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If you want to sell to environmental sceptics, you have to have both a good product and know how to talk about it. Nick Brown has made a career of doing exactly that.

Nikwax founder Nick Brown has always been a smooth talker. But he admits that in the beginning, he wasn’t necessarily putting that gift to use for the environment.

“To be honest, the first sustainability aspect on my mind was sustaining myself,” he laughs.

Nick had always been interested in science, but when he went to university he ultimately chose a degree in social anthropology.

“When I graduated, I was very poor and very unemployable,” he says.

Fortunately, he possessed a secret recipe for a waterproof boot wax, which he’d perfected during years of trekking through the English countryside. When an outdoor shop asked 22-year-old Nick to make them some in 1977, Nikwax was born. Within a few years, Nikwax’s product line had expanded to include sprayable waterproofing for apparel. Nick, who’d always considered himself an environmentalist, immediately chose to use plastic spray bottles in lieu of CFC-spewing aerosol cannisters.

“But I knew if we could use water-based solvents, consumers would be able to put the garment in a washing machine. That would mean no sprayer at all, so less packaging and a more effective application.”

This would mean a huge shift for Nikwax’s consumer base, but if anyone could get them on board, it was Nick.

“Quite early on, I realized that communicating to our consumers was really important, and we became quite good at that,” Nick explains.

Communicating chemistry

He was able to combine his extensive scientific literacy—gained from regularly reading science magazines “cover-to-cover”—with his gift of gab to successfully communicate his environmental values to Nikwax customers. That talent has been crucial to the brand’s success.

“At the end of it, most Nikwax products are white liquids, and the consumer can’t see the huge amount of work and testing that’s gone into producing those white liquids. If you’re not prepared to tell the story of it to your consumers, you’re not going to get very far,” Nick says.

In the end, consumers reacted positively to the new wash-in waterproofing. And retailers, initially hesitant to adopt the new product, relented after noticing the increased demand that Nick had helped cultivate.

The campaign was a success, but stories about CEOs pushing hard to make environmentally-friendly products work are far from the norm. Nick speculates that, for many brands, it’s because the unspoken goal is more about gaining positive PR than saving the planet. The antidote? Nick recommends bringing corporate social responsibility personnel and scientific advisors up to the director level, ensuring the C-suite remains educated about what matters.

Nick also urges companies to take a leap with new products, as Nikwax did with its wash-in waterproofing in the 1980s.

“Even now, what’s driving consumers isn’t the environmental thing. It’s product performance,” Nick says.

To do good, brands have to make a product that’s both environmentally friendly, and better than anything else out there. “If you want to make a change, you have to have some pain in the beginning,” Nick says.

“It requires commitment.”

 

Photo: Stéphane Robin

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Corey Buhay
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