Boss Lady is a series that shares personal insights from creative women in business. This week, we chat with Charlotte Carson and Laura Dobell, the founders of ClearLife, an ethical shop and publication that highlights and offers products, ideas, and services that connect customers with the environment they live in. “Our goal is to nurture bodies and spirits, to cultivate an inspired and sustainable lifestyle, without sacrificing taste.”
1. Tell us a little bit about yourself and your career.
Charlotte: I grew up on the west coast in Vancouver and moved to Toronto, for work about 15 years ago. On the west coast I grew up in an environment where it is the norm to care about the environment and live a active and healthy lifestyle. I grew up surrounded by tree huggers, environmentalist and plant based eating was pretty common out there even back then. I studied dance, art, and music growing up and was surrounded by family and friends who were creative and also out actively involved in or marching for a cause. When I came out to Toronto after university, I worked as a prop, fashion stylist and a producer on advertising shoots and also as a style editor for 5 national magazines, until co-founding ClearLife. I guess I have really circled back to my youth where social issues, really mattered in my upbringing.
Laura: It’s always a long journey to think about where each of us started to where we are presently. I also grew up in Vancouver, in a family that was environmentally conscious. I remember Saturday mornings, if we weren’t skiing or camping, my father would take us to return recycling items. My father was environmentally conscious before it was a thing. Back in the 90’s, I remember taking canvas bags to the grocery store and returning milk bottles. When I moved to Toronto, I worked in the fashion industry for many years. After I had my son, I knew that long hours and travel-for-work were not for me. So I decided to re-think what role work had in my life. I started a small design firm, doing home staging and residential design. At first it was just myself, and over the years, the team grew to 5. It was a wonderful opportunity, to run my own business in way accommodated a healthy lifestyle balance, while collaborating with other talented designers.
The studio is in the process of closing down as I move onto this venture with Charlotte. I have always been interested in health and wellness. Two years ago, I completed hot yoga teacher training, and teach at a local studio. Just as I was making plants to close down the studio, and not sure what was next, Charlotte presented the idea of ClearLife. The concept resonated with me, and I decided to join her on this journey to bring the ClearLife vision to fruition.
2. What prompted you to start ClearLife?
Laura: I’ll leave this to Charlotte, as she founded ClearLife Magazine two years ago. I am a more recent addition to the team.
Charlotte: ClearLife was really an act of passion and love for wanting to live ethically. We wanted to do something that meant something to us. To spend our days learning and doing things that were really important to changing the world, even if this was just in a small way. We wanted to create or be a part of a movement for change.
The big question was – OK we know about global warming, The Paris Accord, all the bigger environmental issues – but what is going on on a micro level? What about the day to day, the minute to minute issues that are all the little decisions and options that happen in our day to day that collectively around the world lead to global warming and health issues that are real.
There was this keen interest in how we could take all of our years of knowledge, work, large network of collaborators, and turn it into something we truly cared about that had an impact on the world and was an opportunity to offer solutions in the world for our global citizens that most brands were not offering to them.
After many years working freelance on other brands projects we felt there was a larger narrative missing on a global level. We had a huge desire to tell a different kind of story and offer a different kind of brand that truly stood for something and was part of the solution and not contributing to the destruction of our planet and our health globally. It was clear no one really cared or understood what the consequences were to our health and the planet on most brands agendas. Once we really started exploring this there was no question we had to do this.
We did it for ourselves as much as others. We asked ok – if these brands don’t care about our health or the planet – then let’s find ones that do and bring this to the people. Let’s also tell the stories with our publication side, consumers want to know on how to change their habits and what is really going on with materials and products and offer them information and products with the end goal being to heal the planet and stop the destruction of the globe.
We wanted to be an example of how commerce can be for used for good. And we truly want to be a part of saving the planet.
3. As co-founders, how do you work together?
Charlotte: We have a really great synergy when working together that just works organically and very easily. We are both multitaskers, extremely positive and do-ers so we have just approached everything very naturally with a divide and conquer approach. We both hustle hard at whatever needs to be done and support each other and the team in a very natural way whenever anything needs to be done.
Laura: We each have different roles, but at the end of the day, we are a small, scrappy start up. We do whatever needs doing.
4. I am very passionate about the environment, so I love that you’re focused on sustainability. What does living a “ClearLife” mean to you?
Charlotte: It is about being a responsible global citizen – to the planet, yourself, and the people and wildlife in all of the choices you make in all of the moments that end up leading to the consequences of the bigger planet and life issues. It’s an understanding that every moment and choice counts and leads to a bigger picture.
It’s related to living a clean life including the food you eat, all the products you buy, what you put on your body and in it, and even the psychology and thoughts in your way of expressing yourself and existing with others.
It’s mind, body, spirit, choices, and the planet.
