A model for sustainable business
Vineeta Greenwood on how Wholegrain Digital is greening the web and inspiring other businesses to make an impact.
Like so many of us, Vineeta Greenwood’s disenchantment with her 9-to-5 prompted her to take the entrepreneurial leap. But this former engineer wasn’t content with starting a business that only focused on profit.
Wholegrain Digital, the business Vineeta co-founded with her husband Tom, might superficially look conventional—it offers all the services you’d expect from a WordPress agency—but don’t be fooled.
At the heart of their business lies a belief that business and the internet can be a force for good. Vineeta and Tom have built Wholegrain into a thriving business that embodies that belief. In 2019/2020, almost three-quarters of the company’s income came from clients who put purpose before profit. Wholegrain is a B Corp, as well as a member of 1% for the Planet, and is working towards being a regenerative business. But they haven’t stopped there.
Vineeta and Tom also inspire and empower other business owners to use business for good and to be part of creating a zero-carbon future. When they started Wholegrain Digital back in 2007 they wanted to create a model for sustainable business. They’ve stayed true to that goal—not only by doing the hard work themselves, but also by creating tools and resources to help other business owners follow in their (digital and low-carbon) footsteps.
Let’s dive into the interview with Vineeta to learn more about how Wholegrain Digital is leading the way for sustainable business:
On idealistic beginnings
I always wanted to run a business and be in the tech sector. My father ran a business and it was something I felt I could do when I grew up, even though I saw the challenges day to day that he faced.
When I finished my education, I was working as an electronics engineer for a few years but my heart was not in it. It didn’t resonate with what I wanted to do with my life. Around the same time, my lovely flat mate and boyfriend (and now my husband) Tom asked me if I’d start a business with him to do something meaningful with our lives and spend more time together. The answer was a resounding yes!
Tom and I started our business to help green and ethical businesses and charities punch above their weight and appeal to normal people. We also wanted to make a difference and show how a very small business has an impact and can make an impact. We wanted to create a model for sustainable business.
The journey was tough. The first three years the business made a loss (while we lived on our savings) as we were idealists but we had no connections. Fast forward to a few years later, I think we found our groove when we specialised in WordPress as it gave us confidence to deliver a product we believed in. The business slowly grew and we won projects from large organisations such as M&S, Ecover and Unicef. Last month we celebrated our 14th birthday!
We are still idealists, but not as naive as we were all those years ago.
On putting the environment first
A sustainable business is the only way in my eyes! To be truly sustainable a business has to be financially sustainable and profitable, but this comes from social and environmental sustainability. If our environment doesn’t exist, everything else is futile.
From day one we wanted to create a business that had the lowest impact on the environment but the highest impact in terms of look and feel and how we communicate the importance of the issues that we are tackling as a society.
On making an impact
We have become industry experts and thought leaders in greening the internet. We’ve created a huge resource for learning about greening the internet, for example via our blog, a guide to sustainable web design, and our website carbon calculator. We’ve inspired many people to take their digital carbon footprint seriously. This is a big achievement for us and a big impact on mitigating climate change.
We publish ethics and impact reports every year which highlight our successes and the standards we are trying to achieve.
We want to be a truly sustainable business and part of that is inspiring others companies with our actions and achievements. Whether it’s switching to renewable energy or giving extra time off for our employees when they choose not to fly, we talk about it! There are many ways businesses can make an impact and we are happy to share what we’re doing in hopes of inspiring others.
On working with charities
We have a scheme where we choose one charity per year where we do work at either half price or reduced rates. This is one of the ways we fulfil our mission to serve clients who are doing meaningful work.
We have worked with charities in this way for years now. We worked this way with Oxfam last year, and in the past with Article 39 and Crees Manu. The whole point is to make first class services accessible to organisations making a big impact in their sector.
On meaningful work
Running our business ethically has impacted how I feel when I wake up in the morning. I feel motivated to come to work because I know I’m going to make a difference by using my skills for good and by advocating social and environmental change. I’m providing a living for my team who are motivated to work on amazing projects for meaningful organizations. And I believe feeling good about the work you do benefits the bottom line as a whole!
We have also managed to recruit very nice people, as they realize they will get to work with lovely people once they are here and we pull through tough times together.
Running a business ethically has multiple effects but especially it affects your mental health. Working on a non-meaningful project drags your energy and morale, and we wouldn’t want that for anyone!
On the future
We have plans for improving our website carbon calculator to amplify our mission to green the internet. We want to stay at a size where everyone in our team knows each other well and continues to feel connected to all of our clients. Tom and I are always looking ahead on how to continuously improve our quality of work and customer service. Also, we want to continue to push boundaries in becoming more sustainable and strengthen our learning from best practice businesses on all fronts.
Parting thoughts from Vineeta
“I get inspired by people who overcome challenges and find a positive outcome. This ranges from sports people (watching paralympians) to listening to real human stories of how someone overcame their trauma and their beliefs about themselves. I believe that what one thinks is completely made up of a number of stories one tells themselves. So watching people transform, physically and mentally, inspires me!”
Good tools and resources
- Seth Godin for advice and tools to help freelancers and socially and environmentally motivated start businesses
- Muzli for design inspiration
- Good On You for ethical fashion
“Find your passion, find a genuine need that needs to be fulfilled, and create a business meeting that need. Find your Ikigai and the rest will follow!”
“Find what’s right for you. Nobody can be you, so be you—it will take you a long way!”
Connect with your local community. I join local groups and volunteer as well. I think joining transition towns in local communities + organisations like Extinction Rebellion helps you find the people you want to connect with. These are real resources I cherish!
Build a better business
Better for the environment, better for people and—yup—better for your pocket.
Every week, I put together a collection of practical and thought-provoking resources designed to help us grow our impact as small and solo business owners.
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