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Biome expands amid sustainable retail boom

Biome, a Brisbane-based eco-friendly retail business, next week will open its 6th bricks-and-mortar store, and its first location outside of Queensland, in Fraser Property’s new Burwood Brickworks shopping centre in Melbourne. 

Stocking sustainable household items like stainless steel straws, green cleaning products and natural skincare and makeup, Biome targets consumers looking to reduce their environmental impact through their everyday purchase decisions.

That market has grown substantially since Tracey Bailey founded the business 16 years ago. Back then, there were so few stores stocking sustainable products that Bailey resorted to opening her own shop online.

But recent events, such as the ABC’s War on Waste series, single-use plastic bag bans and global strikes and protests, have helped to shift consumer attitudes about climate change. And the impact can be seen at the cash register.

A recent Nielsen study on sustainability found that 73 per cent of consumers said they would definitely or probably change their consumption habits to reduce their impact on the environment.

The growth of the sustainability market should be welcome news to eco-friendly retailers like Biome, but it’s not always that straightforward, according to Bailey.

“What I find quite frustrating is that we feel we built this market. We have been a part of that effort to get people into the mindset to make these changes and choose these products,” she told Internet Retailing.

Now, other businesses with much shorter track records in the sustainability space are beginning to profit from the demand that Bailey feels she helped to create.

“That’s the creative tension. We can’t begrudge that happening – because that’s what we want to happen – but we have to learn how to hold our place in that story,” she said.

Fruit ripe for picking

For Bailey, counter-intuitively perhaps, the path to Biome’s growth does not lie in the expanding sustainability market.

“The fruit is ripe for the picking, but there are more people trying to pick it,” she said.

Instead, she believes Biome’s growth will come from the strength of its brand and community, which she has built through sharing educational content with customers through the website, social media and email.

“We have invested a lot of time and money into those channels,” she said.

“The most important part is our honesty and integrity. We’re not always perfect – there’s so much to learn – but we’re honest, and we take on initiatives like removing

palm oil from stores because we truly believe that’s the most responsible thing to do for the environment.”

Bailey said she makes a conscious effort to not always be marketing products online.

She declined to provide sales figures, but said the business is profitable, though profit has not been increasing year on year.

“The cost of business has been increasing, which makes that difficult as I’m sure all retailers are experiencing. There’s a lot of upward pressure on costs and downward pressure on prices,” she said.

Bailey said one of the fastest growing costs has been digital expenses, including digital marketing, Afterpay and Australia Post.

“That’s an area where freight prices are going up, but customers are expecting free shipping or lower free shipping thresholds,” she said.

Forgoing the safety net

Of course, bricks-and-mortar stores represent significant investment as well. Bailey said it took some time to decide Biome was in a sound enough position to open a store in Brickworks.

It wasn’t just the cost of the fitout – which needed to meet the centre’s stringent green building requirements – and staff; it was also the systems and procedures that needed to be put in place prior to expanding interstate.

Until recently, Bailey could reach every Biome store by car in 15 minutes if the need arose. Staff training could be done on the fly, and the distribution of products to stores was relatively simple. But the Brickworks store won’t have that safety net.

“In a way, it helps you strengthen as a business because it really makes you focus on getting your systems and procedures stronger and applying them in a more consistent way,” she said.

The Bricksworks store fitout was carefully considered to be as environmentally friendly as possible. The cladding is made from salvaged timber, the floor is polished concrete – the fewer materials used the better, Bailey said – and the cork is from Portugal.

“Since we stopped using cork for wine, the Portuguese farmers that had been harvesting cork are getting financial pressure to grow other crops. Those forests have been there for hundreds of years and they’re biodiversity hotspots,” Bailey said.

This in line with Brickworks’ sustainability requirements. The centre is targeting certification from the Living Building Challenge and aims to be the most sustainable shopping centre in the world. It opens on Friday, December 6.

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