Spotting a gap in the market for a sustainable brand, a former Selfridges exec is looking to shake up the household accessories category

Laura Harnett is the first to admit sponges, cloths and scouring pads aren’t the most exciting products to shop for.

So, one hurdle she had to overcome before launching into the household cleaning market was the thought of introducing herself at networking events as someone who runs a cleaning sponge business.

“Once I got over that, and the unsexiness of it all, I couldn’t see any reason why my idea wouldn’t work,” she says.

That idea was Seep, a brand of 100% plastic-free and compostable cleaning products, which she believes will add value and excitement to a category lacking innovation.

Describing herself as eco-conscious but not an eco-warrior, Harnett says Seep’s starting point was a shopping trip to a local supermarket.

“I try to go for the least bad options when shopping, so that might be recycled toilet paper or organic food,” she says. “When I looked at the household essentials there was nothing there for someone who was happy to spend a bit more and buy something that wasn’t made of plastic.”

Unlike many individuals who spot a gap in a market, Harnett had two decades of fmcg experience to help make the idea a reality.

She joined foodservice giant Compass Group from university, starting as an assistant buyer for tinned fish. “But not for tuna as that was considered too large and too strategic,” she adds with a smile.

Four years later, having risen to the role of branded crisps & snacks buyer, Harnett shifted into consulting for firms including Deloitte, Booz & Co and then DIY giant Kingfisher.

In 2015, she joined Selfridges as director of business planning and later headed the retailer’s digital transformation programme (experience that helped her develop Seep’s online presence and direct to consumer sales).

Illness sparked her departure from Selfridges and journey towards Seep. “Towards the end of my time at Selfridges, I was diagnosed, treated and came out the other side of breast cancer,” she says. “It made me think about being halfway through my career, and about what I wanted to spend the rest of it doing.”

mega seep bundle

“I’d had the idea for Seep and just lost the fear. So, I ran the numbers and decided to go for it.”

Harnett is confident there is space for a challenger brand in the cleaning accessories market, which she describes as being traditional and lacking in innovation.

“It’s a consumable and the whole category is value-based, so from a retailer’s perspective it’s all about big volume and low price. There is an opportunity to put some margin in there.” 

Work on Seep began with a Facebook questionnaire, asking consumers how they used cleaning accessories and how often they replaced them. From this, Harnett learned that the classic green-topped scouring sponge and cleaning cloths were the most frequently replaced products.

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Seeking a supplier, she initially reached out to sponge and cloth producers across Europe.

“They nearly all told me to go away. Many of them said they weren’t into eco yet, although it was on their longer-term plans, or they had enormous minimum orders that I couldn’t fulfil as a startup.”

Working with a sourcing agent in Hong Kong, she eventually found producers for her first products.

Then she needed a name for the brand. This was the brainchild of Harnett’s husband, a fan of acronyms who came up with ‘sustainable everyday essential products’. But he also advised against using it, fearing Seep “sounds like a festering wound”, although Harnett loved the alternative meaning behind the word.

“I like it because one of the core principles of our range and sourcing strategy is circular products. So, everything has to be able to go, or seep, back into the earth,” she says. “It is contentious, but I think that means people will remember it.”

Name aside, the brand attracts a lot of online comments and queries from consumers.

“If you put yourself out there as an eco-friendly brand, you have to be prepared to answer them,” says Harnett. “And some of the comments are really helpful.”

Pricing is one area that attracts queries, with a four-pack of Seep scouring sponges carrying a £9.50 price tag, while a four-pack of regular scouring sponges retails at around £1.30 in the mults.

Of course, the Seep sponge is a very different product. The sponge is cellulose from wood pulp, while the scouring element is farmed loofah and must be stitched to the sponge as gluing it would prevent it being compostable.

“These products are never going to be the same price as plastic options. However, I’m hoping that over time and as volumes grow and we do more R&D, the price will come down, making it accessible to everyone,” says Harnett.


The brand’s openness extends to when things go wrong, as it did this year. Seep apologised for its first cloth not being 100% plastic-free and compostable, despite that benefit being in their supplier’s manufacturing specification. 

“When our buying manager joined, she asked if we had had the composition of the cloth tested to ensure it met the specifications. We hadn’t, so asked a lab to look at the composition and they found it had 1.5% plastic in it, which was the binding material rather than the fibres,” Hartnett explains.

“It was a crushing moment. We were gutted but we went out and told customers – I think the best thing we could do is admit it and apologise. Transparency and ethics are crucial for us as a B Corp pending brand.”

Seep is now reformulating its cloths after receiving a grant from the mayor of London’s Green New Deal fund. Consumer testing of the new cloth, developed with an eco fashion textile specialist, is currently underway.

The Seep range now comprises 10 products, with the brand most recently launching compostable rubber gloves sourced from a Fairtrade-certified owner of a rubber plantation in Sri Lanka.

“We wanted to get to a place where we had a full range available for retailers to select from and to make bundles of products for our online store,” Hartnett says. “The online economics only really work if you’re bundling.”

Until now, most of Seep’s sales have been direct to consumers via its website, Amazon and specialist online retailers such as Bower Collective, while small independent retailers have also been important to growth.

A major coup for Harnett was listing with former employer Selfridges. “I wanted to produce something that looked great, that was pleasing on the eye as well as being sustainable. The fact it looks good enough to be in Selfridges is great.”

The listing is an affirmation of Seep’s intention to stand out in the sustainable market from the “sea of brown and green packaging” she says.

“If anyone ever tells me that we look worthy I’m going to cry. I wanted to develop a desirable, better range of products that retailers would be proud to put in their shop.”



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