Mette te Velde was a journalist who left writing for a newspaper to start the company Strawberry Earth. What started out as a blog about sustainable living has turned into a full-fledged company that hosts events, promotes green filmmaking and has an online shop with weekly sustainable deals. It continues to grow, as they work to promote both the brands they believe in and the idea that living a sustainable and green life can be easy and accessible. Mette’s Chapter Be wasn’t because she was unhappy in her career, but because she found something that she was so passionate about, she couldn’t not do it. She saw a need and an opportunity and she took it.
I have known Mette for about five years; we met during Strawberry Earth’s infancy while I was on a trip to Amsterdam visiting my sister. It has been so enjoyable to be able to watch the organization grow from afar, and see how she turned it from a personal passion project into a thriving company. She truly believed in the mission, and took it upon herself to bring awareness to Amsterdam around issues of sustainable film, fashion, design and food. Something that could be very dry and scientific, she has managed to make it very approachable, modern and stylish. It has always been important to her that Strawberry Earth is a company with a conscious, and even as she has grown, she has remained true to these original principles. I was delighted when she was open to sharing more of her story with me, as I wanted to know how she managed to make it all happen.
AND…For those of you in the Amsterdam area, you can learn more by attending the Strawberry Earth Fair on October 11th & 12th – For two days they will be transforming the Tolhuistuin into a forest paradise packed with the latest in sustainability. Go and report back for those of us who can’t be there in person!
Can you talk a little bit about what you were doing before this venture and why you decided to start Strawberry Earth?
The idea started in New York, which is a super inspirational city in many ways, including sustainability and sustainable innovation. I was always concerned about climate change and environmental issues because of my upbringing, but over here in the Netherlands it had a very bad reputation. It was always connected with hippies and was alternative but like super alternative. Or it was always very moralistic – like telling people that they were not concerned about the environment and had bad habits. That type of activism doesn’t really suit me. It doesn’t work for me because I want to inspire people. I don’t want to tell people off.
As a journalist I wrote articles for a newspaper over here about the Green Movement in New York and it was super inspirational. I interviewed someone about bicycle lanes and people were talking about eco-fashion (this was in of 2008), green roofs, problems with the oil era that was going to end and needing alternatives for different types of fuel. It was all very optimistic and in general I think it is the New York way to approach things. They are not seeing climate change as a problem but as a challenge, and they are trying to come up with positive solutions. Also, what I noticed in New York is that it can be very sexy to live green. You don’t have to be wearing awful clothes! Stella McCarthy had a big eco-line that was featured in her storefront in New York with glamorous photos. So, I noticed it could also be very hip to be green. That was something that I wanted to pass on to my friends and to people I know here in the Netherlands. I love writing, and I love to tell stories so I started a blog, Strawberry Earth, which was inspired by John Lennon’s Strawberry Fields in Central Park. I thought it was a very optimistic idea, and it doesn’t have the name “green” or “environment” in it, which is very boring and over used.
That’s true – when people hear “green” it holds a certain connotation already that could turn some people off or create assumptions.
Yes – I wanted to surprise people, inspire them and not so much tell people what they shouldn’t do. I was a journalist and wrote for a newspaper. Before that I was in TV and radio. I actually really enjoyed that, so I didn’t change my career because I didn’t like my profession but because I saw a great opportunity. I felt the urge to pass on this green message, if you will. It started as something small, and then it became bigger and bigger until it became my job. It didn’t start out like this from day one, but was quite a journey. It was very challenging and difficult because when you start something new it is hard to earn money. Sometimes I had to do jobs that I didn’t like so much just to pay bills. I was so motivated to start Strawberry Earth, though, and then to extend it because I got such nice responses from people as well. Slowly and surely I left journalism and started doing this full time.
You mentioned that the way you grew up was very “green.” I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about that? I’m interested in hearing a little bit about how your youth and the way you grew up influenced some of the things that came to you later in life.
