The Reality of Cheap Labour, with Leanne Savage, Founder of Acala Stem

Hello and welcome to episode eight of Easy Being Green? Lessons in Sustainable Business.

I am chatting in this episode to the wonderful Leanne Savage, who is the founder of the wellness brand Acala Stem. Leanne started her journey in Cambodia a decade or so ago teaching English, and during her time there, she was really confronted with the reality of poverty. And I’m going to say this right up front – there’s a big trigger warning for infant loss in this podcast about six or seven minutes in. Don’t worry. Leanne and myself both give you a big warning before then, but if that’s something that you just don’t want to hear today, please just skip forward about a minute or so and it’s safe for the rest of the episode. But it’s so important to Leanne’s story.

We did talk after we recorded the episode about whether or not to leave that detail in, but we agreed that it’s just so important, because it was such a big impact and influence on why she started her business and what drove her to her purpose of creating positive change.

And I love what she says in the podcast. She said, “I want to change the world, even if it’s just one person’s world. It’s that person’s whole world.”

So you’ll hear us chat today on this episode about:

  • Why it pays to be flexible when you are starting a business and why you shouldn’t necessarily get locked into your very first idea. It needs to be really fluid.
  • We also talked about the detail of Lotus Silk, and how it might just be the most eco-friendly fabric ever discovered.
  • We also talked about how Leanne found the people in Cambodia who now make the products that Acala Stem sells.
  • We talked about why it’s so important to Leanne to put those workers first and ensure their wellbeing, and how she does that through her business, which also feeds into that reality of cheap labour that we just don’t see in middle to high income countries.
  • We also talked about how personal and professional purpose are – or how they should be – interlinked if you want to see success in business or in your career, how mistakes can happen for a reason sometimes and they might just lead to your best selling product.
  • We even touched on universal magic and perhaps or perhaps in that intuition and how that sometimes just seems to guide our business and our personal decisions. So sometimes it can feel like we’re just coming along for the ride.

I really hope you enjoy listening to my conversation with Leanne just as much as I enjoyed having it.

The Reality of Cheap Labour, with Leanne Savage, Founder of Acala Stem

Charli: Hey, Leanne, welcome to Easy Being Green! It’s such a pleasure to have you on the podcast.

Leanne: Thank you, Charli. I am so excited. I logged on a little bit early because I just didn’t want to wait any longer. I’m so excited to talk to you. It’s so cool.

Charli: I’m so excited to talk to you. You have the most amazing energy. So we’ll jump right into it.

You’ve told me we had a great catch up a few weeks ago, and I learned a little bit about your journey, which began during a trip to Cambodia about a decade ago. And it’s a trip that you said would never leave you.

So I would love to start our conversation today by learning a bit more about what happened on that trip and the journey you took from there and how that got you to where you are today with Acala Stem.

Leanne: Yeah. Okay. Well, it really is quite a journey. It’s definitely not something that can happen overnight. So I was already a Digital Nomad, just working around Southeast Asia just because I could, I worked off my laptop. I work for myself. I’m a graphic designer by trade. And I had an epiphany one day in a five star hotel in a day spa, and I was wrapped in raw aloe vera getting this treatment, and I just felt like it felt really wrong. And I felt like I had to do something to give back, because there was a very uneven balance between what I was doing in the countries that I spent so much time in, the countries that I love so much. And I had an epiphany to give back. And literally that day, that was to volunteer.

So I did my research pretty quickly, and I pretty quickly found out that I couldn’t work with children unless I was going to commit a few years of my life. There’s a very big problem with volunteerism, with people working very short term stints in orphanages one week at a time. There’s companies flying business class to go to Africa and Southeast Asia to build schools, and they’re taking a local job. So, unless you’re a builder, it’s not the right thing to do. But I don’t want to pick on anyone doing that because I know their hearts are in the right place, but probably not researched.

So the only thing I found, that wasn’t taking a local job or wasn’t doing more damage to children, was to teach English. And English is the key pathway out of poverty for industries like commerce, tourism. If you can speak English, you’ve got a really big head start. So I found a great school in Phnom Penh. It was an NGO, which was run by locals. That was super important to me, too. So no one was profiting. No Western companies were profiting off people wanting to volunteer. I headed over, and that’s kind of where it all began.

It was pretty hard – 6am starts, 8.30pm finishes.

I was chased by wild dogs in the morning, biting my ankles when I would ride home. I went in the rainy season, which – there’s something beautiful about the rainy season, but the streets flooding is not. They’ll flood up to a metre, and you’ve got no choice but to ride through it on your bike. And there’s no sewer infrastructure, so you’re pretty much riding through black sludge.

