Tara Milburn is the Founder and CEO of Ethical Swag, a sustainable branding company specializing in People and Culture. Tara helps HR professionals achieve their ESG goals through sustainable corporate practices and eco-friendly onboarding and employee recognition initiatives. Certified as a B-Corporation, Ethical Swag has been audited to the highest global standard for sustainability.
Ethical Swag is impacting lives through meaningful work and using the power of business to enact lasting change. The result is two solved problems for each client: improved sustainability performance, and responsible, branded products that employees can be proud to carry around.
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Table of Contents
We are thrilled to have you join us today, welcome to ValiantCEO Magazine’s exclusive interview! Let’s start off with a little introduction. Tell our readers a bit about yourself and your company.
Tara Milburn: I’m the founder of Ethical Swag. I was born in Montreal, to an entrepreneur father and stay-at-home mother. My father was born into extreme poverty in Ireland during the 1920’s, persevering through years of hardship and a later-in-life bankruptcy in order to support myself, my mother, and my brother. Inspired by his example, I’ve been participating in the business world for over 30 years.
Ethical Swag came about as the natural extension of some of my primary skills and lifelong commitments. I had always excelled in the sciences at school and been drawn to the business world; at the same time, however, I found myself quite at odds with the dominant ethos of the business world. I’ve always believed that business can be a force for good and that a concern for people and planet need not entail a loss of profit, but I did not see many companies putting this idea into practice.
I started Ethical Swag with the aim of doing things differently. A Certified B Corporation, Ethical Swag has been audited to the highest global standard for sustainability, and we make it our mission to help our clients achieve their own ESG (environmental, social, and governance) goals. By providing companies with access to promotional products made from sustainable materials and made under equitable labor conditions, we make it easy for our clients to show their appreciation for their employees while simultaneously demonstrating their commitment to sustainable business practices.
2020 and 2021 threw a lot of curve balls into business on a global scale. Based on the experience gleaned in the past couple years, how can businesses thrive in 2022? What lessons have you learned?
Tara Milburn: Ethical Swag was a fully remote company even before the pandemic, so the move away from in-person operations was not as much of a curveball for us as it was for many other businesses. However, the pandemic certainly showed us the importance of placing a premium on employees’ physical and mental health and using flexible business practices to empower every member of our organization to work however was best for them.
The past two years have also been a time of social, economic, and environmental unrest, which has served to further entrench our commitment to sustainability in all of its forms. One of the main things businesses will need to do to thrive in the near future is to put serious thought into how they can make their employees feel like part of a larger mission.
We have been able to successfully grow our team while simultaneously retaining employees because we ensure that everybody in the company feels a direct, personal connection to our goals. While ESG goals are becoming increasingly on the radar of publicly traded companies, it’s important for small enterprises to remember that they, too, will benefit from putting purpose first. A tangible commitment to sustainability in all of its forms is a powerful way to drive employee attraction, retention, and engagement.
The pandemic seems to keep on disrupting the economy, what should businesses focus on in 2022? What advice would you share?
Tara Milburn: The smartest investment a business can make in this current climate is in their employees. Recent and ongoing labor shortages have demonstrated that many employees are not feeling adequately valued or supported by their workplaces. This is not just a logistical issue, but one that gets to the heart of how and why we do business.
Talent is becoming increasingly attuned to companies’ overall sense of purpose and their impact on the wider world around them. These prospective employees are becoming increasingly savvy about greenwashing tactics and are driven away from companies that don’t walk the walk. I like to say that “it’s not what you say, but what you do that matters”: if you are going to market yourself as a sustainable business, you need to ensure that you are constantly implementing and updating your practices to demonstrate your commitments.
Additionally, considering employees as assets and actively working to support their flourishing, both within and beyond the company, is crucial to both attracting and retaining workers. Investing in robust onboarding and cross-boarding programs is one way to put these ideas into practice.
By making sure that onboarding practices work to actively integrate new hires into company culture, rather than simply teaching them basic skills, companies can make an immediate impact that will only grow as the employee continues to work with them. Moreover, companies that invest in up-skilling or re-skilling programs show their employees that they are willing to invest in each employee’s development and personal goals rather than just the company’s own immediate needs.
How has the pandemic changed your industry and how have you adapted?
Tara Milburn: By forcing many businesses to rapidly transition to online or hybrid working models, the pandemic made it far more difficult for businesses to create robust company cultures and foster a sense of belonging among employees. While the general shift to remote work did little to change our business practices, it did plenty to underscore the urgency of Ethical Swag’s mission.
Over the course of the pandemic, we sought ways to help companies cope with the difficulties of maintaining an engaged and fulfilled workforce. When the pandemic rendered businesses unable to gather for in-person conferences, we developed customizable swag packs with sustainable products to be distributed to virtual attendees. We also helped companies distribute these packs to new hires who were unable to set foot inside the office.
