This story started in Myanmar, atop Mount Kyaiktiyo, where Joy Leaper and Luke Slobin were scouting a trip for their adventure travel business. “We had just reached the Kyaiktiyo summit and were walking back to the hilltop village when a local darted in front of Luke with a briefcase. He knew we weren’t his market but, needy of a sale, he flashed its contents anyway,” says Joy.
“In a quick glance, Luke realised they were sun bear paws and there was no spiritual awakening or lightbulb moment… just a thought that the man and the environment would both be far better off if the bears were alive – if he could see the value of conservation and eco-tourism over illegal hunting, poaching and environmental destruction.”
So came Sun Bear Sunscreen, a product that sends 80 per cent of its profits to Dr Wong Siew Te and his team at the Borneo-based Sun Bear Conservation Centre in an effort to evade the extinction of an entire species – a fantastically ambitious goal, indeed.
“We think it is ambitious too – but that’s what we love about it!” says Joy. “There is something crazy about taking on a huge challenge like this that makes you more determined to make it succeed. Thankfully, we have the experience of running several small businesses under our belt, so starting another project like this wasn’t a big leap – but we had never launched a social enterprise before.”
The pair started with a Pozible campaign, bringing in more than AU$51,000, while their mission provided motivation enough to quash any hesitations. “We were constantly reminding ourselves of the very real reality the sun bears face of extinction and that time is simply not on their side. We needed to move quickly, brush aside all the ‘what ifs’ that kept rearing their ugly heads and just do something.”
That something needed to be palm oil-free, with unsustainable logging and clearing practices in Indonesia posing a major threat to sun bears.
“After some research it became quickly evident that we weren’t going to be whipping up sunscreen at home in the bathtub, cottage industry style, so the next piece of the puzzle was finding a manufacturer here in Australia who understood what we wanted to make and could make it happen. Then it was all fun and games, testing and trialling formulas until we found one that was good for the planet, good for the bears, good for humans and nice to put on.”
Joy and Luke did their branding themselves, scribbling out ideas on the back of beer coasters at their local before nutting out the finer details with their in-house designer. With a Sydney-based café, gym and travel business under their belts, this was the first brand they’d built without a bricks-and-mortar home.
“Our businesses have been very much built on face-to-face contact and now we are building a brand and following online, which means we have a huge number of supporters who we’ve never actually met. This doesn’t mean we connect with them any less, but it’s proven to be even more important that we take time to stay connected on social media with everyone and keep them involved in what’s happening day to day.”
Now one year in, with a small, full-time team fulfilling orders, managing social media and scouting Australia to find like-minded stockists, the duo have pledged to help Dr Wong and his team release two bears in the near future and more beyond – putting 80 per cent of their profits behind that promise. “It’s a huge amount when you think about it, but we didn’t create Sun Bear Sunscreen to become ridiculously rich ourselves. We created it support the sun bears, so giving as much to their protection as possible is the overriding objective,” says Joy.
“Everyone should be thinking about how they can make giving back part of their business model. It is the way of the future. We can’t rely on charities and hand-outs to do the work that needs to be done to fix our world, as it’s just not sustainable.”