So I hated every moment of it. I have to be honest, the first couple of months, anyhow, then I started to form some pretty strong friendships with my students. They invited me to their weddings, their own weddings, their cousin’s wedding, their cousin’s cousin’s wedding, went to their families for dinner, and they would bring gifts. And that just humbled me the most and broke my heart at their generosity. Shouldn’t break your heart. But often I would just ride home on my bike in tears at night just by the pure love that I’ve never seen, never seen before from my students. And that really changed me. And they made friends with me on Facebook.

But then that’s when things started to really shift for me, because back then – I think Facebook might have changed nowadays with censorship – but there was no censorship. And students would take photos on their phone and put it on Facebook of some pretty confronting images. And usually, I’d look away and I know there’d be something pretty terrible. But there was this one image that was taken not far from my house, because I could see there was a few images, and they were taking a photo of the scene, and there was lots of people around. One particular photo, I think did affected me more than anything ever has. There’s so many other stories, but it was just this one. Just this one photo. I’ll just say to the viewers now, the listeners, it’s a **trigger warning**. Skip a minute if you don’t want to know. And it’s a story of infant loss. So I just wanted to put that warning out there before I tell you.

So it was a photo of a baby. It was a baby that was in a bin. And it wasn’t graphic. Well, it was, but it looked very peaceful. And it was in the foetal position. It still had its umbilical cord and its placenta. And it was definitely a deceased baby.

Charli: So sad.

Leanne: Yes, so sad. And we don’t these are things that we see because of censorship. And if we didn’t have censorship and we could see what poverty looks like, it would change other people’s minds, too. Like it has mine about what I need to do with my life.

And so experiencing this, and I think because I was there for a long time and that definitely wasn’t the only thing there’s a great deal more. There is a great deal more, but we don’t have hours. Among the horrible stories, there are some really great stories, some pretty uplifting stories of happiness as well that drive me, too. But I think this happens all the time. We hear it on the news here in Australia, maybe every now and then, but this happens all the time. And we don’t know what it’s like to have those sort of choices.

And so we need to build a better world, and it’s up to us. The world leaders aren’t going to do anything, the uber-wealthy aren’t going to do anything. It’s us people. We are the ones that can make a big difference.

And I used to get overwhelmed and think, well, I can’t change the world. What can I do? But since becoming a mother myself, I realised if I could change one family’s world, just one, then it’s worth it. But then their children benefit, their children benefit, and we can break the cycle. I’m very passionate about changing the world, even if it’s just one person’s world. It is their whole world that we’re changing.

And so that experience has never left me. And I went back a few years in a row to visit my students and be back in Cambodia. And then my daughter was born in 2016. So I wasn’t able to keep traveling, but I always did want a business that was working with the Cambodian people. So that was always been very important to me. It hasn’t left me.

Why has it taken so long? I think back then it was just the seed and the purpose has grown and grown and grown. And it does take a while.

Charli: Yes. You don’t want to rush it either, especially when having experiences like that, which are, like you say, equally devastating and beautiful because you’ve got both sides of the coin of the horrendous stories and the amazing stories. But you don’t want to rush what that eventuates to you kind of have to let that course happen naturally, I would imagine.

Leanne: Yes, that’s absolutely correct. I didn’t know that at the time. I knew it was with me and something had to evolve. Yeah, naturally. I think I always knew it was coming the right time. Yeah.

Charli: So tell us a bit more about a Acala Stem. I know you use a particular fabric which you discovered in Cambodia. So tell us about the story from journey from when you had the seed of thought. And then you went, okay, this is it. This is what I want to do. This is the business I’m going to build. And then where you went from there with the fabric and the products that you make.

Leanne: Yes. It started something completely different, really. It’s why I always want to say to business owners, do not write an airtight business plan straight up, because it may not lock yourself into your first idea ever. You can always come back to it.

So it was in yoga. And I realised that what we’re dressed in and even our eye pillows, that they’re all synthetic, and we’re trying to raise our vibration. We’re wrapped in something that has zero vibration. Therefore we need to be in natural textiles. I’ve always loved textiles, and my Mum’s always been a sewer. And her house has always been filled with rolls of fabric and it’s something I’ve always loved and enjoyed.

I thought I was going to work with hemp cotton or bamboo cotton. I went to some textile conventions and conferences and trade shows, and something wasn’t quite right. I hadn’t found what I was looking for. And it’s very funny. All I did was – because I wanted to work with Cambodia, it’s really not that fancy – I Googled sustainable fabrics, Cambodia. That’s it.

Charli: That’s wonderful.

Leanne: And I saw the Lotus fabric there. And I did recall back in 2015, one of my visits there, I did hear about this Lotus. And I hadn’t realised that it could be something that I could really look into. And I looked at this one particular supplier, and I was researching it for months and months. This is about six months. And what I was researching is – why nobody was using it? Why is this not a thing I was trying to research? What was wrong with it? Why is this not? Because everything that I read, I couldn’t believe it’s not mainstream.