I grew up in a little village where I had lots of space and there was a lot green around me. We also had animals, and I really enjoyed that. But, I think that what triggered this interest for me in my youth was that my dad was a biologist. He knew everything about plants and animals, which was really great, but he was more concerned about climate change. Unfortunately, he died in 2001. So, that was before Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth, and before the public was a bit more eco-aware. He always felt a bit like a loner, I guess, like someone calling in the desert saying, “Hello, this is not going the right way.” It’s kind of a shame that when he died he didn’t get to see that after that there was more awareness in people that something does need to happen. More and more people are actually willing to take action.
My mom is an artist, and she was also very much concerned about the environment and social issues. She was one of the first people with solar panels on her street and was very much aware of foods, but never in a preachy kind of way. That was just the way she was. It was never like, “Oh, Mette, you have to live like this.” They weren’t ever pushing me in any sort of direction, but I think, unconsciously, I noticed these things and started to think about these issues myself. Although when you are 15-16 years old you hate everything your parents like. I always wondered why they couldn’t be more like other people! I became very materialistic, for instance. I wanted to have the latest fashions and sneakers and stuff like that, but my parents didn’t care about stuff. I really admire this, but to a certain extent I can’t completely endorse it because I still like some things in life. They really taught me, and maybe not on purpose, to care about what really matters. That is the environment, the people in our life and your surroundings, and not so much about having things, a big amount of cash or a big car. Those were things they didn’t care about, and I think that is something that is quite special and rare – because a lot of people do care about having money and things.
I think there are a couple of things that you need to have. If you are a control freak and want to know exactly where you stand in the future, then it is really difficult. You have to let go. It is basically a jump in the dark, and you don’t know if it is going to work out. You have to have a little faith in yourself. Also, if it is going to fail, it helps to know that you can step back into your old career. This reassures you that things will be okay. It has been very stressful at times. Sometimes you have to work twice as hard to get things done, because it all has to come from you. There is no boss and no organization that helps you with stuff. It all comes from you. If you stop doing things then everything collapses.
It is good to have partners in crime, a really solid network of people. Create a team around you so you can share the responsibilities. You have to be a little bit adventurous, and what helped me as well is the more I got into sustainability and sustainable living the less I cared about having things in my home. I didn’t have any plans for big purchases. I already had a house together with my partner and that was really difficult sometimes to make sure we could pay the mortgage. You don’t want to have those headaches because that is really stressful. At the same time, be willing to let go of other big dreams money-wise. So, if you are a bit materialistic or want to go on holiday twice a year that might be something that you have to forget when you start up because it may take a while to become successful money-wise. You can be very successful very soon, but it is not very likely. I guess, be willing to sacrifice.
Also, what I found really challenging was that work became so important to me that it became quite a challenge to balance it out with friends and family. In the start, work-life balance was very hard for me. Now I feel like I am more relaxed with that, and I can more easily see how things go. I don’t have to go to all of these parties or take on all of these obligations with my family, and they will understand. Or they won’t, but now I don’t care. To start with, though, I wanted to do it all, and then I became really stressed. I always felt like I used Strawberry Earth as an excuse. I would say that I couldn’t come for your birthday, because I have Strawberry Earth stuff. I can also understand that some people don’t understand it. That’s also a sacrifice that you have to make. You can’t get the approval of everyone. It’s about your goal. Some people will tell you that you are crazy. Some people will tell you, “Oh, Mette, this is taking up too much time.” Some people will tell you it is never going to work out and you should do other work. Don’t listen to those people. Follow your own intuition and listen to a few people who you really trust and look up to. If you listen to all of the people around you then you are going to be crazy.
It is doing something that you are so passionate about that you can’t not do it. You picked something that was very meaningful to you and it was something that you could commit to, even on those days that were hard and people were telling you that you couldn’t do it. If you are doing something that you don’t like or have no passion for, then you are more likely to drop it when things do get difficult.
It is a fine line though because you do have to listen to people who give you advice because it may be worthy – but at the same time it can be very stressful. It is a fine balance of choosing who your advisors should be. I approached a businesswoman here in the Netherlands and asked her to be my coach because I really look up to her. With her, I’m going to listen to her. Other people, even close friends, I know they want the best for me, and they like Strawberry Earth, but they can sometimes say things that do not help me. I love them, but it doesn’t help me and it doesn’t help Strawberry Earth. You have to choose who are your advisors and who aren’t.
