Overcoming Setbacks, United By Blue Pushes Environmental Agenda in Philly - Generocity Philly

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Feb. 2, 2015 11:55 am

Overcoming Setbacks, United By Blue Pushes Environmental Agenda in Philly

Local social enterprise struggles with expansion to University City

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On December 16, United By Blue’s Retail Director Jen Singley and one of her co-workers stepped into Public Storage, a storage facility on Columbus Boulevard. They had loaded a storage space with a few hundred organic leather and canvas bags ready to ship for the holidays.

UBB usually stores the bulk of its inventory at a warehouse facility in Idaho, but considering the high holiday demand, Singley decided to rent a third party storage bin a few blocks away from its headquarters on 2nd Street in Old City to speed up the shipping process.

When she approached the door to the storage bin, she noticed something bizarre — the lock had been changed.

“We went to the front office thinking it could have been a mistake,” Singley said. “After further inspection, we found that there were scratches and dents surrounding the lock.”

As panic set in, Singley took a pair of bolt cutters to the lock and forced open the door. What she found was an empty space. Hundreds of bags were gone. Some of the bags had already been purchased online and were set to be shipped that week. The rest would have been used to replenish stock at the company’s two brick-and-mortar locations. As a result, there were a few customers who received their online bag orders late, as UBB had to ship directly from their warehouse in Idaho.

“To our surprise, the storage facility does not have a camera on site,” said Singley, who immediately reported the crime to the police. “We learned after speaking to the officers that this has not been the first robbery at this site, but one of many over the years.”

The theft is just one of the challenges UBB has faced since the soft-launch of their University City location on 34th and Walnut this past October.

A different kind of customer

The expansion of the business came a little under two years after the launch of the flagship store in Old City, and robbery aside, the biggest challenge facing the new store has been brand consistency.

“When people come to our store, we like to educate them on the brand’s mission of sustainable apparel and accessories,” Singley said.

UBB removes one pound of trash from oceans or waterways for every product as well as every pound of coffee that it sells. To date, UBB has pulled 203,510 pounds of trash from bodies of water in 21 different states through 116 cleanup initiatives. UBB’s mission serves as the businesses’ foundation. It’s the blueprint devised by founder Brian Linton in 2010.

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The problem stems from the different buying habits of Penn and Drexel students who frequent the University City shop. In addition to selling sustainable apparel, UBB serves up fresh coffee, artisan sandwiches and pastries. However, UBB’s cleanup efforts do not include these sandwiches or pastries, and students tend to buy mostly food products.

“Because of the high volume of customers coming in and out at our University City store, we are seen as more of a coffee shop,” Singley said. “Some of our customers still do not know that we are primarily an apparel brand with an environmental mission.”

In addition, maintaining a customer base primarily consisting of college students has its highs and lows. For instance, the University City store had their best day on December 15, which was the last day of final exams for Penn students.

“Most [students] were finished for the semester and wanted to purchase Christmas gifts for family and friends before heading home,” Singley said. “We sold a lot more retail that day than normal.” However, University City itself had nearly no pulse during the holidays, and on January 3rd, UBB was forced to cut employee’s shifts to reduce costs.

UBB continues to grow despite these setbacks. Up until 2014, UBB’s entire line of products were manufactured in India. Now, every UBB product is manufactured domestically, except its line of organic bags.

“We have been working hard for the last year or so to move production into the U.S.,” Singley said.

“Not only does producing goods in the U.S. support our economy, but it also cuts down on emissions from shipping goods over long distances,” Singley said.

In 2015, UBB will be hosting more events and classes in the University City space, and will be looking to partner with university and community organizations to host cleanups and green initiatives. The company will be celebrating five years in business this coming May.

“By creating stores that act with the dual purpose of selling product and creating community spaces in the neighborhoods they are in,” said Linton, “we are better able to spread our environmental ethos and message of volunteerism.”

Find out more about  UBB upcoming events at unitedbyblue.com/collections/upcoming-events/

Image via United by Blue

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