In desperation, when the Pandemic hit in February 2020, I booked a flight and I jumped on the plane back to Cambodia just to see, for four days, to visit this Lotus farm and textile, not knowing what I was going to find. Right. And that was really incredible. It was everything that I read about how amazing the fabric was, because Lotus is a superfood. It has been for centuries in Southeast Asia. It’s full of vitamins and minerals. It’s 99% antibacterial. It’s an antioxidant. It’s in a lot of medical journals studying the Lotus again, it’s antioxidant, anticancer, antibiotic, anti obesity, antifungal, diuretic. There’s a long list, and I have to admit, there’s even words I can’t even pronounce. There’s a lot. And being very high vibrational, it’s perfect fabric for the wellness industry and for yoga products with the eye pillows. It is just the most incredible fabric and nobody’s using it. Yeah.

So I realised, why – is the price, okay. Pure Lotus is in Australian dollars, it’s $300 a meter. Wow. Okay. It’s pretty expensive.

Charli: Can you give a comparison to what that would be for, say, organic cotton? And do you know what the difference is?

Leanne: You could get it somewhere like Kmart could get it for $0.20 because they get a million meters or whatever. But someone might pay a dollar or two.

Charli: Okay. It’s a big difference.

Leanne: Massive at cost. Huge. But that would be – there’d be so many different, like an organic cotton from a certain – I know there’s some really great mills, they’re actually in Northern China. I know everybody fears the Made in China label, but there are some pretty amazing textile Mills there that they’ve got the best, where most of the hemp comes from, the lovely bamboo. And they would be more expensive because they’re pretty good. Depends. The transitional cotton is my favourite. They’re the ones that – they’re organic, but they’re not certified, and they’re waiting on certification. That’s the cotton we should be supporting because they need years and years before they get their certification, and we need to keep those farmers going, and most of them don’t make it.

So Lotus is this crazy expensive fabric, but it’s different because it can never be made on a machine because it’s so delicate. It’s all completely made by hand. Very slowly. So 1 meter would take about two months and 20 people. Yeah. It’s crazy how, like it should not be, but it’s the only way that it’s the only way that can happen. And because that’s what makes it so exquisite is it’s handmade, and every meter is not the same. And it’s woven on a loom. The traditional wooden looms have got no gas, water, oil, or electricity. The stems are taken out of the water with a raft and awe. And because they’re coming out of the water, they’re not just taking oxygen. The fabric doesn’t get any more eco friendly than that. It doesn’t need to be watered to grow because it’s grown in the lake.

There’s so much I could talk for hours about the Lotus silk. It has been around for a long time, but only royalty and monks would wear it as gifts, right? Yeah, but it’s something pretty special. It’s not something you would buy, and it would never end up going to Goodwill. It would be something with you forever. And it’s a generation. It’s an heirloom, it will be handed down. I’m talking about, like, a load of scarf or a throw or a piece. Yeah, it’s pretty special.

We went over there for four days, and you’re in the lowest fields, and you met people there, and that was the decider.

Charli: What did they show you? I’ve seen some of the videos on your website where you’re meeting some of the wonderful women who are there, and they’re showing you the Lotus flower. I think you had to go – tell me about that.

Leanne: They were so amazing. So I travelled. Oh, gosh. I travelled to one of those overnight flights, landed there, first morning I landed there, and I went there, and nobody was there. So this day, I think that day, that was my third day waiting for someone to be there. Even though they knew I was coming, there was only one person at the desk, and they said, sorry, no one’s here. Everybody’s home with their children. And I could not believe it, but I was so excited that they were actually putting their workers before this Australian girl coming over to one her samples made in two days. Yeah, it was amazing.

I was very excited that I actually found a company that put their workers first. So that’s exactly what I wanted.

So I had to wait another two days. And so I went back and they were there, and it was just the best thing I ever did. When I first touched that fabric, I could not stop touching it. And the lady ended up calling her supervisor because I was just in the shop too long, standing there holding the scarf. She got a bit worried.

And then I went back the next day, and that’s when we made the footage. And then I literally had to pick up the pillow samples and the scarf samples literally on my way to the airport. It was that – I cut it that fine, that I couldn’t just have someone there when I was coming because they can’t get there. And the seamstresses, they live out in the provinces, they’re not conveniently living right near work, and they have to wait for them to come back when they can. And that’s exactly what I wanted.

So it was a huge success, but very stressful at the start because I thought I did think, what have I done? How am I going to – I hope someone turns up or I’ve got to get on the plane and go back. I can’t stay there. I’ve got a three year old at home with my parents, which I never left, and I had to go back.

I took a real risk, especially at the beginning of the pandemic, taking four days and just going on an international flight. That passion must have really been there. Like, I’m going to do this. I’ve got to do this now. It must have been something kind of urging you on to do it at that particular time. Yes.

