We spoke with Genevieve Boast from Equinox Kombucha, a company trying to mischievously disrupt the soft drink industry while doing good for people and the planet, one organically brewed, thirst-quenching bottle of kombucha at a time.
Genevieve has worked in the field of sustainability for a large part of her career; her wealth of knowledge and excitement in this space is evident. We loved when she called into question the term “sustainability”, instead favouring “regeneration” as an alternative capable of creating the positive impact the world desperately needs.
We hope you have as good of a time reading our interview with her as we had conducting it!
For starters, could you introduce yourself, the brand, what you sell, and how it started?
My name is Genevieve, and I’ve been working with Equinox now for 2 years, heading up People and Sustainability. In terms of our story, we’re a UK organic producer of what we call craft, unpasteurised kombucha — we like to say it’s real kombucha. There are no nasties, sweeteners or additional powders added in and it’s kept chilled once bottled, so we have living cultures in it from the get-go.
Kombucha is an ancient fermented tea beverage that came out of the East. Its origins are very mysterious — no one really knows where it came from [amused], but there are all kinds of stories around it. It’s even been traced back as far as the Samurai who used to take it as an elixir before they went into battle. It’s certainly very established over in the East, so in Malaysia, Thailand, and Southeast Asia in general. I’m originally American, so it’s much more familiar to me — it’s been established in the US, particularly the West Coast of the US, for a very long time. But it’s a bit newer to Europe.
We’ve been on a really interesting journey since the company was founded in 2012. It was literally a group of friends from Calderdale, up in Yorkshire, who went traveling, encountered kombucha as they were traveling through Thailand and loved it. When they came back home, they decided to start homebrewing it. The business grew arms and legs from there and really started to get some traction. We’re now at a really exciting precipice; the market for Kombucha is just about to explode. It’s almost like I see a new kombucha company coming online every day, which is really cool.
What is the guiding principle/philosophy behind the business?
For us, we’ve always said that we want to mischievously disrupt the soft drink industry [all laughing]. To do that, with a really healthy, conscious living product that’s good for people. I think consumers nowadays are becoming much more aware of the things they put in their bodies. I have teenage stepkids, and I mean god, kids are so aware of sugar these days. They’re aware of chemicals. They’re more aware of organic. There’s a growing groundswell of awareness around the foods and the drinks we put in our bodies. Are they actually promoting health, or are they actually harming us?
So we’re a UK organic kombucha company that’s mischievously disrupting the soft drinks industry, and we do that around a number of core pillars.
- Taste: One of them is taste. Quite often we’ll be at festivals or at trade shows, and we’ll have people come up to the stand, and they’ll say, “I really don’t like kombucha’’, and we’re like just, you know, humor us, try ours. And they’re just astonished by how good they taste. We’re experimenting a lot with new flavours these days, and you know taste has been a real door opener for us to become a bit more mainstream. If it tastes good, then people are likely to come back.
- Craft: We focus a lot on craft; we brew in small batches. Each one is made within a perimeter of a repeatable process, but each one’s unique. We’re constantly dealing with different environmental factors and all kinds of wonderful processes that happen in the fermentation. We have a really skilled team of brewers up in West Yorkshire, who are amazing at what they do, and I have no idea why the scobies (our bacterial culture) love them as much as they do, but they grow like crazy for them [laughing]. And that’s because it’s crafted with love. We’re a very small organization, there’s about 30 of us right now, and even though we are growing fast it still has that lovely family feel. That really comes out in the quality of our products. It’s not just saying we’re craft, or saying were artisan, or any of these other buzzwords, but actually really bringing it to life in our culture.
- Health: That leads to health. This is clearly a huge pillar for kombucha in general, but we like to look at health much more holistically than that. Obviously we’ve got all the noise going around — quite rightly — around gut health, and the effect that has on our immune system, and our overall health and resilience. But what’s been really interesting this year is that people are really keen to learn how our gut health is related to our mental health. We recently just completed a wellness study where we had a wide range of people drinking our kombucha every day for two months. What was astonishing was the effect it had over the long run on people’s mental wellbeing and emotional wellbeing. There’s a lot of factors in all of that and we’re not going to claim that we’re the sole reason for it, but this is a real area of health for us that we’re diving into as part of our B-Corp. Especially in Calderdale, our local community, which has lots of challenges like many other underemployed communities across the north of England have, around mental health. Now, we’re trying to go beyond education, into invitation. How can we invite people into a healthier way of life, and connection, beyond just what they’re putting in their bodies? That’s a real development area for us right now, that we’re going to do a lot more on in the coming years on.
