As a boy, Brian was fascinated by tropical fish and purchased an aquarium with his pocket money. The fish geekery, at its apex, had led to 30 fish tanks and thousands of fish living in his room at his family home in Singapore.
The middle-schooler lived on a tropical island surrounded by water. One would assume this left little to be desired in terms of exotic ecosystems at your fingertips. Why then was this boyhood hobby driven by the need to collect his own breeds of fish? ‘I would raise it for six to seven months and then breed it, and have babies, and then sell a few hundred of them back to the fish-shop for one to two dollars a piece.’
The now 26-year-old social entrepreneur talks about the fish in a blasé tone. There is no hint of grandiose smugness at having operated a fully-fledged fish farm, at 12. I surmise that this ‘garage business’ prompted the start of Linton’s natural savvy: understanding what sells.
His company, United By Blue (UBB), has merged slow fashion with ocean conservation in a buoyant business model that has won Brian Linton nominations for Entrepreneur of the year (in the U.S.) by Business Week and Wall Street Journal.
As opposed to the charitable organisation whose donations go to a cause, Brian decided to get his hands dirty – pledging to remove one pound of trash for every product sold. The company has hosted 85 ocean clean-ups across 18 states in the U.S. in the two and a half years it has been operating. UBB’s products reach ten countries and can be found in stores such as Urban Outfitters, among many others. As a result, they have removed 64 tonnes (141,000 pounds) of trash from the sea.
A perusal of the website presents a curious marriage of sustainable-chic khaki clothes and apparel (think casual and understated), and an announcement of the company’s next clean-up. There’s a grassroots feel to it. And it couldn’t be closer to the truth: the company provide the logistics and materials for the clean-ups making the experience as painless as possible for volunteers. The events see between 50 and 100 university students, townspeople, service organisations, businesses and schools, come out to help. For Linton, clean-ups need to be as appealing as the apparel and one of the priorities is to ensure ‘a beautiful and spectacular event for people to attend.’
What does the environmental pioneer think sets him apart? ‘The demographic of young people now that are starting companies, whether or not they’re authentic, are attaching some kind of social mission to it. Most of the time, though, they’re selling a product that, you know, maybe isn’t good-looking, because they’re so focused on what they want to achieve. The product is an after-thought, and I think it needs to be a fore-thought, it needs to be the first thing you think about, and it needs to be the last thing you think about.’
This is a fair point, coming from an entrepreneur who turned over one million dollars in 2012, and whose product definitely funds the environmental side, and not the other way around. Fashion graduates are headhunted by the ‘chief trash collector’ himself and specialise in creating the slow fashion in an American heritage style. Organic fabrics are carefully lined with vintage materials and the result is a classic sustainable-chic look.
Inspired by eclectic experiences in his upbringing in Japan and Singapore, Linton embarked on an American university degree after graduating high school in Singapore. His post-graduation plans involved teaching high schoolers about biology and the marine life he had been surrounded by, growing up.
‘The lessons learnt from tropical-fish keeping and travelling extensively in South East Asia and seeing the good, the bad, and the ugly, stuck with me when I came to the US. I thought I wanted to be a Biology teacher... But I was just too much in love with the idea of sales and business, so that’s when I started importing accessories from Asia.’
Linton spent his first summer of college traveling up the East Coast whole-selling (which, by the way, he recommends as the ‘smartest way to go’) surf-necklaces and shell jewellery to businesses. Rudimentary though it may have been, the gutsy student says he had decided he ‘had easy access to that sort of thing’, and called up some contacts in Thailand for his first shipment of merchandise. ‘At that point I was very ballsy and I knew I could stuff my pockets with something, walk into a store, and pull it out, like those crazy watch salesmen.’
Sand Shack was founded and turned into a full-time operation after his graduation in 2008. And then the financial crisis happened. The irony of his position, then – that an entrepreneur running a small business selling resort jewellery should become an environmental enterprise during the recession– is not lost on Linton.
‘It’s weird, when I sit back and actually think about it. It was a bad time, a lot of my partners went out of business so I started thinking about Sand Shack’s environmental impact and the longevity of what it could accomplish and I realised I wasn’t growing a company that I was proud of. I wasn’t being fulfilled spiritually and emotionally. So that’s when in 2010 UBB launched. Now I feel I’m just along for the ride, because much of it is accomplished naturally with the teamwork of my office.’
The fast-fashion industry is the single industry that poses the greatest detrimental threat to marine life. From Armani to Zara, and even Disney, all of whom have manufacturing plants in China, the apparel industry is responsible for polluting our waterways through the factories production processes. In October 2012, the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE), a leading environmental NGO in China, released an exposé uncovering the dismal state of water pollution problems caused by the textile industry in China.
The fertiliser runoff from cotton farms used during the process of dying fabrics, create aquatic deadzones with millions of gallons of factory waste dumping into our waterways. The productss, mostly made from synthetic fabrics (polyester, acrylic, nylon etc) are all non-biodegradable, meaning they do not break down in the soil. There is an estimated 3.5 million tonnes of trash in the Pacific Ocean, with 1,000 tonnes of plastic entering our waterways every hour.
United By Blue contracts suppliers in India, Nepal and the U.S. who only operate with natural fibers and material and incorporate minimal use of plastic in their day- to-day procedures. Linton imparts this fact to me, as he explains that he hopes to one day see China follow in these footsteps.
Advice for future social entrepreneurs
Vermont-native Linton had the opportunity to travel and apply his mindset and lessons to his life in the U.S. But finding his passion? Linton attributes that to ‘exposing yourself to many different things.’ When I ask him how he recommends young people discover more about themselves, and what ticks their boxes, he surprises me with:
‘You don't have to look far to find something to do, finding a business in something new and innovative often starts from non-innovative places. I am by no means an extrovert, I’m an introvert and I don’t tend to open myself up very much. But you know, there is a certain degree of effort that it takes to try new things, to experiment with new things. I have new hobbies all the time that I get into and then fall out of love with, you find new things that potentially you find yourself devoting yourself to.’
UBB is not reinventing anything unique in terms of their style, or their message. Within the company, Linton says, there are three pillars: Business, Education and Environmental Activism. UBB engages with universities to provide internship programs, seminars and, most recently, short documentaries and infographics.
‘Education transcends everything else that we do. Everything diverts attention back to the ultimate ocean issue and what we’re trying to do is bring more eyeballs to the issue, because at the end of the day there’s physically no way we can remove the tremendous amount of trash that’s accumulating in the oceans and so we have a much greater chance of succeeding with the education component than anything else.’
When I ask Linton what the three biggest branding elements to his operation are, he tells me: consistency – having a very defined and consistent story, quality, and making something good. This is simple, and somewhat obvious. But it’s a point that’s overlooked far too often, especially when entrepreneurs are doing something with a social focus.
As for what the future has in store, the global tide on ocean conservation is turning if UBB’s sea activities are anything to go by: their clean-ups are scheduled to expand to Japan next year. The staff of ten (all under 30) are also planning a 2013 launch of their flagship store in Philadelphia, integrated with a café. In a time where consumers are increasingly buying into ‘think globally, act locally’ movements, sustainability and wholesome brands, business-savvy Linto is definitely ahead of the tide.