I’d love to know what it was. I’d love to know how the universe works and what that was. That was driving me because the idea just fell out of me. The branding, it was just the easiest thing. It was almost like I was just a conduit to make this happen. I’m just on the ride. I’d love to know what it is because I don’t know. I don’t know what that driver is. It was scary coming home. I only had one N 95 mask, and I knew that it was Chinese New Year, and there was 1500 people from Wuhan in Sierra at the time celebrating. There was all this fear, all this really silly, crazy fear going around.

And at Bangkok airport, I dropped by only mask that I had on the ground. So I had no mask and the plane was delayed. And all I had was my Lotus staff samples. And so I wrapped them around my face and I fell asleep on the plane with them. And so I knew that was super breathable. I was told all of this, I researched all of this, but I was really proven that it is a super breathable fabric that I was able to sleep with. It wrapped around my face twice. Amazing. Yeah.

It wasn’t my idea to make face mask. That was the supplier’s idea. But they sent me a photo of a face mask made from the Lotus microfibre on my phone. Just on WhatsApp, and I knew when I saw that photo because I knew how breathable they were. I could just hear the harp singing when I realised, because I didn’t even think of making space, but I didn’t. It was their idea. And yeah, it’s a funny one, because face masks really we were lucky enough to build.

We’ve now got a big email list. We’ve got a lot of fans. We had high revenue, which we wouldn’t have had if it wasn’t for the face mask driving the early growth. Yeah.

Charli: That’s so interesting. It’s like the right time, right place and the right product for that.

Leanne: Yeah. And a beautiful product as well.

Charli: So let’s talk a bit more about the amazing humans in Cambodia who you work with. So a conversation I had on this podcast before we’ve chatted, is about the disconnect between middle and high income countries and where our stuff comes from. Like, where do your clothes come from? Where does your food come from? Because we are sold an end product, but we often don’t – or the retailer or the supplier doesn’t – acknowledge who or what was impacted in the production of the product that we end up with in our cupboards and our wardrobes. And I know that that was a really important part of the puzzle for you. And that makes a lot of sense from what you’ve been telling me so far about your time in Cambodia and the reason it was so important for you to work with – the number one thing for your business was “I want to work with people in Cambodia”.

How did you actually go about finding those particular seamstresses? How did you find them? And then how are you looking after their well being through your business now that you’re working with them for a Acala Stem?

Leanne: So that’s through partnering with the textile, social enterprise. So that infrastructure that’s already there, it’s very difficult for me to, it’s been difficult for me to oversee that while we’ve been locked inside. So I wasn’t sure. But being able to go there, I was able to witness that what they were talking about did actually happen. I had to wait for the seamstresses to come back. And one did come back while I was there on her motorbike with her two children with the little samples. So that was amazing.

With the growth of the business through the face mask, we were able to support the social enterprise with growing that network. So they went from 15 seamstresses to 60, just from ordering. And we want to grow it. I’ve got a crazy number of growing that network, because it’s not just Siem Reap, it goes right across Northern Cambodia to Battambang, where there’s a lot of Lotus Lakes there as well. So it’s also the Lotus farmers.

And why this is so important is – women get to work at home. And a lot of the women are single mothers. And I’m a single mother myself, so I am very passionate about supporting those supply chains to put workers first. Because no company designs a supply chain to put workers first.

Charli: No, that’s it. Even though there are people who are making the money, if it wasn’t for the workers, you wouldn’t have a product.

Leanne: That’s correct. Yeah. That’s the way it should go. Why aren’t we doing this? Why is this not a thing?

And as consumers, we have to demand this and want to see this. We want to see this happening. And the reason it’s so important is – they don’t have to put their children in long term care, because the jobs are in the city, the jobs aren’t in the provinces where they live and where their families are and where their support is. So often they’re left with no choice but to put them in what we call orphanages. And they’re just long term childcare centers, unregulated childcare centers. And that’s where no woman on Earth should have to do that. And we have to change. And it’s up to us. It’s up to brands to make sure that this happens. That’s the number one and how we do this.

What does this mean? So this means we pay a really high price for our goods. The face masks at cost price from our supplier – they’re cheaper to buy and retail at our pharmacy. Right. But this is what we have to do. And yes, our prices are higher, but we need to educate our consumers on why because we’re so used to cheap labor. But we don’t understand really what that means and what that looks like. And that’s where – that picture that that student posted, that’s what cheap label looks like. That’s the reality of it that we don’t see.

Charli: The hardest part of this whole thing is money. Right. The financial part of everything. It’s just the root of all evil in that – being sustainable and living a sustainable life should not be only for people who have money. It should be for the masses. How we’ve got into this situation where the price of a healthy meal is more expensive than the price of a McDonald’s.

