Emma Heathcote-James, Winner of Queen’s Enterprise Award

Recognition and Advice: Reflecting on prestigious awards like the Queen’s Enterprise Award and offering advice for aspiring entrepreneurs, emphasising the power of free publicity.

Emma Heathcote-James, CEO of Little Soap Company, shares her journey from crafting soap at her kitchen table to revolutionizing the industry with sustainable products. She emphasizes passion, transparency, and adaptation as key drivers of success, aiming to make eco-conscious choices accessible to all.

Emma Heathcote-James, the Founder and CEO of Little Soap Company, stands as a beacon of innovation and purpose-driven entrepreneurship in an age where sustainability and ethical practices are at the forefront of consumer consciousness. With a trailblazing journey that began with a simple desire to create pure, natural soap accessible to all, Emma’s vision has evolved into a thriving business that challenges industry norms and sets new standards for eco-friendly personal care products.

Established over a decade ago, Little Soap Company has continuously disrupted the soap industry landscape, pioneering the introduction of organic and natural soap alternatives to UK supermarket shelves. Emma’s journey began as a personal quest to find soap that aligned with her values of quality and sustainability after her grandmother’s passing, leading her to craft her own soap creations and eventually share them with friends and neighbors.

What started as a small-scale operation soon caught the attention of major retailers, propelling Little Soap Company onto a trajectory of nationwide success. Emma’s unwavering belief in her products, coupled with her dedication to transparency and quality, has earned her company accolades, including the prestigious Queen’s Award for innovation in 2022.

In this exclusive interview, Emma shares insights into the origins of her business, the challenges she faced along the way, and her vision for the future of the soap industry. From the humble beginnings of crafting soap at her kitchen table to navigating the complexities of scaling production and distribution, Emma’s journey is a testament to the power of perseverance and passion in driving meaningful change.

Central to Little Soap Company’s ethos is a commitment to sustainability and environmental stewardship. Recognizing the detrimental impact of plastic waste on our planet, Emma spearheaded the development of the Eco Warrior collection, offering plastic-free alternatives for everyday personal care needs. By championing solid formats and job-specific bars, Emma aims to make eco-conscious choices accessible and convenient for consumers, paving the way for a more sustainable future.

As a BCorp-certified company, Little Soap Company is not only focused on profit but also on purpose, striving to make a positive impact on society and the environment. Emma’s advocacy for ethical business practices and her dedication to fostering a culture of kindness and inclusivity serve as guiding principles for her company’s growth and success.

In a rapidly evolving industry landscape, Emma remains at the forefront of innovation, constantly seeking new opportunities to disrupt conventional norms and drive positive change. From expanding product lines to advocating for greater industry transparency and accountability, Emma’s vision for Little Soap Company extends far beyond mere market success – it’s about reshaping the narrative of what’s possible in the soap industry and beyond.

Join us as we delve into Emma Heathcote-James’s inspiring journey, uncovering the passion, purpose, and determination that have propelled Little Soap Company to the forefront of sustainable entrepreneurship.

How did you get your idea or concept for the business?

In the beginning, I genuinely made soap for myself after my Gran had died as she used to gift us soaps from her travels and soon the stockpile dwindled – but I fast realised I didn’t like anything I bought from a supermarket as those soaps made my skin tight and I didn’t like the synthetic fragrance. So, I would buy at craft fairs or farmers’ markets, but it was a bits hit and miss to find a regular dealer!   So I began to make my own – but, as with anything you enjoy making, you soon make too much so I would make for neighbours and friends, then like any artisan maker, it soon becomes a small hobby business. 

And for a few months, that was what it was – we have genuine provenance and heritage – I started on the kitchen table, selling at farmers’ markets, and supplying local Farm Shops growing the awareness and generally being very enthusiastic! 

I then supplied eight Waitrose stores as a ‘local hero’. It was here the buyer sat up and noticed people were buying this ‘ridiculously expensive’ handmade soap… and the realisation dawned on me that if I don’t like the general supermarket offerings and am struggling to look for organic and natural soap, then others might be too?  I believed that good quality and natural soap should be in the core offering, accessible for everyone to purchase in their weekly shop. 

