When Hannah Saunders’ son Etienne was tiny, she wanted to share her passion for adventure and the outdoors with him, so she’d pop him into a baby backpack and head off on long hikes and hill walks.
“He loved being outside, but I noticed he’d get chapped lips and windburned cheeks,” she says. Unable to find products to protect his delicate skin, she decided to make her own – and her sustainable children’s skincare brand, Toddle Born Wild, was born.
Five years on, and Saunders, 36, has turned the business into a major success with help from Start Up Loans and investors. Wrexham-based Toddle now has more than 10 products stocked in outlets from Holland & Barrett to Amazon, including the soothing dribble-proof lip balm she first created at home in her kitchen, and an innovative probiotic hand gel.
Sustainability is at the core of the company’s ethos. “My husband and I now have two children – Etienne, seven, and Christian, four – and I don’t want them to inherit a planet covered with landfill,” she says. When it comes to plastics in the oceans, she adds: “I feel guilty about what’s happening, and a responsibility to do everything I can to make sure my brand reflects my values.”
Conscious of many businesses’ attempts to “greenwash”, Saunders works tirelessly to ensure Toddle is the real deal. All its products are made in the UK to minimise their carbon footprint, and are Peta-approved as vegan and cruelty-free. “We’re also working with the Marine Conservation Society to make sure everything is safe for the marine environment,” she says.
Any plastic used is bioplastic, made from a sustainable sugarcane polymer, but where possible it has been eliminated: packaging bags are fully biodegradable and compostable and parcels are sent in recycled boxes. Lip balms are packaged in glass jars and sun sprays in aluminium bottles, which can be refilled. “Every new product we introduce is refillable,” she says.
Saunders’ painstaking research left her angry at some of the bigger skincare brands’ lack of effort to go greener. “The suppliers are out there; the refill options are out there. So is the technology,” she says. “I don’t understand why so many brands, even ones that claim to be eco, are still using single-use plastic.”
But Toddle’s sustainability isn’t just a reflection of Saunders’ personal values; increasingly, it also makes commercial sense. “We’re a slightly higher-end brand, and our customers expect it of us,” she says. “More and more consumers are looking for brands that help protect the planet.”
Saunders’ career path has been a circuitous one. She began her working life in the RAF, where she excelled over the course of nine years, becoming an officer and gaining a master’s degree in HR. She credits the experience with transforming her life following a very difficult childhood.
“I had an alcoholic mother who told me constantly that I wouldn’t achieve anything,” she says. “I’ve always been very sporty and adventurous, so the armed forces appealed to me, but I also needed to get away and the RAF provided accommodation. It gave me a community, role models and discipline, which I hadn’t had before, and it really turned things around for me.” She also met her husband, Ed, now a commercial pilot, in the service.
When she was developing Toddle Born Wild, she received £14,700 in 2020 through X-Forces, a specialist delivery partner of Start Up Loans that supports former members of the armed forces and emergency services to establish themselves in business or employment when they leave the service.
Throughout the application process, she received invaluable advice and support with developing her business plan, to ensure she would receive funding.
Toddle launched in March 2020, just before the pandemic. For any business, it would have been a challenge, but it was particularly so for one designed to facilitate adventure and new experiences at a time when everyone was forced to stay at home. “All our retail orders died off instantly,” says Saunders.
It’s all the more impressive then that the business has thrived, perhaps partly because the pandemic has reminded people of the benefits of getting outdoors, particularly for children, who often spent much of lockdown being home schooled in front of screens.
In June 2021, Saunders appeared on Dragons’ Den (although it wasn’t shown until this March) and wowed the panel with a perfect pitch. She settled on a £60,000 investment from Dragons’ Deborah Meaden and Steven Bartlett, for 11.5% of the business.
This year, Toddle will launch in the US and continue to expand its range, which now includes sun protection as well as the lip and cheek balms, and hand gel. Saunders hopes she’ll continue to find ways to make the brand even more sustainable. “Whatever we do, we’ll always work our hardest to look after the planet so we can be proud of what we pass on to the next generation.”
If you’d like help to green – and grow – your business, the British Business Bank should be your first port of call. Dedicated to making finance markets work better for smaller businesses, it provides free financial tools and expert information to get you moving in the right direction. Find out more at british-business-bank.co.uk/finance-hub/sustainability