The reason that we’re in such a mess that we’re in and the fact that people are not paid properly for the work that they do and that the western world outsources its fossil fuel production, it’s clothing production, everything that’s going to create negative energy and carbon dioxide and horrible chemicals in the atmosphere, and slavery and people not being paid properly. And all the issues in the world, and in the western world – we’ve just outsourced that to places that we can’t see it. And then, as you say, censorship means that there isn’t any way of seeing it, unless it’s brought to attention.

And billionaires don’t become billionaires without ruining other people, without ruining lives. There’s no way of doing it unless you’re stepping on other human beings. I feel your passion. I understand exactly how you feel because I feel exactly the same.

And then there’s the argument of – but it is expensive to buy sustainable clothes. For example, they are a sustainable brand. It’s more expensive than a Shien. And that’s a fact. But then you have to buy 15 Shien’s to get one sustainable product, because they don’t last. They don’t last. What’s the end product there? Are you going to have a smaller wardrobe with a very simple example, a smaller wardrobe with better quality pieces that are going to last you much longer, or are you going to buy something new?

And I do think it is a conversation for people who have money to have. There is a massive responsibility on the people who do have the means. Like you were saying, the wealthiest in society aren’t going to fix this, but they could be – the most wealthiest in society, the ones who really have the money, the ones who are getting at six figure salary every year.

My personal opinion is they need to step up because if they can do it, if there is more responsibility from the people who have the financial means to do this, so that’s business owners, that’s government, that’s world leaders have the financial means to make changes in policy and business that will have an overarching effect – pay their taxes. So there you go. There’s my rant. Buying a social network, 44 billion could have solved hunger.

Leanne: Yes. I was watching the Met Gala. I’m like, oh, the dress could have been twelve families for 15 years, right?  Yes, absolutely.

Charli: A really good segue into talking about purpose. And perhaps this is what we need more of when we’re thinking about business in our daily lives and everything, whether it’s just – we live in this society where everything is focused around how much money you make and how big your house is and what car you drive. But if there’s something more like, we have this word that gets banded around a lot, thrown around in business and sometimes without any foundations. So I’d love to know from yourself:

What does purpose mean for you, both on a business level and perhaps even on a personal level?

Leanne: Yes, there’s a lot I’ll make sure I cover, remind me to cover personal purpose if I forget. But I think I might just do that anyway. From a business level, you need it as a driver because it’s going to be extremely hard going if you don’t have it, if your purpose is to make money and yes, okay, we want to do that. Yes. But if that’s your purpose, it won’t work because there’s so much rejection and there’s so much let downs and there’s so many kicks along the way that if you don’t have that purpose. And it’s just to make money. As businesses give up, they just go: well, this isn’t working and so many people don’t do something because it’s not worth it, because the money’s not in it, but just having your own startup and your own passion. And even if it just become a hobby, it enriches your life more than any dollars can with the experiences you have and the people that you meet and the places you go and what you do.

If you lead with purpose, it makes everything so easy. It makes every decision so easy. It just falls out. And it’s not a slog. And it’s not a drainer. And purpose builds – it doesn’t just happen overnight. It’s a seed that will build and build and build over time.

And I think consumers want to see purpose. I think they’re getting smarter. And because the market is now flooding with sustainable brands and ethical brands that you can’t just be an ethical brand because it’s on trend right now. You have to have the purpose. And I think they will want to see that purpose.

And I think purpose is intertwined with integrity as well. I think businesses give up because they don’t have integrity, because integrity is so expensive. It is the most expensive thing you can have. It costs you so much money, but it’s absolutely priceless. It’s the most priceless thing you can have, because then you really like yourself and you trust yourself. And then when you trust yourself, you’ve got confidence that will blow the minds of a whole room. And then that’s where the magic happens, and that’s where all the money will come.

The best thing you can have and the best tool, it’s a superpower. It’s your super ammo. You have to have your purpose. And don’t listen to you’re going to have so many people around you saying, but you’re not making any money, but your life is improving and your health is improving and your vibration is improving. And when your vibration is improving, you’re attracting better people, better experiences, better everything. It makes your skin glow.

Yeah, there’s so much purpose isn’t just about purpose. There’s so much. There’s just so much to it. And I think, just going back to what I was going to say about what it means personally, I think I kind of covered that.

Charli: Yeah. Well, do you think it’s intertwined? You have to have your personal purpose – if you’re then going to be a startup founder or you’re going to business or anything, you do whatever you do to make your money – if it’s interlinked with your own personal purpose, then it’s going to surely be more successful.

Leanne: Yes, it is. Yeah, absolutely. But it’s the short term hits on the way. Just thinking – you’ve got to keep it long term. Keep it long term. Keep it long term. Business is personal, isn’t it?

