their responsibilities.
Similarly to many entrepreneurs around the Globe, the entrepreneurs felt the disruptive effect of the pandemic on their business. Laura describes how the pandemic “impacted a funding opportunity” that her team was relying on to kick-start the app’s initial development. However, the entrepreneurs were determined not to let this setback from launching EthiCart on time for the return to college, and went on to secure funding from UPS, Trinity’s Sustainability partner, who were “massively supportive throughout the entire process”.
The entrepreneurs have enjoyed the challenge of starting their enterprise, For Laura, the most exciting part of owning a business was getting to “see something go from just an idea in your head to something that actually positively impacts people”. Laura and Lara enjoy the feeling of receiving positive feedback from consumers that credit EthiCart with helping them “take a step towards a more sustainable lifestyle”. Laura also mentions how EthiCart has provided her with the opportunity to meet “many passionate, driven and creative individuals”, which has given her a chance to support others “who are starting on the same journey” that the entrepreneurs went through.
Laura and Lara agree that the biggest challenge of entrepreneurship is “getting comfortable with the fact that there will always be problems to fix”. The nature of this challenge is constantly fluctuating, “whether one month it’s funding, or the next its product data”, Laura considers it essential to “adapt and accept the challenges because nobody else is going to fix the problems for you”. Lara also mentions that life as an entrepreneur for sustainability requires a balancing act. Sustainability is not always a clear cut idea, while “working with different stakeholders is a very rewarding aspect of the business” it is also challenging to make sure they have “the best solution for people on the market”.
After recently being recognised as two of “Ireland’s 30 under 30: The Best and Brightest of Ireland’s Rising Business Starts”, Laura and Lara share some advice for students seeking a career as entrepreneurs. Laura’s advice is to “throw yourself into it, what do you have to lose?” Organisation and time management are key to avoiding burnout. She also recommends reaching out to a mentor who does “something similar to what you want to do”. Pivotal to “making the experience a thousand times more enjoyable” is “choosing the right partner who complements your skillset and who you can work well with”.
As a recent graduate, Laura can empathise with students who may feel “unsure” about their next career steps. She recommends embracing the “unknown, learn as much as you can and don’t put too much pressure on yourself to have it all figured out”. For any student seeking to learn from a range of inspiring entrepreneurs, Laura recommends tuning into Gary Fox’s podcast ‘The Entrepreneur Experiment’ or picking up a copy of Phil Knight’s ‘Shoe Dog’, ‘The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck’ by Mark Manson, and ‘The Lean Startup’ by Eric Ries. Lara opines that “surrounding yourself with existing entrepreneurs whether student or not is a great way” to get your business started. She advises student entrepreneurs to “join the Trinity Entrepreneurial Society to learn more about what others are doing and how they have gone about it”.