Around this time I was speaking about artisan business at a WiRE (Women in Rural Enterprise) Conference, lamenting the fact that, like many small businesses who want to scale, there is a physical cap on how much one person could physically produce but in order to scale up with a factory, one has to meet relatively high MOQ requirements, so I felt caught in a Catch 22 situation…

At that moment, I was approached by a Tesco buyer who totally bought into my vision. We worked together and I was given the gift of 45 stores – the amount needed to do my first factory run!  The rest, as they say, is history…

With the supply chain and logistics in place, I then went national into Waitrose, Sainsbury’s, Booths, and Boots. All this I orchestrated from the kitchen table on my own, knowing nothing about FMCG (which I think got me so far – I asked a lot of questions and found people are amazingly helpful if you ask!). There was no investment – the business just organically growing with each shelf fill we did…

Since then, as we scaled, I’ve built up a specialist team, all with backgrounds in FMCG, coming from competitors and who truly know what they are doing! That is when the magic really started to happen… and from there we have grown and grown.

What was your mission at the outset?

In the early days, I hand wrote on the cartons “My aim, quite simply is to make pure natural soap accessible to all”. Fast forward to the present day when we’re in 11 of the UK’s major grocers and chemists, I am now tweaking that ambition to say, “My aim, quite simply is to make pure natural soap the norm, not the niche.”

I wholeheartedly believe the business of a business is to improve the world – so did things right, from the very start. 

What do you attribute your success to?

Tenacity and unwavering belief in our products. They are genuinely the best soaps I’ve ever used, and that’s why I proudly stand by the quality and simplicity of ingredients and remain transparent with our customers about what’s in each bar.  I would never produce something that I wouldn’t want to use myself, hence all the claims and accreditations we focus on for our products.

Also, we’ve never forgotten our small roots as we’ve grown, and our customers appreciate that. We’ve given customers, who used to have to hunt for natural soap in small independent shops, a real array of choice when visiting the supermarket, at an accessible price point.

What do you see the exciting opportunities in this industry?

All four of our ranges have grown rapidly in the last few years with the lean toward natural, organic, and plastic-free. We used to be an outlier for the minority eco-conscious, but this is now of the moment and having been ahead of the game we have heritage and credibility in this space. 

The pandemic only highlighted the need for self-care and a focus on what we’re putting on our skin and hair, and what’s going down the drain and the impact it has on the environment. 

Consumers have started to experiment with swapping their bathroom routines with more sustainable options. We have done all the thinking, so the consumer doesn’t need to. They can trust the ingredients and where they are sourced and choose products we’ve replicated in solid form – enabling simple eco-swaps. 

We don’t see this growth slowing down any time soon, and as more consumers start to adopt this lifestyle, we see a growth in demand for all categories in the bathroom, and across the entire home.

What are your strengths and advantages over your competitors?

A lot of passion, a lot of love, a wealth of knowledge and a great team!

We’ve been doing this since 2008 before it was on trend to be eco or ethical! We know what works, what doesn’t, and the highs and lows of running a purpose-led business. We put our heart and soul into producing the best products for our customers, and if we don’t believe in something – we simply don’t put it out on the market. 

Being a small company led by a passionate founder also has its pluses – we can make decisions fast and are so agile and flexible. We can create NPD in 5 months cover to cover from conception to shelf whereas larger brands can take years to bring ideas to fruition, so another strength is we are so adaptable.

How are you marketing your product or services?

Being in all the major supermarkets, chemists, and online retailers we often let our products do the talking for us. We also get our products into the right hands to ensure review coverage through key press and media, we are involved in key industry awards and accreditations, and we have a loud voice on social.

What are the challenges or threats in or to this industry? How are you addressing this without divulging trade secrets?

The mass-market consumer still has a lot of reservations about switching to a natural or plastic-free option. The fear from the customer is that the products may not be as hygienic, or perform as well, as their traditional liquid alternative. We ensure that we put these fears to bed by being a source of education on the topic (see the Eco Bathroom portal on our website and social media) and proving to our customers through the performance and reviews of our products that they really can save our planet without sacrificing quality.

Since we changed soap just being ‘soap’, we have moved bars into other categories (shave, shampoo, facial, all over body, skincare etc) we faced challenges in the supermarkets being the first. The range naturally sat in ‘Wash and Bathe’ categories and has full impact as multiple facings. However, we soon realised people looking for shampoo or shave bars wouldn’t instinctively look in the soap aisle. In Waitrose, we trialled a move of shampoo to hair care, and sales soared as a result. It is a constant challenge getting bars moved in other retailers to shave, men’s, face, and beauty as windows are few and far between and we are juggling new category buyers, but it is gathering traction.

What impact do you want to have in the world or change you want to see or make happen?

As a BCorp business, we have a responsibility to constantly do better, and to help improve the world. We want to educate more about the importance of challenger brands, the Better Business Act, being a BCorp, the critical need for UK manufacturing, the need for businesses to genuinely balance people, profit, and the planet at the heart of all they do, and most of all, the importance of kindness. 

We started with our mission to make pure, natural soap accessible to all. Now, we simply want to make pure, natural soap the norm – not the niche.