Charli: Absolutely. I mean, you don’t need to own your own business. You could be doing a job – myself as an example. I’ve worked in marketing for 15 years, and I’ve loved it always. But at one point I went, I don’t really want to sell sugary drinks anymore. I don’t want my work to be selling brands and products that aren’t necessarily doing an amazing job for the world. They’re not vibing on a high level, and they’re not serving me in that way. And I don’t feel true to myself to be using my skills to push a product on humanity that I don’t necessarily agree with. And that was a turning point for me and why I ended up doing what I’m doing today.

But that’s it. And how different I feel. And I’m sure there’s thousands of people out there who have a very similar story. I mean, I speak to everybody, people on this podcast who have gone through that and have been doing something else, and it stops serving you. And then that’s when the purpose, your purpose comes in. And that feeds into the work that you do, whether that is starting your own business or that is changing your career direction or that is working for a different company or it’s changing the company you work for, which is amazing to anybody out there who’s been able to influence the company they work for to change things to be better. So I agree with that wholeheartedly.

Leanne: If you have multiple purposes, they can be quite different. And they don’t have to be a big story. You know, it could be something very simple. There’s no real criteria to what purpose is, but it has to just be it has to drive you because money won’t keep you. There’s just too many, too many hits, too many boats missed, too much rejection, too many put downs, too many. Yeah. It just definitely need purpose.

Charli: Goals that are not just financial based. Yeah.

Leanne: The purpose will bring the profits that – they come. Absolutely. Because purpose can influence. And when you can influence, that’s when the magic will happen. Yeah.

Charli: Because we’re not saying that money isn’t important. We’re built in society – we have to pay for things. Unless you understand crypto, which I don’t. We have to have cash. We have to have money in the bank to pay for food. Until we move to a culture where we exchange skills instead of money, which is mine, where I’d love to go to. But like you say, if you balance out all of the other things, abundance will come to you.

Leanne: Oh, absolutely. If you’re starting up a sustainable brand, I hope you’ve either got a very wealthy partner or you already have a job, because I don’t recommend doing this without – I have another income that supports me to do this so I can grow this. Otherwise, I definitely couldn’t do it. But that’s my story. I have no partner. I’m fully self-funded. Every dollar that this makes is being reinvested back into the brand. So I actually haven’t seen a single cent of it myself. But that will come. It’s only just started its third year. It’s pretty early days.

But I do have a pretty cool story about leading with purpose. I had some promotional – I don’t know if I have told you this before – I had some promotional, lovely glass bottles with bamboo lids made. I paid a lot of money for them because I couldn’t just buy them on Alibaba for one dollars 80 each. I had to go through a company who had already done the research on where to buy them. And I ended up having to pay an embarrassing amount because I didn’t order that many. I only ordered 300. I had to pay $19 for them each because who would I be if I was preaching about unethical brands and bought something from a random factory in China for a dollar 80? I couldn’t do it.

Charli: The integrity that you were talking about, right?

Leanne: Integrity. It’s expensive. Yes, exactly. And when the pandemic hit, the Lotus farmers lost all of their – so they supply to all the hotels across Southeast Asia because they make Lotus tea. All the orders stopped. So there was kilos and kilos of left Lotus flowers and stems and not knowing what to do with it. And I was fortunate enough to get this opportunity, because my supplier told me about this. I said, “I’ll buy them. I’ll buy them” because I could and I wanted to help them.

But I had no idea what I was going to do with them. I wasn’t ready to do tea. I wasn’t going to sell them as tea. The food scares me. I wasn’t ready for that at the time. So I had ten kilos of Lotus flowers in my pantry and 300 glass bottles, not knowing what to do with them because they were so expensive. I had to try and sell them at such an expense, that it was just a fail. It was a big fail.

And so when I got the got the Lotus flowers and I just had this silly idea to have a bath in them. So I thought, I’m going to have a Lotus bath because I know that’s what Cleopatra did. So I had a bath and I put all the Lotus flowers and stems in it and it was just incredible. But I thought, this is bath tea. I’m so happy I’ve got this. And then four weeks after that, I tried to design some packaging for it. It has to be sustainable. And I’m doing my research. And Meanwhile, these glass bottles are looking at me and I thought, the glass bottles, they can be the packaging for the bathtub.

And I’ve got this accidental product and then it turns out customers look like they’re repurchasing and repurchasing, because they love it so much. It wins the social responsibility award at the Cleaning Conscious Awards and it wins gold!

It wasn’t about money. It was led by purpose. And now it is one of the best selling products that we’ve got.

Charli: That’s amazing.

Leanne: Oh, my God, I love that story, because it will always bring you. It will always bring good. So it was the best thing. It’s one of my absolute favourites. And, yeah, it’s exciting, and it’s cool when you do this. It makes me so happy because all those things, it would make me happier. Don’t get me wrong. I like my material things. I’m definitely not. But I think it makes me happier than if I had a big, beautiful house, because it’s just so fulfilling. Yeah, it really makes me happy.

