From my perspective addressing sustainability and ethical issues in business is about addressing every single little thing that you CAN control, rather than throwing in the towel because of things that you can’t.
From a business ethics perspective the bottom line for me is that I have a very broad definition of who the 'shareholders' of Queen B are. If you look at our company register, the sole shareholder is me. However, I consider the shareholders to be our worker bees (staff), our beekeepers, the myriad of other Australian companies that we buy from and our customers whose lives we light. Where a listed company may make decisions that are completely contrary to the best interests of their workers or growers on the basis that it is in the best interests of their shareholders, I don’t. Happy workers are my shareholders. Financially viable beekeepers are my shareholders. And where most companies simply focus on cutting costs by sourcing goods cheaper (typically overseas), I don’t. Australian manufacturers and suppliers are my shareholders.
It’s definitely a fine line to walk and often not the easiest option. With our customers as a shareholder, we haven’t put our prices up at Queen B in over 5 years and yet all of our costs have risen. We may make less per candle, but my philosophy is that so long as we keep growing, we are able to support the rising costs. Happy customers with lives that can be candlelit affordably are our shareholders - and having never spent even $1 on advertising, our customers are also our greatest advocates.
To be honest, issues of sustainability, supporting local businesses & toxicity have been front of mind since Queen B was just a twinkle. It was my original driver behind the choice to make candles from pure Australian beeswax only.
There are lots of things that I can't control at Queen B, here are a few that I can...
Our single biggest input is obviously beeswax. We only use 100% pure Australian beeswax – sourced predominantly from NSW beekeepers. Australian beeswax is about the most expensive beeswax in the world. Obviously we could import it far cheaper from China (and it was a no-brainer to say no to that). We could also get it around 30% cheaper from New Zealand. It's less easy to say no to that. I am sure that the vast majority of our customers would not have an issue with New Zealand beeswax (and nor do I in principle), but I would far rather support Australian beekeepers and regional communities. By buying local beeswax, not only do I help pay the wages of our beekeepers and their workers, but they then spend their money in the local community so we support those wages too. It has a money multiplier effect. Every dollar that we spend with our beekeepers helps to keep Australia’s regional communities viable.
In the first instance I just ensure that we buy clean wax. While this may seem obvious and simple, the vast majority of beeswax candles are made with wax that is dirty. You can read more about it in my post – Why the White Wax Queenie? We took this a step further because a lot of white beeswax is simply bleached which chemicals. We don’t use chemicals at Queen B and clean our wax over 48 hours ‘washing’ it with water and filtering it through a 300 micron filter. It sounds simple, and yet it was years in the learning. It is an exacting science to not waterlog or scald beeswax.Wicks & Other Additives
We only use 100% pure cotton wicks at Queen B rejecting any wick with a ‘core’ – be that zinc, paper, cotton or otherwise. We don’t use those silly wood wicks for obvious reasons. We don’t add scents to our candles (be they fragrant oils or essential oils) because combusting an oil creates toxic emissions. We don’t add colouring to our wax for the same reason. For more information on the paint we use to decorate our rolled pillars see the post – The Million Dollar Question.
Candle-making by Hand
Most other companies our size have long since moved to mechanised production, but I choose to create the jobs created by hand-pouring, hand-rolling and individually painting every Queen B candle and I genuinely believe that a product made by a human being is far superior to one made by machinery. Not sure how hippy you want to get about it, but I think it creates consciousness in every candle.
We have 3 different types of packaging at Queen B – printed packaging, sinamay bags and cardboard tubes.
All of our printing is done in Sydney by a family owned, ISO 14001 certified environmental printer. Our printing is done with non-toxic, soy based inks. We use a combination of recycled and FSC certified card. Recycled primarily from the early days before I understood the chemicals and energy requirements of recycling paper. More recently Australian sourced FSC Certified card.
Another range of packaging is made from sinamay which is a waste product from harvesting banana’s. Sinamay is natural and 100% biodegradable.
When we launched our new range of Australian made metal candleholders, I had a vision of them being packaged in cardboard tubes. Fifteen calls to Australian manufacturers later all I had was a series of “no, too hard” conversations. On the sixteenth phone call I got quite shitty and gave the guy a piece of my mind about manufacturers whining about production being done in China whilst saying no to someone wanting something made here, and VOILA. We had a meeting of minds! It required 2 engineering companies to get it to work, but I couldn’t be prouder of our beautiful cardboard tube packaging and we now have a packaging capability in Australia that simply didn’t exist until we fought for it.
There's lots to this one. Firstly, the biggie, we use Australia Post for most of our shipping because they have trucks going everywhere in Australia anyway. Hence the carbon footprint we create by sending a parcel is negligible.
In terms of packing materials, we reuse all packaging that comes into Queen B (even bubble wrap and things we have never bought in the almost 10 years we've been in existence). When we purchase boxes, we purchase boxes that are made in
Australia (they're quite hard to find (look at the photo for a tip) and unfortunately significantly more expensive than imported boxes). For larger boxes, we purchase second hand boxes.
We use biodegradable corn flour packing foam in our smaller parcels (which disintegrates in water or can be added to compost) and have roped some of our neighbours in to shredding and then giving us their shredded paper!
When we were trying to source Wee Willie Winkie candleholders, we couldn’t find any that were Australian made. So, we found a local foundry and worked with them. The difference between the our Australian made ones and the overseas made ones are absolutely noticeable. To me, its a no brainer. The thing I love is that when something is well made, it has longevity. I can guarantee you that Queen B candleholders will be prized items from antique stores in 100 years!
Same goes for our Bee Light holders – they are all made locally by a metal turner. They may cost more (both the holders and the packaging are expensive), BUT every one that we sell doesn’t just line my pockets (and someone’s pockets overseas). We earn less ourselves but support other Australian manufacturers and help to keep those skills alive in Australia. Honestly, that's what rocks my boat. In fact his father came into the hive today with his girlfriend (both in their late 70's) and he told me that he had used Queen B candles to seduce her! Can't put a value on that.
Being part of a community is in many ways my lifeblood. I am very blessed (and blown away) to have a group of (primarily) women who do all of the packing at Queen B on a volunteer basis. I can say hand on heart that there is no way that Queen B would be in existence were it not for their generosity and support.
I have an immediate community of other locals and foster that with "slow cooker Thursdays" (lunch) in winter. And I love being a part of the broader beekeeping community and have volunteered for many years on the Honey Stand at the Royal Easter Show. And of course every second year we bring together some of the Queen B community with our Hive Warming parties!
This is an interesting one because in many ways Queen B is run as a charity in that it has never really been overly profitable. Having said that, I’d obviously love it to be. We are inundated with requests for free product and my approach is that nothing worthwhile in life is free. Our bees work diligently to make the wax. Our beekeepers work extraordinarily hard to collect that wax and we work long hours to create Queen B candles. They are costly to make and worth paying for. The exception to that rule is causes to do with depression and anxiety which we support because I feel strongly about them and because they aren’t ‘sexy’ generally struggle to garner support.
In summary, I guess for me it is all about being accountable. I try to make conscious decisions that will make a difference to as many people as possible. If I’m going to spend a dollar, I would like it to benefit more than just me. Love that money multiplier! These things have a ripple effect, but ultimately have to start somewhere.