Focusing on sustainable final-mile delivery, we used our products and services to help emphasize the value of human connection during a time when maintaining social distancing was a top priority. During a period in which the workplace is becoming more virtual and less of an actual place, providing employees with tangible goods is a powerful way to help them feel connected to their companies.
What advice do you wish you received when the pandemic started and what do you intend on improving in 2022?
Tara Milburn: I wish I had been told to think about the pandemic as a long journey, one that would have unforeseen and lasting impacts on all of our lives. If someone had told me in early 2020 that, two and a half years later, we would still be feeling the social, psychological and financial effects of the pandemic, I’m not sure I would have believed them. I also wish that I had been told that these effects would not be surface-level, but would fundamentally change the way many of us view the world.
While the experience of the pandemic has, in many ways, been common to all of us, the particular character and extent of its effects differ profoundly between individuals. Not everyone is able to recover–physically and psychologically–at the same pace, and not everyone’s recovery looks the same.
One of my main goals going forward is to ensure that our company’s policies can effectively attend to the reality of our team’s experiences. To that end, we have added increased mental health support to our employee benefits plan and made a commitment to tune into employees’ signals to identify whether they are ever struggling. We want all employees to feel valued and connected to our mission, and that starts with acknowledging and supporting their unique mental health needs.
Online business surged higher than ever, B2B, B2C, online shopping, virtual meetings, remote work, Zoom medical consultations, what are your expectations for 2022?
Tara Milburn: 2022 is currently shaping up to be Ethical Swag’s best year yet. We have experienced consistent growth for the past three years, and we expect this growth to continue into 2023. However, when I think about the company’s success, I am not just thinking about financial growth–I’m thinking about our growing impact on the world at large. To me, it is essential that we are able to demonstrate and measure the positive impacts of our relationships with our clients and suppliers.
Fortunately, as we grow, we will be able to help even more clients achieve their ESG goals, meaning that our impact will grow as the company scales. The more relationships we create among sustainable suppliers and purpose-driven companies, the closer we will get to a sustainable future: that, to me, is what success looks like.
Thus far, we have primarily focused on building up our technological and staffing infrastructure, ensuring that our business practices are efficient, effective, and adaptable. Up to this point, we have primarily relied on organic growth and word of mouth to promote brand awareness and sales. Over the course of 2022, we plan to finalize our systems upgrades and implement marketing and sales initiatives, enabling us to scale effectively.
How many hours a day do you spend in front of a screen?
Tara Milburn: Like most people nowadays, my work requires me to spend around eight hours a day in front of a screen. I am fortunate enough not to have ever experienced a major burnout, and I would credit this to the boundaries I’ve established between work and rest, between screen time and time out in the real world. Spending too much time in front of a screen can be both physically and mentally draining, so I always remember to punctuate those eight hours with frequent breaks and to prioritize my daily tasks so that I’m able to finish my most screen-intensive work earlier in the day.
Just as I personally take steps to avoid suffering from burnout, Ethical Swag as a company has instituted policies that limit employees’ screen time. We have established rules around when notifications should be turned off and when emails can or can’t be sent, and we mandate vacation time for all employees.
It’s important to me that all of Ethical Swag’s employees are able to spend time focusing on their mental and physical health, as well as their family lives. Doing so has been increasingly difficult as of late, since increased interest in our mission has caused our team to nearly double in size over the past few weeks. This influx has thrown our normal procedures slightly off balance, but adaptability is one of our company’s core values, so we have found ways to incorporate rest and leisure time even in the midst of large upheavals.
The majority of executives use stories to persuade and communicate in the workplace. Can you share with our readers examples of how you implement that in your business to communicate effectively with your team?
Tara Milburn: Storytelling is an absolutely indispensable part of what we do at Ethical Swag. When it comes to sustainability, so much depends on the stories we tell: when it comes to issues of human rights and environmental stewardship, people can often feel profoundly overwhelmed and uncertain about what they can do to help. We always want to inspire people into action rather than depress them into inaction, since this, in my experience, is how all positive changes are made.
We believe in sourcing products that tell stories and telling the stories behind each product to help individuals and companies get a glimpse of all the amazing and innovative work that is being done to create a sustainable future, as these kinds of stories are what make people want to go out there and make a change.
Within the company, we make sure to keep our vision of a sustainable work-life balance front and center, from onboarding all the way through the rest of the employee experience. We operate using a flat governance model rather than a hierarchical one, meaning that the story of Ethical Swag is not a story told by one voice–it is a story that is continually expanded and enriched by each individual employee. While we all coalesce around the shared values of environmental and social sustainability, we create space for each employee to articulate, and to actualize, what these values mean to them.
Business is all about overcoming obstacles and creating opportunities for growth. What do you see as the real challenge right now?