Charli: The thing I took from that story, the biggest part was that you said it was a fail. Your initial thought was that, oh, this is a fail. I’ve paid too much for these glass bottles. I’ve got all these loose flowers. What am I going to do with them? And then that became your best selling product. I mean, talk about the universe, but some people would have just given up. And I think that’s such a beautiful story to encompass everything. Like the lessons that you’ve been teaching us in this chat. If you fall at the first hurdle, get back up, because that’s business right,? And you don’t know where that’s going to lead you. Maybe – that led you to something amazing. And initially, you thought it’s a fail. I’ve made a mistake here, but that turns into something really, really positive. So I think that’s a huge lesson.

Leanne: That’s why – don’t lock into an idea. It’s like, what can we do? So we had these cotton load of scarves made, too, and they were a fail. The weave was quite tight, and it didn’t look like a scarf. And I had them in the cupboard for nearly a year, and I thought I’ll do something with them and do something with them. And a friend of mine had the idea, and anyway, we turned them into homeware, so we cut them up. And now they’re napkins. Oh, yeah. And we took the fringe off them, and they started off as – so they were the table runners. And now we’re making more because they were the scarves that didn’t sell and now they’re homewares.

Charli: I think that’s beautiful, because you had dead stock, that you did something with, you upcycled it into something else. And now it’s a beautiful product that’s equally as valuable, but something that people want. I think that’s a brilliant story, because you can imagine high street brands that would have just gone in landfill.

Leanne: Oh, not the Lotus! Oh, my goodness. Lovely fabric. But it was just a bit too – the weave wasn’t right, and the scarves need to just be that little bit looser. We have this microfibre face cloth that is 100% pure Lotus. The microfibre face cloth comes from scarf as well, because I just one day decided to put it in the shower with me and wash my face and see how it went. And it made my face so smooth and all my pores were gone. I knew – I should have known that the Lotus fabric would be amazing for that sort of product. But that’s been a big sell, especially in Singapore. And that was just from I’ll cut up a scarf and see what happens.

And I was meant to just started with yoga undies, and now I’ve got bath tea and all sorts of products! Homewares, Face cloths. And there’s so many more to come.

So had I written a business plan – well, I do have one. It’s sort of all over the place at the moment still. And now we’re ready to get the business plan down, because we’re looking at investors now and now we have to get serious with that side. But I think initially the ideas just have to flow and just keep evolving quite fluidly because you come across some pretty awesome ones.

Charli: Yeah, that’s right into my next question, which is:

What’s next for Acala Stem? Where are you hoping to go next with the business and what impact are you hoping to have?

Leanne: So there’s a lot. Where do I start? Do you mean short term, long term? The education I want to focus on a bit harder because I have gotten bogged down working in the business and now I’m working on the business. We’re looking to grow. I need to get myself out there to spread the word about the purpose. That’s a big one.

We’re going through a little bit of a mini rebrand at the moment. We’ve got a lot of new products launching. There’s a lot of work being done on the website. Oh, gosh, there’s a lot. There’s a lot that’s kind of all happening at once, literally. Across June, July, I’ll be visiting Cambodia, waiting for the wet season to finish that’s around September. So I’ll be back there. And that really excites me because obviously I haven’t been there since Acala Stem didn’t exist. I just went there on a trip. I’ve now got a really great relationship with our supplier. They’re just amazing. It’s really a match made in heaven that we are just on the same page and there’s a lot to do. There’s a lot to do. We’re only a small team of three of us. When the orders get quite high, we get more help in, but we’re still very small. Yeah, there’s a lot. There’s a lot. You got a very long To Do list. It’s very exciting. Yes.

And I do get very overwhelmed. I’m taking it literally day by day by day. That’s the only way I can. I lost a few months to overwhelm and burn out in just too many things, and I would just freeze and I couldn’t. So I’m just going back to baby steps, thinking more long term again, not this is going to be out next month and this and looking at, focusing on the bigger picture. Yeah, but it’s exciting.

Charli: That’s another great segue. You’re just giving them all to me today! Because my next question was going to be:

For all our listeners on their startup journey or thinking about starting a business, what advice would you give them that you wish somebody had told you on day one?

Leanne: Yes, there’s a lot I think I’ve covered quite a bit of that, actually.

Don’t lock into your first idea – your best ideas may be great, but just let it flow. Let it flow.

If you’re not overly creative, get around a lot of creatives. Pick who you can trust, but you can share your ideas and listen to your intuition and your gut, because it never lies and it’s telling you what to do. And had I not listened to my gut when I was lying there in that five star hotel day spa telling me that this feels wrong, something. I don’t know what that was. And if I didn’t listen to that, I wouldn’t. Yeah, gosh, what else? There’s a lot.

It’s surrounding yourself with the right people. Yeah. People will – try not to be too disappointed in the people that you make uncomfortable and want to put you down, because it’s only a reflection of them and not you. There’s a lot of that.

