Laura de Poitiers leads the finance department of Belu Water, a bottled water company that has donated over £1m to WaterAid to provide access to safe water. Belu has emerged from a lossmaking venture to become an award winning brand that balances environmental principles, and charitable giving, with financial sustainability. Laura talks about how revisiting its mission and values helped put the company back on track.
Founded in 2004, Belu started with the simple idea that there was a better way to do business. It decided to reduce damage to the environment. It chose to donate profits to fund clean water projects.
Initial signs were encouraging. By 2006 Belu was the first bottled water to be 100 per cent carbon neutral. But the company was not making enough money to be sustainable. In 2009 it had debts of £1.6m and was making charitable donations of just £35,000 a year. It was not prepared to compromise its ethics. Something had to give.
Partnership with WaterAid
So in 2010, new chief executive, Karen Lynch, started again from scratch. Belu moved from direct distribution to a wholesale model, a more sensible environmental decision. It replaced its in-house sales team with an external agency. Instead of running its own clean water projects, in 2011 it formed an exclusive partnership with international charity WaterAid.
Belu has gone from deficit to surplus. It has donated £1m to charity over five years. Today, Belu has a turnover of £4.7m. It has reached a target to donate £1 million to WaterAid by 2020 – incredibly five years early.
It is helping almost 67,000 people out of water poverty. In partnership with a glass packaging company, it developed a light weight glass bottle, since adopted by other water brands. It supplies water coolers and is testing a filtration system. Diversification has helped develop innovative environmental initiatives and alleviate water poverty.
Values and understanding impact
Central to its transformation was a reassessment of Belu’s mission and values. These were used as a touchstone to enable everyone at the company to work towards the same goals for all the right reasons. Clarity about its mission prompted Belu to ask some important questions. Is it spending money in the right way and on the right things? Do activities provide value for money in financial and social terms? Or do they add unnecessary costs to the organisation?
Striving to do the right thing drives the company. Unlike some water brands Belu does not export. It is the first bottled water to attain PAS2060, the British Standard Institute’s measurement of carbon neutral status.
Business and charity
The result? Belu is clear about the social impact it wants to have. It has focused on what it is good at and recognises how its profits can transform lives. Understanding the change that is wanted – whether that is social, cultural or environmental – is central to success, as is a sustainable business model. Belu has proved the two are not mutually exclusive.
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