When a hospital doctor and a fashion buyer began to meet once a week to draw out a new kind of sustainable, beautiful toothbrush, it was simply for the love of designing - with inspiration as simple as a lamp or a wooden spoon. Three years on, and Catherine and Cat are still working to develop The Truthbrush and have played a part in their wider home of Ashburton, helping it gain 'plastic-free town' status.
Here Catherine shares with me the inspiration and process behind The Truthbrush:
Tell me about The Truthbrush.
The Truthbrush was an idea of my business partner Cat's. She went to stay in an eco-hotel in Cornwall, and she had forgotten her toothbrush. When she asked at reception, they gave her a plastic, disposable brush, which was so incongruous with their ethos.
It was around the time when Blue Planet II was on TV. Plastic was starting to be on the agenda for more people. We discussed starting a business and slowly it became a reality. Cat and I work full time, so we'd meet once a week for a coffee and to do some design work.
We were convinced there was space on the market for a toothbrush that was beautiful and eco-friendly. There were bamboo toothbrushes out there, but they were very utilitarian in design. We wanted ours to be more design-driven. We spent a long time thinking about it, scanning through images on Pinterest etc…, looking for ideas. At home I have a beautiful wooden spoon with a handle dipped in white paint, which is really ergonomic. Then on holiday I saw a lamp that had been dipped in grey paint. These items were our first inspiration.
It took two whole years of meeting once a week to develop our first toothbrush. We needed to find a factory and for this Cat used her contacts as a buyer. We finally settled on a factory in China. We were lucky to have eyes on the ground there who could make sure that they had good standards.
As we started making toothbrushes, the demand grew fast! We quickly had supply problems as the initial factory couldn't keep up with the growth. We hate to run out of stock and have to disappoint people. So Cat and I then sourced another factory to help us.
Initially we picked soft bristles for our toothbrushes, but lots of people asked us for medium bristles so we’ve introduced them too. Now we're working on a children's toothbrush. It takes a long time to get the moulds made and develop new products as our toothbrushes are a bespoke design.
The whole process of running a business has been a hard one and a steep learning curve for both of us! Cat works for a fashion company. As for me, I had no idea about how to launch a toothbrush brand. It's been brilliant though - the designing is what I love most. In the day to day, my own work is scientific and protocol driven, so I enjoy the contrast. We still only meet once a week and it's still just us behind The Truthbrush at the moment.
Your toothbrushes are carbon neutral. Can you tell me a bit more about it and your approach to sustainability?
It starts with bamboo, which is a sustainable crop in China. Moso bamboo can grow several metres in a day. It needs no pesticides and pandas don't eat this kind of bamboo so we aren't taking their food - we've been asked! Bamboo can be harvested, but doesn't need replanting. It just keeps on re-growing.
We use completely recyclable packaging for the toothbrushes. The packaging isn't recycled at present, although we would like it to be. All this happens in China and, while in the past we've shipped by air, our next big order of toothbrushes are coming by sea, which is much better for the environment and is cost-effective too. We carbon offset all our shipping. and do this by calculating our carbon footprint and contributing to UK and worldwide projects that work against global warming.
Our toothbrush bristles are made of nylon 6 . We originally researched nylon 4 which is said to be biodegradable but in the end we realised this isn’t commercially available. In the new year, we're planning to switch to castor oil bristles made out of plant-based plastic. This is good because they aren't made from petroleum, but they're still not biodegradable. It's important to us that people are aware. We try to be as transparent as possible. We know that this isn't ideal, but it's the best out there at the moment - apart from boar bristles which we didn't think people would want to use...
When you've finished with your toothbrush, the best way to dispose of it is to snap the head off or pull out the bristles with a pair of pliers. The handle will then biodegrade or your brush can be given a second life as a plant cane or cleaning tool.
Tell me more about the design process. How does an idea develop into a product?
Cat and I like to brainstorm together. For the original toothbrushes, we always knew the essentials of what we wanted. It had to be sustainable and eco-friendly but also beautiful, ergonomic and functional. We'll put the design down on paper and take inspiration from the things around us.
Take the children's toothbrush which is our most recent design... We started by scaling down our original toothbrush and adding new ideas to make it more child-friendly so they will want to use it.
When we first began, I never even thought we'd reach a functional product. It's been surprising, but also very nice, to get there. We must have got some of this right as we've had so much lovely feedback since, with lots of people giving them as gifts.
What's your favourite toothbrush colour?
I like the white. White and grey were our original colours. The grey toothbrush with black bristles has great contrast, but the white one is so elegant. It's our statement brush and the very first one we ever designed.
Having started an eco-friendly brand, has that impacted on the way you live at home?
We're certainly lucky that we live in a place where eco-friendly products are readily available. People here have made lots of changes in the last few years. We can get refills for washing products up the road and the health food shops make it easier to shop without plastic on a day-to-day basis. We get our milk delivered in glass bottles and buy eco wherever we can.
There's a group here which I helped to set up - Plastic Free Ashburton - that has helped move the town forwards to living with less waste. We recently became a Surfer's Against Sewage plastic-free community, which shows just how willing people are to make a positive change.
The children in the area are also getting lots of education about the environment, which is so essential to ensure a sustainable future. It's pleasing to know.
At home, I'm always keen to have items around me that look nice but are functional too. With reusable products there is the initial investment, but once you have them they become a way of life. I do try to live sustainably from day to day. There are challenges but by surrounding yourself with beautiful, reusable, sustainable things bit by bit, all the changes become part of the daily routine.
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