The future is vegan.
Between 2001 and 2011, meat consumption per head in Ireland fell from 93kg a year to 77.5kg.
In the UK, the number of people identifying as vegans has increased by 350%, compared to a decade ago.
In Australia, between 2014 and 2016, the number of food products launched carrying a vegan claim rose by 92%.
But veganism is not just revolutionising the food industry. It’s also impacting fashion.
We caught up Alannah McGhee, co-founder of innovative vegan leather accessories brand Forester, to find out how they are leading the charge with animal-friendly fashion.
Where did the idea for Forester come from?
It was my partner Sean who came up with the idea for the company.He couldn’t find a nice vegan replacement for his leather watch and it just kind of snowballed from there. We looked at the overall offering for vegan accessories, specifically for men and it was poor. We’d been looking for a new direction while we were in Montreal and it all came at the same point.
Why do you think the company has been successful?
Technically we are a first-of-a-kind in Ireland. There is no other brand selling their own vegan leather products. There are a couple of retailers selling some other brands products, but not their own. We did a huge, huge amount of research before we started and it has really stood to us.
Do you think the market for vegan products is growing?
Without a doubt. In the food space, it is just explosive. When we started this journey, we were living in Canada which was a little bit ahead of the curve in terms of vegan food and other products. But since we came home in June 2017, the amount on offer in Ireland has been amazing. Particularly in Dublin, it is never a struggle to find somewhere to eat, whereas before we left, we would go specifically to vegan restaurants – now everywhere has a vegan menu.
In terms of non-related food products, it’s catching up. Vogue listed vegan fashion as one of their top trends for 2018. Leather was banned from some Fashion Weeks this year. ASOS has made a huge move towards removing any animal products from the site (not leather yet though!). If you look at vegan leather specifically “What is vegan leather made out of?” has been listed as breakout status on Google Trends, which means its search growth has been over 5,000% in the last 12 months.
How do you promote sustainability in your office?
We do our best to keep our office sustainable. We work in a large co-working space in Letterkenny so we’re constantly asking management to improve the recycling facilities and make things a little more sustainable.
For us, packaging was so, so important. We spent a really long time finding the best sustainable packaging. We knew we wanted to use little or no plastics and we’ve been really successful. All our boxes come from an amazing company called The Tiny Box Co in the UK. They have a massive range of affordable and sustainable packaging options. For our bags, it’s industry standard to fills bags, to make sure they keep their shape – this was a tricky part, but we’ve found these amazing sustainable air pillows which are 94% bioplastic and more sustainable than paper void-fill. Obviously, these things come at a cost sometimes, but it’s worth it because we can feel good and our customers really appreciate it.
What’s been your biggest achievement to date?
We built our website all by ourselves. We used Shopify (which I highly recommend to anyone starting out in e-commerce) but it was still a huge amount of work getting everything perfect. When we finally set it live it was a pretty huge moment for us and the response we got was amazing.
What’s your team structure like?
Sean and I do everything. Our roles have split themselves quite naturally – I take care of a lot of the day-to-day stuff and he works more on the long-term objectives. But we work very closely together on any of the important decisions.
We also work with a lot of amazing creatives in Ireland and beyond who help us with everything from photography to SEO to web design. Working in the Co-Lab has been amazing because you meet so many interesting people with different skill sets and we can all help one another on our areas of expertise. We get our brothers and sister involved a lot as they know us best, understand our vision, but aren’t afraid to give us constructive criticism.
What advice would you give to someone starting a business?
Think about how you’re going to make this work. For us, that meant moving back to Donegal for a while. Ask yourself certain questions, where are you going to get your money from, are there finances out there which can help, how will I know if it’s working, how will I know if it’s not?
While we started the business with our own experiences in mind, we did so much research and shaped the company to fit the needs of the market – not just our own. You can’t just create a business to suit yourself. We have projections and targets and timelines in place which make sure we stay on track always.
What challenges are unique to female founders?
As a woman, I have acknowledged my own confidence can be an issue. Sometimes when I tell people what it is we do, they just don’t get it and there can be some eye-rolling from time-to-time. But I’m working on being more assertive, I’m really proud of what we’re doing and I want that to filter through when I talk about my business to EVERYONE not just when I’m talking to people who get it straight away.
Since I’ve been back, I’ve got involved in the Donegal Women In Business Network, which has been amazing. I’ve met so many interesting and inspiring figures at the events who are always keen to help you out and want you to succeed. I’d definitely recommend getting involved in your local woman if you’re a female entrepreneur.
How do you measure success?
I’m not hugely driven by money, so for me, it’s a balance of being able to make the business work financially, but still sticking to our sustainable and ethical values without compromising on quality.
What’s the one thing you wish people knew about the business?
When people hear our story and how we gave up our careers and life in the city to come home and start an Irish company we believe in, they really get behind us and want us to do well. I’m not sure that everyone understands this. Truthfully we started the company because we wanted to do some good in the world. Particularly for Sean who was accelerating rapidly in his finance career. But as I said people, money isn’t everything!