Josh Howard, the founder and CEO of the sustainability brand Single Use Ain’t Sexy was in jubilant form earlier this month following the launch of his business’ dissolvable and eco-friendly foaming hand soap tablets and reusable glass soap bottles in Woolworths (ASX: WOW).
Shoppers visiting the Double Bay store in Sydney were treated to a pleasant soap-prise, but for Howard - having his product available on sale in one of the largest supermarket chains in Australia marked a significant milestone for a company that only started out just over two years ago.
“It’s really different to your elderly grandparents jumping on Instagram and seeing your brand, which might not happen so much," he quipped to Business News Australia as to what it felt like to have his product available in a physical supermarket for the first time.
“I think any time people see your brand in real life, the impact is much more significant than seeing it in an ad on a digital platform, on TV, or in the newspaper - there is still power in that tangible physical connection that someone has from holding something.
“There's even more of a significant connection because it's a product that people use with their hands, and I think that just by the nature of that type of connection, it's much more personal and intimate.”
The idea behind one of Australia’s first dissolvable handwash tablets, which Howard compares to a Berocca tablet but for hand soap, originated in the US, Japan and the UK, where similar products that mix water to make cleaning products are already available on the market.
Primed with the knowledge that the product had already been a success in overseas markets and combined with a fascination with products that are made by adding water (powdered cordial and mashed potatoes being a couple of his favourites), Howard set about creating a sustainable business he hoped could make a profound difference to the planet.
“The whole idea is you fill out very sexy reusable glass bottles with tap water, drop in one of our tablets - it takes about 20 minutes to dissolve - and then you pump the liquid soap out, and it comes out as a thick foam that you wash your hands with,” Howard said.
“The whole idea is that when you're done, instead of chucking a plastic soap bottle into a single-use landfill, you refill the glass under tap water, drop the tablet again, save a plastic bottle from landfill, and the whole cycle starts again.
“It’s super simple, we’re trying to make sustainability accessible and straightforward, but at the same time, fun and wrapped up in this cheeky, irreverent brand that is very Aussie by nature and gives people a bit of a chuckle – while also trying to save the planet.”
In total, 60 million single-use plastic bottles end up in landfills every day. To date, the Single Use Ain’t Sexy community has saved almost 70,000 plastic bottles from landfills, which doesn’t include the carbon footprint averted from added damage done through packaging and transport.
The business’s mission is to make it easy, affordable and convenient for people to reduce their single-use plastic consumption.
Howard doesn’t know if an entrepreneurial spirit was bubbling away in the background, but he didn’t pursue a career in business after finishing school.
At university, he studied law but wasn’t interested in progressing down a legal career path. Instead, he turned his hand to media and TV work before eventually ending up in advertising in New York.
As his fascination with startups developed, he became obsessed with creating his own business and was savvy enough to spot that the COVID-19 pandemic meant more people were washing their hands than ever before.
Passionate about sustainability, Howard thought the personal hygiene space was an interesting area to improve and very accessible, so he set about forging a viable eco-friendly business.
With the idea in tow, the young entrepreneur wasn’t prepared to cut corners when it came to creating the right product, speaking with 93 manufacturers before deciding on the right partner.
“You want to try and find someone whom you can scale and grow with and support new product development as you evolve as a business and as a brand,” the 2021 Melbourne Young Entrepreneur finalist said.
“You need a keeper, a partner that can help you realise your vision, so that was tricky and quite a complicated process. But we got there, and I guess it's good because it means it's not necessarily the lowest barrier to entry if you want to get into a new space.”
Entrepreneur profile: Josh Howard
What was your first job: Washing dishes in the local café.
When was your last holiday: I travelled to the Great Ocean Road in May.
Favourite podcast: Sway, a New York Times podcast hosted by Kara Swisher.
Favourite City: New York. I previously lived around the West Village and Union Square. I just loved the energy and the passion.
Favourite Book: I’ve recently finished reading Barack Obama’s ‘A promised Land’, which I enjoyed.
Role model: Russel Howcroft (former CEO of Young & Rubicam & current chief creative officer at PWC). He’s on our advisory board and was my first boss.
