Why Running an Ethical Business Was Not For Me

Why Running an Ethical Business Was Not For Me

It’s 8.30am and I’m staring at my laptop, my eyes running over the numbers on its dusty screen while I sip my coffee. There’s still a long way to go, and with each day I’m closer to being forced to face what I’ve always suspected: that we’re not going to make it. My Kickstarter campaign has been running for twenty days and it looks increasingly likely that my family, friends and work connections, whose generous faith in my labour of love has left me touched beyond words, will soon receive an email with the subject line “a project you backed has not reached its funding goal”. But deep down I know that this isn’t just the end of the campaign: it’s the end of this chapter of my life. And this knowledge is strangely liberating.

In late 2013, I started the world’s first online vegan fashion magazine, in a time when this niche was barely even a niche. No one even knew what I meant when I said “vegan fashion”. This was before Vegan Fashion Week hit the runways in Los Angeles, before Gucci stopped selling fur, before Miley Cyrus spoke out about animal rights on the red carpet – I was ahead of my time, but I was determined. I immersed myself wholly in my budding business. I did hours of research, found a team, set up a website (reading tutorials, sweating and crying until 2am) and launched something that I was, and still am, immensely proud of. And the website was meant to be just the beginning: my dream was to hold a copy of an actual magazine – a beautiful print product – in my hands. To bring this vision to life, I turned to Kickstarter last year. But for many reasons, that vision never materialised.

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Why Running an Ethical Business Was Not For Me | Sascha Camilli on closing her vegan magazine

My idea was to offer the growing vegan and vegan-curious market a place of inspiration and information when it came to fashion – something I never had myself as a transitioning vegan. I wanted to create an online platform that was a chic antidote to the desperately unstylish vegan stereotype, and I like to believe that our voice was a factor, no matter how small, in making vegan fashion the much-hyped sector it is today. But becoming an authority on a subject as a small publication is a struggle. As we pioneered new themes and arguments, mainstream audiences ignored us because the conversation around vegan fashion didn’t exist in the industry yet. But as vegan fashion became a trending topic, large publications started discussing it – and we were still ignored, with both the industry and readers preferring established publications as authorities. Fellow owners of smaller, niche independent magazines have echoed this sentiment.

I also struggled financially throughout the magazine’s entire six-year lifespan. The magazine was a side business alongside a full-time job I love, and which thankfully saw me through the monetary rollercoaster of getting a website off the ground. Thinking back on conversations with many other ethical entrepreneurs, I still marvel at how many people refuse to talk about the exceptional difficulty of making money as an ethically minded business. I was constantly chasing brand collaborations, and at the same time turning down proposals from brands that either didn’t live up to our ethical standards, or were out of line with our editorial voice. Working with a brand just because it was vegan was out of the question. If the aesthetic of the designs wasn’t in line with the stylish, sophisticated product I wanted to create, I couldn’t risk jeopardising the readership I had so carefully built up. That didn’t leave a very big pool of potential collaboration partners. One of my missions with the website was to champion small, independent vegan designers – but what I had forgotten to consider was that those brands often had painfully limited marketing budgets, and our collaborations scraped together barely enough to cover the costs involved in running a website (if even that).

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So I hustled – I came up with new ideas to increase our reach and amplify our voice (write an ebook? Sure, I have time. Run a sponsored giveaway? Hell yeah! Start an online webshop to get affiliate marketing deals? Why not), burning myself out in the process. After a while as an entrepreneur, you start to lose any sense of time. Simply put, whatever day it is, you are working. “Fri-yay” memes were lost on me, because “Friday” was just the day before Saturday, when I would be doing my weekly social media planning. Work time and free time blended together. My mother had to tell me to stop working at Christmas, while the table was being set and I was still editing articles. I checked my magazine’s social media comments while having my makeup done on my wedding day, and replied to emails from potential partner brands while having dinner in a restaurant on the Amalfi coast on my honeymoon. Halfway through my Kickstarter campaign, I was barely sleeping.

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But perhaps the most important reason why I found myself feeling liberated when the Kickstarter campaign failed was the realisation that my endeavour to become an entrepreneur was removing me from my biggest passion: writing. Running this magazine was, at times, an incredible adventure. Among other things, it gave me the opportunity to fulfil my lifelong dream of writing a book. On the heels of my authority as a digital magazine founder and expert in all things vegan fashion came Vegan Style, my debut book which was released last summer. The journey behind taking that book from a blank Word document to something you can buy in the bookshops was the wildest ride I’ve ever been on, and I’m proud of every single second of it. So in the end, you could say I did get to hold a beautiful print product that I had created in my hands – it just wasn’t a magazine.

Earlier this year, when lockdown hit and I, like many others, was left with the deafening silence of introspection, it hit me how much I missed writing. Part of what had initially inspired me to start a magazine was my love of writing and creating content – but as a magazine founder, I wasn’t doing any of that. I was too busy with admin, promotion, and constant selling, just to keep us afloat. When I did write something, it was haphazardly thrown together, and I now cringe at re-reading some of my old stories. In trying to square-peg-round-hole myself into an entrepreneur, I had lost who I really was: a writer.

Today, I am working on two new books, and the idea of bringing them to life fills me with joy – a wild, fizzy, electrifying joy I never got from entrepreneurship. I feel a slight twinge of annoyance whenever I see the entrepreneur lifestyle celebrated as “freedom” or “living the dream”. That is the case for some, but the path of entrepreneurship is definitely not for everyone, nor is it the only path to success (whatever that is). The ethical business community is in need of more conversation around the difficulties and struggles of being an entrepreneur – and  more acceptance of those who choose to walk away from it. For some of us, calling it quits is the opposite of failure: it’s a first step on the road to happiness.

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All images of author via Vilda Magazine.

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