How did you find that coach and how did that relationship develop?
It is very hard to tell, because we now have a network of so many people that I don’t know when I met this lady for the first time. I think I invited her for the Strawberry Earth Film Festival that we organized. I followed her work as she is a very successful sustainable entrepreneur. What I really like about her is that some people are very successful but they just sit on their own little island and care about their own project, but she is one of these people who wants to pass on knowledge. She likes to help out younger people. She is a little bit like an older sister in that way. Sometimes you can just feel that you click with someone and trust him or her. I came up with the idea to ask her to be my coach.
It is a matter of putting yourself out there and asking. If you never ask, then you never know. If you work in a 9-5 job, where you have a boss, you can get into the habit of just waiting to be told what to do. So sometimes you have to learn how to ask for help or ask for people to share their knowledge. It is the asking that helps move your process forward. How did you transition from having a blog to being a company? Was that intentional or was it something that just happened?
Well, it was really organic. Although, when I was in New York, and I came up with the idea, I had the wildest imagination together with my life-partner, Ikenna Azuike. He didn’t like his job and was really into what I was doing. We talked about it a lot and had a super big idea for it, like a business plan in mind. So, from an early start I thought it would be really cool if you could do something that you really love and also make money with it. For me, that route didn’t really work out to have this huge business plan and then go to investors and start a business. That didn’t work.
What worked for us more is just do before think. I just started the blog, then we started to have small events and they began to get bigger and bigger. We started to look out for sponsors for subsidies and we began an organization slowly but surely. It wasn’t a business because we were relying on sponsors and subsidies from the government, so we were more like a foundation. Then there came a point where we realized it wasn’t going to work in the long term, because we go from project to project which is really insecure. It always works out somehow, but it was really nerve racking because then you are done with a project and you are with empty hands and you have to start all over again. So, that was stressful.
We discovered that we first had to do two things. First, we had to professionalize the foundation to make sure that we don’t do small projects, but we get a subsidy or a sponsorship agreement for more than a year so that you can work longer on the project. Second, we thought, “Hey, we have a value here that could be interesting for a business,” because we have more and more Strawberry Earth fans on the one side and on the other side we have a big network of sustainable startups and companies. If you connect those two, which we did in our blog already, that’s worth money. So, we decided we would start a business because that was the logical next step, and also because I thought it was really important for the future to not be just relying on subsidies. The government in the Netherlands changes every 4 years and it is not reliable. I also find it stronger to have a business and a foundation to strengthen each other so you can also make your own money while standing on your own two feet and you are less dependent. So, we started the simplest form of a business with 4 partners who invested money in it (including myself). It was just a little bit of money to start it all up. Then we just started. We came up with the idea of Strawberry Earth Deals, the weekly sustainable offers. Then we did more and more PR for green brands and they were willing to pay us because we had a valuable network.
Well, you read a need in your community and recognized that this was something that wasn’t happening yet. Can you talk a little bit about how you developed community around this topic and what you think that has done for Amsterdam?
Oh, wow! That’s hard to answer. I think it is more a question for other people, but we have been acknowledged by Time Out Magazine, saying we are one of the cultural leaders in the city, which I think is a big compliment. People have been asking for more events, so we are now doing a yearly event where we combine all of the stuff we have done – film, fashion, design and food – into a sustainable lifestyle event called the Strawberry Earth Fair. I think a lot of people are excited, because there is nothing like it in the Netherlands at the moment.
I see more and more young people who are into sustainability living. I see people in their 20s, and they are less interested in money and having things and more interested in making their life more meaningful. They want to be smarter about using solutions to make the city greener and more social. I am very optimistic, and it is very nice to meet all of those people. It is super inspiring, because those are people in touch with Strawberry Earth. There are a lot of people who don’t give a damn as well, but we aim for those who are Cultural Creatives. It is a smaller group but a very important group. Lots of people with creative professions like fashion, photography, film, etc. are the people who are the change makers and the influencers. The more of those people who join a sustainable lifestyle, they influence the bigger crowds and start to get the bigger companies to make the switch.