Don’t listen to your parents. They’ll tell you to stay safe. Sorry, Mum and dad. No, I shouldn’t say that because, I mean – look at what someone else is doing. And if they’re playing safe, then they’re going to tell you to do the same.

And just don’t compare yourself to others. Everyone looks more successful than what they are.

And just think big. Just think big. You have to think big or you’re going to have a hobby that might buy you a new outfit one day. You have to go. You have to go big.

And there’s that imposter syndrome. And I think trusting yourself, and that comes with integrity. I think that will really help combat that imposter syndrome. If you trust yourself and you like what you’re doing, that helps with self belief, because we all think, oh, no, I have to say small is safe. Just what I was saying to you before, early, before we started recording about small business.

We need to stop calling small businesses small because there’s nothing small. There’s nothing small about it. It’s a monster. I think maybe some business owners, once the company grows and you’ve got more staff. And I think it’s bigger when it’s smaller for yourself, it becomes easier when you can get a little bit more established and you can get a general manager on. But until then, it’s not small. It’s huge. It’s really huge. You have to dream big.

Something I should mention was I watched a webinar about doing your own PR and they said, don’t write to Vogue. That would be a waste of time. You don’t have to. Don’t go there. Start with the smaller publications. But I think I might have manifested it – Vogue contacted us and wrote a full feature in Vogue Singapore on Acala Stem because I kind of imagined that happening. And then I thought back, you just got to be careful who you listen to because, why not? Why can’t something like that happen? And it does. And it can. And those silly dreams that you’re just too afraid to tell someone, they can absolutely happen and they might just happen and just don’t give up. Just keep going. Just keep going, keep going. I keep telling myself that some days, but just keep going. Keep hustling, because it’s worth it.

And we need sustainable brands. We need ethical brands. We desperately, desperately need them. And the new luxury is, I believe, with the next generation, they’re not going to be buying a $3,000 plastic bag. They are going to want things that come from love and kindness and community and compassion. I think that will prevail when we start educating more because we will be. And there’ll be so many more brands like us out there that it’s definitely worth it. Keep going.

Charli: Great advice. Thanks, Leanne. So we’ve got to our very last question on this amazing conversation that we’ve had today. Thank you so much for your time. And this is the question we ask everyone on this podcast, which is:

Do you think there’s such a thing as a truly sustainable business, yet?

Leanne: I’ve got staples and I don’t know where they come from, so no, they can never like, you got to go down to the deep. There’s so many things. And it makes me look at everything. Like, I’ve got a piece of paper here. Where was that made? You know what all these things are? It’s not just our products.

Like, yes, you can. You really can make a truly sustainable product. Yes. And we’ve proved that with Lotus Silk. Absolutely. But then when you look into the details, how much details are you going to like – women are sitting on a mat to weave on? Where was the mat made? Is that sustainable? There’s so much.

No, but we can try, right? We can try. We’ve got a truly sustainable fabric. I would stand up and debate that to the end of the world. But, yeah, beyond that, we’re getting there. We’re definitely getting there. But go into the detail. Can’t control a lot of things. Yes.

Charli: That concludes our conversation for today. Thank you so much for your time. I’ve learned so much today, and I’ve so enjoyed talking to you and sharing this conversation and sharing this passion. So thank you for your energy and best of luck with the business. I will be watching closely. I’m super excited for the next few years. I think you’re just going to just at the beginning of your journey, really. So thank you so much, Leanne.

Leanne: Thank you, Charlie. Thank you for listening and letting me just rant. There’s so much I have to share, but that’s a little snippet. Thank you for the opportunity.


Thank you so much for listening to another inspirational and informative conversation on Easy Being Green? Lessons in Sustainable Business.

I’ve been your host Charli, and I was chatting to the fantastic Leanne Savage of a Acala Stem.

If you want to read more about Leanne’s work and browse her beautiful products, head to or give them a follow @acala.stem on Instagram. I’ll make sure all of that is linked in our show notes.

You can connect with me by following Earth Collective at @weareearthco on all social media channels and please give our brand new dedicated podcast Instagram a follow @theeasybeinggreenpodcast or you can email us at and I’ll link all of that in the show notes.

Thank you so much for being here with me today. Please join me in another fortnight’s time for the next episode of Easy Being Green? Lessons in Sustainable Business. Stay collected and don’t forget to keep it green.

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Charli Ferrand Higgins

After a decade working for global and boutique PR and Marketing agencies in Sydney, with clients that included some of the biggest consumer brands in the world, Charli returned to her homeland of the UK in 2017 and decided the time had come to use her professional skills and experience for good. She has since split her time between supporting passionate, purpose-driven small and medium-sized businesses to grow through conscious content marketing, managing and editing the planet-positive content hub Earth Collective (, and hosting the podcast Easy Being Green? Lessons in sustainable business for SMEs.

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