Sooraj Das is part of a new entrepreneurial crop that embodies eco-conscious thinking in business.
A former marketing professional with a background in banking and finance, Mr Das realised that his corporate skills could be put to good use for the benefit of the planet.
He then set up Hybrid Hippie, which sells biodegradable products such as yoga mats made using natural rubber, cork and hemp. It also makes everyday items using recycled or upcycled materials.
Mr Das, 32, self-funded using $150,000 of his own capital in 2019 before releasing his product range in February 2020, about the time Covid-19 was declared a pandemic.
"I bootstrapped it because I had to make sure that my costs were optimal right from day one," he says.
"There were a lot of elements. For example, like the brand itself, the brand and product designs were something that I had kind of done myself."
Despite the pandemic disrupting supply chains, Hybrid Hippie now sells its products across five continents and delivers within five working days.
The market share of sustainable products could rise to 25 per cent in 2021 in the US alone as consumers become more conscious, a survey by Nielsen showed. A separate study by Deloitte showed that 28 per cent of consumers have stopped buying certain products owing to ethical or environmental concerns, with the Gen Z demographic cohort adopting more sustainable practices than other age groups.
About 50 per cent reduced their purchases and 45 per cent stopped buying certain brands because of ethical or sustainability concerns.
The process of selling to customers in places such as Australia, Europe and the US has also made Mr Das cognisant of the start-up's carbon footprint.
The company is working to offset its carbon impact by planting trees in partnership with US non-profit One Tree Planted. Hybrid Hippie customers receive a free, personalised certificate after their purchase, which allows them to choose a location where a sapling can be planted as part of the company's climate-neutral agenda.
"Over the past year up to August 2021, we planted close to 1,800 trees around the globe. This translates to approximately 30,000 kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent that are taken out of the atmosphere on a yearly basis," Mr Das says.
"This is not a one-time thing. And each tree is meant to last at least 40 to 70 years. So, the 30,000 kilograms [of carbon dioxide] that we have offset is naturally going to multiply over the coming years as the trees grow."
Mr Das's commitment to carbon neutrality is in line with the UAE's recent pledge to reach net zero emissions by the middle of the century. The country, Opec's third-biggest oil producer, is the first Gulf Arab nation to make this commitment before the start of the Cop26 climate talks in Glasgow, Scotland.
The UAE's net zero pledge comes after years of detailed plans to reduce its reliance on fossil fuels and embrace cleaner forms of energy.
However, the country's efforts to navigate energy transition are still nascent, meaning companies such as Hybrid Hippie, which have accumulated significant carbon credits owing to their reforestation programmes, will have to look elsewhere to be able to generate money from such eco-friendly gains.
However, Mr Das, who rejects the label of a "social business" says he is happy to wait and allow things to take their natural course.
Hybrid Hippie is not after a large scale-up of business and would rather focus on ethical employment and the promote mindful use of its products.
"We do not want products that you use once or twice and come back to us. So, I think one of the objectives for us is to have that fine line, which separates mindless consumption from products that you really need," Mr Das says.
"That is the way that we have built our business and we know that there is going to be an impact with that on our cash flow. But I think this is a given since our whole idea is running the business ethically," he says.
Hybrid Hippie employs workers in places such as Nepal, where it manufactures mats using raw materials such as Himalayan hemp, a natural fibre with high durability that is also easily biodegradable.
"Some of the criteria that I have made sure we hold on to include ensuring none of our production units work longer than 12 hours and [also seeing to it] that employees are fairly paid in line with the average that is required for a person to live comfortably," Mr Das says.
Hybrid Hippie's ethos of mindful consumption also extends to investment. Unlike most conventional start-ups, it is not open to any investor. New funding could come with provisions for massive scale-up and a rapid increase in sales volumes, which could go against the company's ethics.
"I get asked: 'Are you guys not looking for funding?' And this is a key thing that keeps being brought up on numerous occasions. I would say that we are not aggressively looking for funding," Mr Das says.
"The reason is it is kind of a very niche market and this is a very tricky situation, I think, in the business that we are in. And, for me, I definitely would be open to funding if the right investor comes along, whose ideals and values meet ours."
Q&A with Sooraj Das, founder and chief executive of Hybrid Hippie
How much funding would you require, if the right investor comes along?
Our initial capital is about $150,000. Naturally, on each month, we put close to about $10,000 for our advertising campaigns. We are purely online in terms of our advertising spending. There are certain months when this goes up, for example in November and December, when we enter the last quarter. We have got to bump up our advertising spending and so on. So, I would say a million dollars would really do a lot of things to kind of take us into a better position in terms of our strategy.
What is next in the evolution of Hybrid Hippie?
We have got growth plans and we are building a marketplace. And the whole objective of this marketplace is to build a platform for smaller businesses based out of the UAE. They are kind of strapped for cash. Often, they spend nothing on marketing. They have zero marketing budgets and they only spend on outdoor events. Our personal goal before the end of the year is to go live with a set of at least 10 to 20 brands.
How are you planning to expand?
Our second-highest sales are from the US. So, naturally, every time we fly products from our Dubai warehouse to the US, we are causing a crazy amount of carbon footprint. The US is next on our list in terms of a fulfilment centre, which we are working on, and it should be live by November, in time for the season.
Who are your customers?
It is usually somebody who is trying to live consciously. People who have an interest in, let's say, yoga or veganism. The entire product range is 100 per cent vegan. There is no animal testing, even in cosmetics, and we stand by it. So, there is no unknown.
Which company or business inspired your entrepreneurial journey?
In Sweden, there is a company called A Good Company and I know them. It was a start-up, too, but they have kind of expanded their product range. Personally, one of the companies that I really admire, which is sustainability orientated, is Patagonia and I think that is a very beautiful story. It is what I would envision for ourselves without losing our morals. They have bootstrapped the company since it was founded in 1973.
Company: Hybrid Hippie
Date started: 2019
Founders: Sooraj Das
Sector: sustainable e-commerce
Investors: $150,000 [self-funded]