Tara Milburn: There’s no question that we are in a period of profound change: many things that had once seemed set in stone, like how we feel about our jobs, our consumption habits, and our roles in the world more generally, have been completely shaken up. It’s a difficult time for both businesses and consumers, and the most important thing to do is to recognize and reckon with that. Rather than pretending that nothing has changed, we have to take an honest look at changing expectations and do everything in our power to address them within our businesses.
One of the major challenges that businesses currently face is ensuring that they can achieve growth in a sustainable manner that does not sacrifice the employee experience. While the situation is certainly fraught with obstacles, lowering standards to meet quotas is only going to compound the problem. Businesses should try to stay open to listening to the needs and concerns of employees, both current and prospective, to ensure that the growth of the business does not hinder the growth of its employees.
In 2022, what are you most interested in learning about? Crypto, NFTs, online marketing, or any other skill sets? Please share your motivations.
Tara Milburn: Because our products and services involve a considerable number of overlapping industries, constant learning is a fundamental aspect of Ethical Swag. It can be difficult to ensure sustainability along every step of the way when every transaction involves so many steps, so we are constantly advocating with the supply chain for more sustainable alternatives.
Through our search for sustainable suppliers, we have come into contact with some wonderfully innovative teams that have created cutting-edge sustainable products and sustainable packaging solutions. The more we are able to show that there is consumer demand for these kinds of products, the more we can inspire others to learn about them as well.
All of Ethical Swag’s operations are motivated by our desire to help our clients reach their sustainability goals. A constantly increasing number of organizations are beginning to measure their environmental and social impacts, which can be confusing and even intimidating at first.
We can provide Impact Reports that clearly show how the money a given company spends on promotional products goes to supporting causes they believe in, making it easy for them to see their impact. By giving companies insight into the stories behind the products and services they purchase, we help them begin to consider sustainable options in other aspects of their businesses as well.
A record 4.4 million Americans left their jobs in September in 2021, accelerating a trend that has become known as the Great Resignation. 47% of people plan to leave their job during 2022. Most are leaving because of their boss or their company culture. 82% of people feel unheard, undervalued and misunderstood in the workplace. Do you think leaders see the data and think “that’s not me – I’m not that boss they don’t want to work for? What changes do you think need to happen?
Tara Milburn: I think that all of us have a tendency to see ourselves as the exception, but that this is not wired into us–it can be corrected through education and effort. The most important thing for business leaders to do is stay open, critical, and receptive rather than complacent or overly confident. While this may sound very abstract, it is actually relatively easy to put into practice: it mostly requires engaging directly with employees, listening closely to their needs, and responding with clear, actionable initiatives.
On an even broader scale, businesses as a whole need to reconsider how they function and how their everyday practices affect their employees. I am a big proponent of trust: I believe that, if you respect employees’ autonomy and give them the tools and training they need to function effectively, they will produce the best results possible.
At Ethical Swag, we operate using a “flat”, non-hierarchical governance model that keeps all employees involved in the decision-making process. When people internalize the trust you give them and are made to feel competent in their roles, they frequently surprise themselves with what they can achieve.
On a lighter note, if you had the ability to pick any business superpower, what would it be and how would you put it into practice?
Tara Milburn: I would love my business superpower to be the ability to transform every businesses’ definition of success to add employee well-being and environmental stewardship to shareholder value–a kind of ESG-beam, perhaps?
I would use it to create a world in which all businesses see their own potential to be a force for good–I think that such a world would look very different from ours, and I think that we would all be astounded by what is possible when we take a proactive approach to these difficult issues.
What does “success” in 2022 mean to you? It could be on a personal or business level, please share your vision.
Tara Milburn: For me, personally, success means achieving a healthy work-life balance that allows me to enjoy the best of both worlds. I believe that success has a lot to do with mindset, so I always try to maintain a positive attitude and to treat obstacles as opportunities.
There have been times when the circumstances of my life made it so that Ethical Swag had to be on the back burner: rather than trying to fight against these circumstances, I accepted them for what they were and moved forward at whatever pace was possible at the time. Rather than hindering my business career, these experiences served to make me a stronger and more resilient leader.
Redefining success is a core part of Ethical Swag’s mission. For us, success takes the form of a sustainable work–life balance that respects the three P’s: people, planet, and profit. While the exceptional growth we are experiencing is undoubtedly a kind of success, true success, for me, looks like managing that growth while maintaining employee well-being and work-life balance. As long as we are using our business as a vehicle for change and showing other businesses that they can do the same, we are, to my mind, successful.
Jerome Knyszewski, VIP Contributor to ValiantCEO and the host of this interview would like to thank Tara Milburn for taking the time to do this interview and share her knowledge and experience with our readers.
If you would like to get in touch with Tara Milburn or her company, you can do it through her – Linkedin Page
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