- Vibe: Of course that leads to our fourth pillar which is vibe. We really like to maintain a fun family vibe. We really, I guess this is the benefit of having a small company, but we really do ask our employees about everything, and we have some really strong community partners up in Calderdale, that we also ask about our major strategic decisions. It links to our last pillar of ethics.
- Ethics: We did a huge sweep in May last year because we were a company founded on ethical principles, but then when you started to look at how fast we were growing, we had to ask ourselves how systematized was that? Could we measure our carbon? Could we actually measure our impact? Could we actually say that we really were taking into account the needs of all our stakeholders in our business decisions?
We saw on your website that you’re in the process of becoming a certified B-Corp, why is this important to you?
Our focus on ethics and vibe were two of the main things that drove us towards B-Corp. As a structure, we looked at a whole range of certifications, as I’m sure all companies do. But the one that really got people excited, and I saw lights come on in people’s eyes, was when we started talking about B-Corp. We decided to go for something that’s really challenging, quite difficult to achieve, and credible. It’s been a real game-changer for us in the business, and it’s really helped us walk our talk when it comes to our culture and our vibe. Until we actually live it, we’re not going to say it, because it’s not true. It has to really go out there and make a tangible and measurable difference.
Fabiana: How long have you been in the process of becoming a B-Corp?
Genevieve: We decided to go for it in May 2019, and we really got going in June. It really is quite robust. You’ve got five areas to look at, like your governance. To what degree are we structured correctly as a company, to make sure we’re considering the needs of all of our stakeholders — socially and environmentally? We’ve been doing a lot of work on that. And we’re actually just pushing through the change to our articles of incorporation right now to actually state, that we are a for-benefit corporation. We’ve been really overwhelmed by all the positive responses from all our shareholders to that, clearly they’re not the only stakeholder, but they’ve been really embracing of it. As it grows in momentum, there’s a real sense of an ecosystem of positive impact that B-Corp brings, rather than some of the more isolated frameworks that you might choose to do. I think in a world where there’s lots of talk at the minute about carbon; carbon neutrality, carbon positivity, what we’ve realized is that it is crucial, but that’s one element. What B-Corp brings — as well as that focus on the environment — is all the fundamental structures underneath. So we’ve reviewed all of our people processes in the last year. Thankfully we’re in good shape. A lot of the time it’s just about codifying the things we were doing organically, and really getting them documented so that we can prove it.
What’s the biggest sustainability challenge your brand is facing Something you guys are working on right now that’s proving difficult to achieve?
The biggest bit for us was figuring out how we’re going to engage our local community, and deciding where we want to put the focus for our community investment. Eighty percent of our staff come from the local area, probably more now, and the local area has a long history of quite challenging community dynamics. It’s one of the most deprived communities in the country. There’s underemployment, there are drug problems, there are all sorts of things going on in Calderdale. Everybody said, look we can’t turn a blind eye to this, this is where we’ve grown up, this is where a lot of our families are. Our business has a lot of family-related shareholders, which is great because everybody is super invested in its success.
We really decided to go there, and rather to leap ahead, for the sake of getting B-Corp points, we’ve been in a real process of deep listening, and engagement with the local community. We’ve decided to take a more systemic approach by working with a local partner, Rooting and Fruiting, to help us apply the principles of permaculture design to our community investment strategy. It’s like this organic ecosystem of change. The thing that needs explaining, is that it does take time, and you have to allow it to take time, on a really fundamental level. I think one of the permaculture principles is don’t do anything and watch the ecosystem for a year and a day [laughing], and that’s been the most challenging thing.
We’re right at the point today that we have some funding available to do some really great community investment this year, but rather than just leaping into a number of different projects that we could do, we’re going to now take a period of a month or two to do an assessment. Is that the right place? Is it going to have the impact we were hoping for? How can we engage our people in it? It’s been a huge learning curve, and hard to control both my enthusiasm and impatience [laughing].
Isis: I really like the idea of looking at how you can involve your employees as well. That’s the most important I think, to get everybody in the business involved and not just the sustainability team.
Genevieve: And really do that without just paying lip service. Yes we’ve been out doing some volunteering days in the local community. Yes we’ve been donating excess kombucha to food banks, to The Real Junk Food Project and to FareShare — wonderful organisations that redistribute food waste. We’ve been doing all that stuff, but at the same time, we’re trying to take it at a pace where we can really assess and learn as we go. That’s going to be an evolution. That’s never going to end. I don’t think we’ll ever get to a point where we’re like right we’ve cracked it! [laughing] Any kind of ecosystem like that is hugely complex. We’re going to be learning as we go, as well as the community that’s engaging with us. We’re really lucky, we’re near Hebden Bridge which has a long history of social innovation. It’s a transition town, it’s a very receptive community to this kind of thing. And we’re a fast-growing employer up there in this kind of sector.