To give you an example, H&M approached us because they wanted to launch their conscious collection, which is a sustainably made collection, and wanted us to host it. It was a difficult decision for us because a lot of their collections are not produced sustainable yet. They are trying to do their best, though, and are trying to make a switch. So we wanted to encourage that, but at the same time encourage them to take the next step. It is interesting because we are a very small organization, but we get requests from H&M. I mean that is progress!
It is wonderful that you had the opportunity to have that kind of platform to share Strawberry Earth’s message and try to shift such a big company’s thinking. They have worldwide influence so it helps to have them deliver this message as well. What did that event look like and how did you push to make sure it was aligned with your vision – ensuring that a small company did not get steamrolled by such a big one?
We had to negotiate to do it on our terms. And in the end it worked out for both parties. The next time they want to work with us, though, we hope they have achieved more of their sustainable and social ambitions. We believe in encouragement and are confident that the sustainable ambitions within H&M will become bigger and bigger – including their investment in good labor conditions.
They opened their conscious collection on a very busy shopping street in Amsterdam. We came up with the concept for people to come with their old shirts, and they could put a new print, designed by us, on it with eco ink. So, you don’t throw away your old shirt, but you reuse it. We also had our ambassador for the Green Film Making Project (a Strawberry Earth project), Thekla Reuten, who is a famous actress, open the conscious collection in front of the press in the name of Strawberry Earth. She gave a speech in which she stated that Strawberry Earth is encouraging H&M to take steps in the right direction and that even though they are not there yet, we are happy that they made the first step. She is quite a well-known actress, so we got a lot of press attention. We also promoted it among 50 trendsetters within the Strawberry Earth network. They got a t-shirt with the same print, and they then talked about it on their social media channels.
You have grown to the point where you now have a staff. How did you decide to grow the company and delegate responsibilities?
What I really want to emphasize is that if you are going to work as a team never hire someone that is the same as you because that doesn’t bring you anywhere. I always try to find people who are bring in the talents that I don’t have. For instance, I have a sales and marketing person and she is very, very good at that and I am horrible at that. It’s about knowing your strengths and weaknesses – just acknowledge your weaknesses and accept that you have to hire someone else who can do that way better than you. It then gives you more space to do the things you are good at doing. People tend to always hire someone who is similar or like themselves, but that doesn’t help you. Sometimes it causes a lot of friction. My sales and marketing person is a completely different personality than I am but that keeps me sharp. Don’t be afraid to bring in people with a critical mindset because that is a different talent.
Yes, sometimes it is those differences that move things forward – you need pushback to encourage you to think differently and often times that gets you to a more innovative place. You started this venture with your partner, Ikenna – do you think you still would have done this without a partner or was being able to partner with him integral to the process?
That is difficult to say, but I think it was a huge influence and a huge help because it is so nice when you have support with someone who is very close to you. At the same time I wouldn’t recommend starting a business with your own partner, because it is good to keep those things separate. To have someone very close with you sharing all of the ups and downs, sharing the concerns and helping you out with the things that you find very difficult is so important, though. I don’t know if I could have done it by myself because a lot of the entrepreneurial stuff and business savvy stuff is not where I came from. I have a journalistic background, but he is a lawyer, so he is a good negotiator with sponsors (for instance). I learned so much from that. It wasn’t my strongest point to start with, but I learned a lot along the way.
I had a lot of support from Ikenna and still do. It’s less lonely to have a partner in the process, because it can be lonely when you start something. I also am a person who gets a lot of ideas, but in the beginning I kept them all to myself. I was afraid people would steal it or change it or something like that, but what I learned is to be open. Just be open. Ask people for advice. Do brainstorms. You don’t have to take their advice, but can just listen to it. Sometimes there is one piece of advice or one person who can really help you further and the rest you can hear and throw it away. Don’t be too shy to ask for help and to share the ideas that you have.