Laura: Living a ClearLife is being mindful and considerate while consuming (or choosing not to consume). In order to round that out, you’d need to understand what sustainability means to me. To me, sustainability is a way of meeting our needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs as well. It’s more than just environmentalism. It’s social and economic awareness and concern. These are big concepts. So what does this look like, actually? On a day to day basis, it means walking my son to school rather than driving, buying locally sourced, organic food, supporting small businesses, choosing non-toxic bath, beauty, and cleaning products, and choosing clothing that will stand the test of time in tailoring and style. It means re-using before recycling, and recycling before landfill. It means opting for “refills” rather than buying a whole new container. It means taking my bins when I go shopping, rather than taking plastic bags. It’s teaching my son that every choice counts.
5. What were your biggest challenges when you started the company?
Charlotte: Well, like any brand that isn’t formed by a larger corporation, or without seed funds, or a trust fund to back us up – the biggest challenge was how do we take this lofty idea with no funds and make it into a brand that can stand up to any brand in the world and be just as compelling, developed in content, and appealing to consumers – without the budget attached. It was a huge undertaking and just as big of a question mark. And so we began with the things we had as our assets instead of funds to back us up.
When Clear Life was created we had many things on our side. We had all the top photographers, journalists, make-up artists, model agents, and brands that were willing to come on board and work with us and even photo studios that gave us space to shoot out of. We hustled like mad to get collaborations, and sponsors on board to help with areas that would help with anything that had a cost involved as we were truly working without budgets. We had huge support from high level creatives who trusted our vision, and believed in us so they gave us their time, talent, and support.
The challenge that came into play as we evolved was not the incredible support we had, or the exceptional content we were generating, or getting brands on board, it was we had way bigger dreams from the business side and the planning side than we had bodies or knowledge. We didn’t have that MBA on board so to speak. We were overloaded with the creative side and underloaded with a business team and working without the funds to move business related (not creative) plans forward and have a sales and marketing or fundraising team in place to accomplish the things we needed to do to get to where we were capable of getting with the support we had if we had a stronger business support.
So we became superb problem solvers and just started to study any area we needed information on to do it ourselves when we didn’t have budgets for this. And we continue to work this way and work towards the best results possible for what we have available to us.
The journey has been a huge learning curve, and really rewarding as well.
Laura: We are still there, starting and being challenged. We are challenged by big dreams and not enough time in the day. We are challenged by only knowing what we know, suspecting there are many things that we need to learn, and then that ever elusive space of not knowing what we don’t know.
6. How do you hope to see the company/brand evolve?
Charlotte: We are so passionate about the protection of the environment, mankind and wildlife. So in light of all the damage being done by man made products that are toxic and harming the planet we wanted to create a solution not just for ourselves but to be a part of the change in the world that needs to happen.
With both of us having a background in fashion and design we understand great design and have a very similar sense of visual style. But we wanted to take that from the superficial level of just the visual side to a loftier vision that included a vision that also has a mandate of understanding each decision counts that you make including what materials are in the products you use, the clothing you wear, the homes you live in and the items you fill your house with.
As people very keyed into the design, fashion and beauty areas – we recognized even with our access to virtually every brand available – that home and fashion products are very behind in their approach to the safety of our planet. And we decided if we have trouble finding this, then so do others, so we wanted to curate a place that had beautiful quality products without sacrificing your health or the planet.
Our plans is to be a global destination for ethical products and a community for information and sharing with a like minded global community.
Laura: We hope to see the brand become more than a brand. We want ClearLife to become a movement, across the world, bringing ideas and action together. Connecting people with the opportunity to make better choices.
7. Do you have plans to expand your e-commerce business?
Charlotte: Yes our e-commerce plans are big. We are working diligently at this time to create a new website with a team to grow into a beautifully curated marketplace for ethical home, fashion & beauty brands.
Laura: Yes. Absolutely. We will be collaborating with more brands in the future. Any product or brand that we collaborate with will have to meet a very specific set of criteria. We are working on a ClearLife rating system, which will be used to accurately describe any product in our marketplace. At a glance, a consumer will be able to know if a product is ethically sourced, made of natural materials, gluten free, chemical free etc. We are presently working on a re-vamped website, that should be more user friendly to navigate through.
8. What is your most successful form of marketing?
Charlotte: We have compelling stories and imagery we shoot ourselves that has captivated a growing audience of like minded individuals through our social channels.
We believe in and live the lifestyle we are promoting so our message is authentic and relatable to our audience.
Laura: Presently, all the great people we know in the industry, just spreading the word and pitching in to help out. We are active on social media as well. More marketing initiatives coming soon!
9. Is there anything you wish you knew prior to starting ClearLife?
Charlotte: Looking backwards is a position I don’t believe in -for me facing forward is the best and only position to be in. I guess really most entrepreneurs move with a lot of risk because they realize you can’t know everything going into anything or you just won’t do it.
Laura: This comes down to not knowing what you don’t know. Every day I learn something new, and wish I had known that thing before starting out.
10. What advice would you offer to other self-starters and those who hope to start their own business?
Charlotte: Start with a solid plan and a niche marketing idea. Surround yourself with a team that is capable, driven, and understands the work involved and will help drive the mission forward. Listen to and work with experts in the area you are pursuing. Network, learn, listen and don’t be afraid to make mistakes.
Laura: Just do it, but also start out as you intend to continue. Going back to re-do work is time consuming. Measure twice. Always measure twice.