Really exciting things are on the horizon. We are right at the precipice of submitting our B-Corp, we should have everything done by the end of our financial year — at the end of February. Fingers crossed! We’ve got some incredible partners on the horizon, that will help us focus out wider on our supply chain, on our investment partners, on our ingredient suppliers, and actually start to convene a much wider conversation around, okay look, this is what we’re learning at Equinox, how can we all actually come to the table and take a systemic approach to, not just to sustainability but positive impact. How can we actually really get out there and do what it says on the tin or bottle [laughing]. Really take a craft approach to sustainability. I’m excited for what the next few years are going to bring.
Wherefrom is building a community of conscious consumers, what’s something you do, as an individual, to lead by example in the realm of sustainable consumption?
I love this question. It always makes me stop and reflect and go — Actually? Am I really living my principles? [laughing] I’ve been working in sustainability for years now, probably almost, god, scarily enough probably woah fifteen years! And I’ve seen it change a lot. I’ve been on a bit of a rollercoaster with it. Sometimes you see so much great stuff happening, like we’ve got this huge upswell in conscious fashion right now, a few years ago we had this massive upswell in organic, and the awareness around organics and the accessibility of it.
But I also have the other end of it, which is you know, from an individual perspective, there’s sometimes when you look around and you ask — is any of this making a difference [frustrated]? What am I doing on a day to day basis? I travel a lot for my job, is that complete hypocrisy? I’m constantly in this state of really self-assessing. I think the honest answer is that each one of us can only ever do the best we can with what’s in front of us.
What I’ve noticed throughout the years, is I really do practice voting with my money. I do my homework. That’s everything from the brands I choose to buy my food from, the brands that I choose to buy my toiletries and beauty products from, I even did a huge sweep of ethical banks a few years ago, and moved everything that we had into the Triodos Bank, because as far as I could tell they were one of the best ones out there who were doing really great stuff. That’s my individual piece. Yes it takes longer. Yes often these organizations are not as efficient as the big boys and girls. But it doesn’t matter. For me, it’s all about really making sure that I support the brands and companies I think are doing the right thing. And also having done a lot of work in media and comms, I know my family is totally sick of me being on my soapbox about certain companies [jokingly], but I do advocate quite a lot. I spend a lot of time on social media, and I spend a lot of time really out there when I’m talking and doing workshops, really calling other people’s attention to this wider ecosystem of [pausing] good. The upswell of good [hopeful]. I think, if every single one of us did that, and took the time to do it, that for me is a really powerful agency in the world. This is why I love what you guys are doing. The more platforms that provide that kind of information for people as easily as possible, god the better! Instead of endlessly scrolling through google only to find out that your favourite organic chocolate brand has been bought out by Nestle. I really value what you guys are doing, it’s really important.
Isis: Our whole motto is for people to vote with their wallets. The whole point is to create an ecosystem where people can finally have a say on the sustainability of the products that they’re buying, and learn from other consumers what’s happening. Also hear from the brands who are then going to be able to shout at the rooftops about what they’re doing well, if they’re becoming a B-Corp, they can shout that out. It’s all about putting sustainability on one platform, which is going to be useful for all stakeholders, whether it’s the consumers, the brand or even accreditors who are trying to find people who want their certifications. Connecting everyone together so that we can push the dial forward.
Genevieve: Exactly. We’re really noticing that. And B-Corp is a classic example that I love. There’s a really supportive network out there. And we operate that way with fellow kombucha companies that we know — we talk to each other, we point each other in different directions, we try and help each other and create this win-win situation wherever possible.
Here’s a challenge for you guys, and this is something that I’ve constantly been mulling over for the last decade that I’ve been working in this, I have been on a perpetual mission to find a better word for this than sustainability [laughing]. The reason for that is, I have a dear friend who works in sustainability innovation, and he once said to me “I hate this word, would you say you’re just sustaining your marriage? No.” [all laughing] So I’ve perpetually had an inquiry for the last decade about what’s a better word? What’s a BETTER word? Because what we’re doing is absolutely about sustainability, but it’s also about you know, growth in the right way, and the return to health of ecosystems, whether they’re social or environmental. What I’ve loved about this year, and I think I might almost be tilting towards this word, is this increased focus on regeneration. I love that. For me, that has much more energy than sustainability. I think sustainability is almost a non-negotiable these days. As a business, as an individual, it’s becoming the way we need to do things. Whereas regeneration takes it to the next level. It has more of an energy, for me anyway, around what could we do? [excitement] It kind of brings in more of the imaginal and the innovative. I love seeing how that phrase is now starting to infiltrate out in the ethical business community, and how many many different people are reinterpreting that in different imaginative ways. Yeah, that’s the thing for the future that excites me.