Single Use Ain’t Sexy was the first brand in Australia to launch the reusable glass bottle brand combined with a tablet, but there have since been quite a few competitors who have joined the space.
Rather than feeling worried or protective of the concept, Howard is excited by the prospect of added competition. He feels other players entering the market means his business is onto something.
“If sustainability is something that Aussies are starting to feel more passionate about, then the more players in this space the better because the result is that people's impact will be increased, making even more of a difference,” he said.
“One thing we're trying to do is differentiate ourselves by creating a really fun sustainability brand. Our colour scheme is black and white; it looks cool in your house, on your kitchen or bathroom sink.
“I like the idea that we are an impact brand, but we're not compromising on people wanting to have cool and stylish things in their homes – we are just helping them be more eco-friendly.”
The broad ambition of Single Use Ain’t Sexy remains to save five million single-use plastic bottles from landfills, but Howard’s goals don’t stop there.
He thinks it is essential for a business leader, who is taking a business concept from a small embryonic idea into something much more scalable, to retain a focus on where he wants to drive the company next.
However, rather than celebrating significant milestones, he wants to keep applauding the small baby steps the business is making while it continues to build the foundational building blocks.
“I'd love to keep expanding our retail footprint; I think that involves working with ambassadors and people who are genuine and are trustworthy. I also think the personal care space is important, and launching in that market is something we really want to do, especially in the US.
“But it's also important to continue building that community as the environmental situation we're all in is not glamorous. This product helps people feel empowered to try and make a positive difference at home.
“That's the thing about our single-use product, it feels like people are having a direct environmental impact from their kitchen or bathroom.”
After selling out of products twice during its first year of trading due to the high demand, the business raised $600,000 in seed funding through a crowdfunding campaign in June 2021.
The company is aiming to become fully B-Corp certified by the end of 2023 and is in the process of developing 100 per cent biodegradable tablet wrappers. Its bottles use 95 per cent less plastic than single-use bottles, with the business hoping to do even better.
Howard comes across as refreshingly optimistic about the business and enjoys the day-to-day operations just as much as the successes and milestones.
That’s not to say he finds the unrelenting nature of trying to operate at a really high-level stress-free but is reaching out to people who have made it work for 20 odd years for inspiration and help.
“It's so important to build a community of peers, mentors, and advisors around you. Just talking to other people who have done it before and getting a clear idea about what it takes to succeed in business and sustain that success is vital,” he said.
“There are a lot of lessons you learn from people that have done it before that you wouldn't know, or couldn't have anticipated, or wouldn’t have realised how hard it was unless you have that kind of wise counsel or advice for people.
“It's always fascinating talking to other entrepreneurs and figuring out, okay, so this is what you’re up against.”
Building a community around his business has been invaluable for the young founder, gaining support from other entrepreneurs while repaying them with help and advice. He says he has built fantastic new friendships while bonding over the highs and lows of creating a business.
Not prepared to rest on his laurels, Howard constantly thinks about how the business can expand and stay ahead of emerging trends.
Within the sustainability space, he knows that products need to be as good, if not better, than other non-sustainable products on the market.
“People don’t want them to be expensive, they want them to work just as well, and they want to be able to access them in all the places they normally buy their products,” Howard said.
“One of the reasons we launched with Woolies is because we felt that most Australians are buying things like hand soaps at the supermarket. We want to be in places where we can leverage trends.
“I see us as a leader in this dissolvable water market, so the next stage means doing a full home suite of customer care and home cleaning products to which you just add water in reusable packaging. That's what gets us excited as there's endless scope for all the water-based products you've got at home.”
To help make that leap, Howard will continue to seek advice from people who have experienced what he is going through, and it’s the main reason behind establishing an advisory board at Single Use Ain’t Sexy.
“One of the major things that will push the business forwards is if I surround myself and the business with really smart people who know a lot more than me and who's done it before themselves,” Howards says.
“You start to build this peer group around yourself that you can really rely on for help or advice or mentorship whenever you need it, and I just think it cannot be underestimated how important that group of people is.
“It's been awesome, these super-smart, entrepreneurial, creative, strategic thinkers, and the more people you can have around your business, I think it's so beneficial for everyone involved.”
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