The luxury soap company refusing to compromise
By Isabelle Wilkinson
Earlier in the year, Emilie was invited to sit on the Spoon Meets panel for ‘Women At The Top’ at LABS Holborn to celebrate International Women’s Day. It was there that she met Camilla Marcus-Dew, co-founder of The Soap Co; a social enterprise providing training and work opportunities for people who are visually impaired, have disabilities or are otherwise disadvantaged. A compelling story-teller, Camilla explained how she has taken an existing, 160-year old social enterprise and launched a luxury arm to the business to drive financial sustainability and increase social value. Excited to hear more, we caught up with her to share how The Soap Co are working to show that there doesn’t need need to be a trade-off between award-winning design, fantastic products and responsible living.
Based in Greater East London, The Soap Co. work out of a semi-automated, green energy manufacturing plant. From here, after years of working for big corporations in banking, retail and media, as well as with charities further afield in India and Ethiopia, Camilla now leads a team working to bring The Soap Co. to a wider audience.
Camilla’s work bringing The Soap Co. to life was borne from her observations of the existing charity, CLARITY (The Soap Co’s mother company). ‘I came to CLARITY and the team manufacturing soap in East London in 2015 and immediately could see the capability and opportunity there was to really showcase what a social enterprise can do. So I set about launching something totally new for the charity’, Camilla explains. From there, things moved quickly as she was given six months to develop a brand concept and launch the product. ‘We managed to get a prototype in front of a luxury buyer within seven weeks, with a concept design very similar to what we have now. We got some amazing feedback and we were sure we were on the right track, and so, The Soap Company was born.’
The first collection to clean and moisturise customer hands was made up of Black Poppy and Wild Fig, Citrus, and White Tea soaps - products which still sit as part of The Soap Co’s core range. In 2018, they launched their new Eco & Bee Friendly Collection, of which Camilla tells me the signature Geranium & Rhubarb scent is her favourite. It will come as no surprise that my favourite is their White Tea hand wash and lotion!
Made in East London, as well as in a second, more traditional workshop in the Lake District, all Soap Co products are made by one of their 114 staff, 80% of which have a disability or a long-term health condition.
‘The majority of our staff are registered disabled and everyone has their own story, with some of my team having learning differences, epilepsy, long term health conditions and for some, accidents later in life which have caused a major shift in their life. One team member had reconstructive back surgery after a car accident, and after about 3 years of lying down, was ready to come back into the workplace.’
CLARITY and as a result, The Soap Co., is built upon years of supporting people who have faced barriers to work. And what’s more, all profits made from selling the products they make, is reinvested into the company, providing employees with the support they need to rebuild their confidence and learn new skills to help them move onwards and upwards in their careers.
Camilla explains how to complement the clean aesthetic of their products, they also have Braille on the front of their packaging: ‘This sometimes leads people to believe that we’re all about visual impairment, which isn’t entirely correct. About 40% of our staff have a visual impairment, but we have people here with a wide range of other challenges as well.’
When it comes to the challenges that The Soap Co face as company, Camilla explains that mostly it comes down to the amount of risk that they are able to take. ‘I think the fact that we put people over profits creates the backdrop to the challenges we face. We are committed to creating employment and training opportunities - and it’s definitely about the triple bottom line.’ This has been challenging for the development of new ranges - ‘for our product development, we rely on the goodwill of a huge network of volunteers from big corporates, other similar brands and also student chemists, which means that there is not much room for trial and error. Where larger companies may have access to lots of venture capital money - or be fortunate enough to have a large R&D budget, they can launch a product and if it fails, just try again with another one.’
It’s clear that Camilla, CLARITY and everyone at The Soap Co are more than passionate, and fierce in their determination that there is no excuse for compromising product or social responsibility.
‘I think it is as simple as seeing someone come into the organisation who has been out of work for a long period of time having suffered a major life crisis - like a stroke - and watching as they get their confidence back and enjoy being in a working and supportive environment.’
As for what’s next for The Soap Co team, things are only set to grow bigger and faster over the coming months. ‘There is so much happening. We are in the process of bringing a major new soap brand to market and we’re so excited for you to see it as soon as this summer on shelves around the UK!’ With this kind of growth comes the need for team expansion and as a result they’re now looking to hire across sales, business development, marketing and social media. Exciting times. And times that we welcome as we continue on our own journey of learning how to sustain doing things properly as we grow. We are so excited to watch and learn from other companies across diverse sectors, refusing to offer style over substance and instead, doing things properly.