Yes, you never make any movement if you don’t start talking about it.
An idea is nothing. It is all about the doing part. There are so many people with ideas but the difference is the people who are actually doing stuff. Your idea is never perfect when you start. Instead, we just started doing things and that made sure things were going to the next level. You can polish and polish your idea until it is perfect but you never know how it is going to work out. It is more important to get the ball rolling and start the process of doing things. Then maybe you find out that your idea needs to be tweaked, instead of just polishing your idea until someone else has actually taken it! I see that a lot around here. To be too perfectionistic can stop you from actually doing something.
You can end up stopping yourself from doing anything because you think so much about it. It is practicing how to think less and do more!
Yes, follow your intuition. We needed a new employee, and we had a great candidate on paper. She had all of the right experience, but there was another candidate with less experience. At first, I hired the first candidate because she had all of this experience. Then I went away for the weekend and thought, no, this doesn’t feel good. The other girl has less experience, but she is so Strawberry Earth and she understands what we need. I had a real click with her, so I changed things around and went for the less experienced girl. I’m really happy I did that. So, it’s not always about being analytical. It is about following your intuition and going with the flow. I never could have guessed 4 years ago that I would be doing this. Things change all the time, every couple of months, because you come up with different ideas that you develop. It becomes fluid, and you need to be able to accept it. Things are going to change.
When you work in an industry that is constantly changing, like sustainability, you have to try and stay a step ahead. If you are very rigid you will miss opportunities and not move forward. I’m sure it’s not always easy, though.
No, it isn’t. I have learned so much about entrepreneurship. I used to look down on entrepreneurs. I thought they were all about the money, but I have found out that these people are very adventurous and very daring. I came to admire them more as I became one myself!
Notes of Reflection:
- Travel as a source of inspiration. Mette came up with her idea for Strawberry Earth when she was in New York City for nine months. She was able to be in a culture that was different then her own, and see how that culture approached a topic that she was passionate about. Sometimes we get so ingrained in our way of life that it is hard to even think about ways you could do something differently. Stepping outside of this world can award you with a new set of eyes that can spark creativity and innovative ideas.
- Do less thinking and more doing. Mette didn’t start out with a business plan – when she tried that it didn’t feel right, so she just started small and allowed the momentum to help her make her next decision. As best you can, try not to overthink, but follow your intuition. You don’t necessarily need to have everything outlined and polished to a T – by doing this you can actually waste time and risk the chance of someone else taking your idea!
- Don’t hold things too close. When we feel like we have an original idea, we can be afraid to share it because of what others might say or out of fear that someone might take it and run with it themselves. Holding all of that close to your chest can prohibit you from moving forward. It helps to share, brainstorm with others and get real feedback from people you trust – or from people who would be using/buying your product. Be smart about how you share and find people who you know you can trust and work with, but don’t keep it all a secret!
- Be open to doing something that might not be exactly aligned with your business, but do it with parameters. Mette was very honest about the fact that she struggled with the decision to work with H&M – a brand that is not 100% sustainable yet. Instead of just saying no – or jumping at the chance due to its big name – she set guidelines and made sure that the launch was something that she could say Strawberry Earth supported. You want to move your company forward, but you also want to be able to sleep at night. So – set your guidelines and be willing to walk away if they cannot be met.
- Cradle to Cradle by Michael Braungart and William McDonough – It’s by two designers who are redesigning the world by saying everything that is being made should be cradle to cradle. For instance, there is an office chair and it is fully biodegradable. When the leaves fall off a tree they go into the ground and the tree uses that as a nutrient. That should be the same with the way we design stuff. Now we are designing stuff and we throw it away and we are losing our Earth, which is a very stupid thing to do. I think it is a very inspirational book for anyone who is interested in sustainability.
- Good & Green Guides
- Greenopia guides
- Naked Fashion: The New Sustainable Fashion Revolution by Safia Minney
- Sustainable Fashion and Textiles: Design Journeys by Kate Fletcher
*Images via Margot van der Krogt, Strawberry Earth, Green Film Making Project and Green and the Cities