How big is the market opportunity in the soap industry?

Niche but rising, 1.61% of all beauty and personal care launches in Europe were in solid formats between May 2020 and May 2021. This is a significant jump from 0.13% of all launches just five years prior.

21% of beauty & personal care product users in the UK are concerned that they are using too much water (when using bathing products).

62% of UK consumers believe ocean plastic is a top environmental concern.

I remember when I first started back in 2008 those close to me questioned how I would ever break into the category. Soap was just soap. I can’t underline how dull the UK soap category was. The bars were not great ingredient-wise, the packaging unimaginative. 

I genuinely believed there was a better way for supermarkets to sell soap and offer choice – they needed the right products which currently didn’t exist on their shelves. We became that much-needed change with ranges and lines aimed at every need state and budget. 

In terms of Shampoo Bars solid formats are now making up 6% of all product launches in haircare in Europe. This is slightly less in other territories, but it continues to grow at an exceptional rate. Just a few years ago, this number wasn’t even in full percentages! As the demand for eco continues to grow we will see this trend continue into other categories, and consumers are willing to support brands who genuinely have sustainability and purpose at their core. 

Between 2008 and 2018 we successfully launched three innovative and ethical soap ranges into the UK marketplace. In 2018 we embarked on a new project, we wanted to create a range of bars that had specific purpose. Looking at the supermarket shelves, there was nothing in bar form that met this need. However, what we did notice was a sea of plastic bottles on the shelves. 

We decided to undertake some further research into the products already on the supermarket shelves and discovered that:

• Only 50% of bathroom waste is recycled, compared to 90% of kitchen waste.

• The average Brit uses over 52,000 bathroom products in their lifetime, weighing a total of 512kg.

• Liquid handwash needs up to 20 times more packaging than bar soap.

• Most soaps are detergents, which means they are made of complicated mixes of chemicals, not natural soap, which is why your skin is tight after washing with them.

The world as we know is facing a plastic crisis and we didn’t want to add to the problem with our new range. So, we saw a clear gap in the market to create plastic-free, job-specific, unisex bar soaps that each have their own individual function. The products were formulated not to be as good as, but better than their liquid counterparts. The range includes hand, face, body and shampoo, shave venturing into new categories with exciting NPD.

By having their own individual function, we were making it really simple for the consumers to make the switch to being more eco-conscious, simply by swapping out their current bottled product for a bar that would do the same, if not a better, job. 

You have a good record of getting awards from various institutions and agencies. The Queen’s Enterprise Award is one of them.  Please tell us about it your feeling, the secret to getting this award, advice to others…?

We do have quite a clutch of awards… The Queen’s Award by far must be our proudest. It all came about because Henrietta Morrison who founded Lily’s Kitchen has been such a huge inspiration and role model for me. She was a total forerunner in the FMCG world, showing doing business well and balancing people (as in your team, suppliers, and customers) and the planet over profit really IS possible (and frankly, as the Better Business Act ascertains – should now be mandatory for ALL businesses). Thing is, as a leader, founder, and game-changer she is also a woman and gay. I know I’m not the first, but she gave me the confidence to stand up and be counted too. 

Three years ago, coincidently on the day I was visiting Henrietta in London, the announcement had been made Lily’s had won a Queen’s Award. Now I was in the early days of applying for our BCorp and felt that was the end goal – I never considered we could apply for this as well. So, the year after obtaining BCorp we went for it. We were able to use a lot of the background work we had done for BCorp in the application – there was a certain amount of overlap. 

The Queen’s Awards really need more female founders applying. Role models are funny things – they play such a HUGE part in one’s life yet seldom get any credit for it – so let me thank Henrietta for showing me it could be done and in turn, if one person applies having read this then that will help pass it on! 

If you had one piece of advice for someone just starting out, what would it be?

A simple one. Say yes to free publicity…. I met one of my heroes Simon Topman of Acme Whistles in my early days with the business. He is very good at PR, and I was asked how he did it. He simply said, “say yes to press”. It doesn’t matter what you are talking about – people will just remember you and the product. For example, he would always say yes to news items so long as he was filmed standing under the factory sign. It was brilliant advice – and immediately I recalled him standing in that exact spot on the news, speaking authoritatively about ‘something’ but of course couldn’t remember what! 

From then I said yes to Sky and BBC news – something I always shied away from in the past thinking the link too tenuous – I’ve been interviewed on non-soap topics ranging from Pensions, GDPR, Brexit, SMEs, home working, you name it! It all helps. I also have a slot on local BBC radio reviewing newspapers on a Saturday morning where of course you can relate news items back to launches or things going on within your business