World traveler and concerned citizen turned green entrepreneur Jen Djula wanted to find a way to make it possible for small-scale producers to sell their wares directly to the consumer, often on a custom-designed basis. As a result, she developed Bluecaravan, an online green product marketplace where consumers can find unique and beautiful goods that are ethically-traded and sustainably made. We wanted to find out more about how she started Bluecaravan and where she plans to go from here.
Start by telling us about Bluecaravan. Whose idea was this green business? And what’s your mission?
Bluecaravan is an online [ethical] design market. We showcase a brilliant range of contemporary handmade, sweat free, fair trade and eco/sustainable products made by independent designers, artists and artisans across the world.
The idea for Bluecaravan emerged after years of travel in developing countries followed by studies in politics, community development and later sustainable design. After months of thinking about it and 12 months on the road testing the interest in it, I woke up one morning in 2009 and began to design the site.
It was slow process to launch Bluecaravan, but I’m so amazed and humbled by the immense interest and support for what we are doing. I am so excited that Bluecaravan is resonating with so many different types of people and I genuinely hope that we can influence the way that people engage in their retail therapy!
The essence of my mission? That ‘ethical’ is no longer a distant cousin of ‘design!’ I have an unwavering belief in the transformative potential of alternative economies. By simply shopping consciously there is a profound potential for us all to change the current benchmarks of sweat-labour and mindless mass-production. It is our collective buying power and mindset that ultimately dictates what will be produced and how. There is an inextricable link between what we buy and respect for our social and physical environment. It’s the greatest power we have.
What social and/or environmental problems are you attempting to solve through Bluecaravan?
Although our marketplace is filled with sustainable products, our bottom line is production practice. If it’s organic bamboo clothing (for example) made in a sweat shop in China –we don’t get excited.
Genuine sustainability requires an element of slowing it all down – sweat shops are the antithesis of that.
By stepping away from fast fads and instead opting for quality over quantity, heirloom pieces, and beautiful objects made with love and care, we are consequently choosing products that are made to last. Handmade products simply have a quality that can’t be replicated in any other environment.
How do you qualify the green, fair trade products you carry?
All products on Bluecaravan go through a selection process, both to fit our design aesthetic and to ensure they are indeed ethical.
We largely rely on external certification bodies to screen our products, and all claims of certification (organic, fair trade, sweat-free, etc.) are checked. We perform background checks on organisations claiming ethical trade from developing countries, and we will soon be asking designers to sign declarations about the locality / intensity of their production.
How is Bluecaravan different from other green and fair trade online retailers?
Bluecaravan has captured a niche market that sets it apart from other online stores. We are not just about green products, ethical products, or handmade products – we are very much a design based market where we are making an absolute commitment to both the practical and aesthetic quality of a product.
Although there are a few eco marketplace e-tailers popping up to keep me on my toes, Bluecaravan is unique in that we are venue for the transactions to take place – all customers deal directly with the designer / producer – which has many benefits in itself, not least that custom orders are very common, and customers have an opportunity to build a relationship with the designers they adore.
This type of set-up connects buyers to designers and promotes the growth of an ethical industry. The idea is to bring as much exposure possible to independent designers at a tiny cost to them. By designers dealing directly with their customers, they get to test their products in much the same way they would in a traditional market space.
Designers engaging with fair trade & women’s co-ops to produce their wares are also enabling self-sufficiency, education and skills workshops within the communities in which they operate. I can’t emphasise how great it feels to be involved in this whole process whether from the point of view of a designer, maker or buyer.
Who are your biggest green customers?
Quite unsurprisingly our largest customer base is educated working women in the 25 – 45 age group. However, because of our free gift-wrap and handwritten note service, there is an army of interesting men buying ethical gifts for their lucky ladies!
In general I think Bluecaravan appeals to people who are looking for something different and who appreciate the story that comes with an ethically made product. There is such a vast variety of products, styles and designs that it would be a challenge for someone not to find something they love!
Are your green products more expensive than conventional versions?
No. Online direct trade is not just an intimate way to shop – it’s fair. By setting up a free store on Bluecaravan the designer / artisan can effectively negate the majority of traditional overheads as well as private website costs – and their commission to Bluecaravan is only 4.5%.
This set up not only provides sellers with a viable opportunity to pursue their ethical business, it provides an avenue for customers to buy products of a quality that may otherwise be inaccessible in street-level stores.
How do you market Bluecaravan as a green business?
Social media has been an invaluable tool in marketing Bluecaravan, particularly in the earliest days after our launch. We love Facebook and Twitter – and now do regular weekly giveaways to promote our sellers and to thank our supporters.
Social networking is integral to Bluecaravan as it fits so perfectly with the community atmosphere that has developed around the site. The online world can feel intangible and far away – I think social networking completely changes that perception. It’s also exciting for people to be a part of something that they believe in, and that is growing so quickly around them.
Other than that we have been most fortunate with attention from the press and have already appeared in a number of major mags, newspapers and blogs – which of course is invaluable.
This is one of the aspects of Bluecaravan that I really enjoy working on, and it is so very satisfying watching it grow!
Do you have plans to expand your work beyond Australia?
The majority of sellers currently on Bluecaravan are Australian based, but we have recently been expanding to include international sellers. We are planning significant growth this year, and aim to increase the service offered to customers by allowing them to choose which country they would prefer to purchase from.
As with all things sustainability is not a black and white issue. For example, when it comes to clothing and textiles the damage caused to the environment through warm washing, over washing, chemical detergents and dry cleaning – tremendously outweighs the cost of carbon miles. Consumers need to get themselves educated so that they can make good decisions – and when they are presented with a better option, they can take it!
We continue to update our Info & Resources page to provide information to consumers as we come across it – and are always happy to get more suggestions.
Are there any mistakes that you made on this entrepreneurial journey that you would like to share with other green entrepreneurs?
Actually no! From a business point of view I can honestly say that I haven’t given a business plan much thought. My focus is very much on what I want to achieve with it. Yes, I have ongoing issues with other sites borrowing directly from Bluecaravan, but I don’t really see that as a problem as much as I think it is bad manners! The more ethical design that emerges in the marketplace, the closer we all are to making lasting change.
What advice would you have for other aspiring green entrepreneurs?
As corny as it sounds – follow your heart and be brave! I deeply and widely believe in what I’m doing, and doors just keep opening in front of me – I’m not even sure that I’m doing anything to make that happen!. It’s so satisfying to see Bluecaravan taking on a life of its own.