Monday, November 30, 2020

In March, Philadelphia-based United By Blue (UBB) had to shut down its stores like so many businesses across the country. But it also lost 1200 wholesale accounts, almost over night, says Mark Cangi, co-founder of the sustainable lifestyle brand.

“Our wholesale business came to a screeching halt. We had challenges all over our business.”

But six months in, UBB has discovered a new business model that’s enabled them to hire more staff than they had in their stores and cafes pre-pandemic, he says. And it has nothing to do with apparel. Rather, they’re providing locally-sourced food to Philly residents and in particular, working with insurance providers to get fresh food delivered to seniors and at-risk groups.

Although the company, registered as a B Corp, is mostly known for their organic and eco-friendly clothes sold online and in their retail locations, UBB has had cafes in their stories as well where they served coffee, snacks and simple meals.

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In mid-March when all the shops were shut, Cangi says, “We took a couple weeks to pause and reflect. But then we pivoted, and we pivoted in a way that still let us be a company that’s centered around sustainability and equity.”

Instead of ordering eggs and bacon for sandwiches in their cafe, UBB reorganized one of their stores to provide the same ingredients — such as vegetables, egg, meat, milk from Northeast farms, but as groceries.

While grocery stores were reckoning with shortages, UBB was using the same supply chains they’d relied on for their cafe business to get locals what they needed. And then they took it one step further, partnering with Independence Blue Cross (IBX), a local insurance provider, to serve at-risk communities with the essentials. 

IBX and UBB launched a new program in spring 2020 that offered four weekly grocery deliveries at no cost to Independence Medicare Advantage members. Each delivery had fresh, local, and organic groceries, homemade soups, and household supplies.

The initial program, which was designed to only go for a month, is now six months. It targets 7,700 Medicare Advantage members who are enrolled in Independence’s Keystone 65 HMO plans and have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and at least one of the following diagnosis: hemoglobin A1c level greater than 9, asthma, hypertension, congestive heart failure, end-stage renal disease, or ischemic heart disease.

So far UBB has served 2,972 members and made over 13,000 deliveries, says Maria McDonald who manages the grocery program for UBB. This new addition to their business model has allowed UBB for one of their two retail stores to be transformed into a fully operating local grocery fulfillment center.

For McDonald who previously managed the brand’s cleanup program (removing waste from parks, waterways and beach), this program speaks to another part of their sustainability story: “it’s about including everyone. And we’re doing it through food this time.”

She says she looked to Patagonia, which launched Patagonia Provisions in 2012, as inspiration. “Food can really change communities and is at the root of so many of the environmental challenges we face. So if we can do both, that too, at a time that people need it most, it makes sense.”

For UBB, this somewhat unpredicted foray into agriculture and food, Cangi says, is only going to expand and deepen. “There’s so much more in Philly we can do. We’re only reaching a small percentage of folks here. And, hopefully, we can work even more directly with local farms than we have in the past.”

Plus, McDonald notes that programs such as these are a critical step in changing America’s approach to healthcare: “The traditional medical system treats issues as they come up. That’s a reactive approach. We need to make it more proactive, and the healthcare community is opening up to these new ideas.”

United By Blue’s collaboration with Independent Blue Cross has been one of a kind, Cangi adds. “I don’t think anything like this has been done before.”

And that too, by what had been long regarded as a clothing and accessories company.

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