Cover Story

Creating a sustainable business model

Tara (Kelly) Milburn’s (‘90) experiences in the business world inspire successful sustainable online business
By: Melissa Lombard

Tara (Kelly) Milburn’s path to creating a leading online distributor of sustainable promotional products began more than 30 years ago — fuelled by the belief that corporations and how we do business were badly broken and needed to change.

After graduating from Mount Allison, she and her now husband Tim (‘90) ventured west and landed in Vancouver where her career in business began. She soon started working with the owner of the Vancouver Canucks and what would become Orca Bay Sports & Entertainment on a landmark project to build the first privately funded arena in Canada in modern times. Then, a bid for the first NBA expansion team to establish the Vancouver Grizzlies.

“Very early on I had a fabulous, interesting, and exciting career, but it was not conducive to having a family. I had a lot to offer, but I needed to find balance,” she says.

She was tapped to work on the bid for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, but declined as she didn’t see how she could achieve balance after having their first child.

That was when she realized she needed to help create change in the corporate workforce.

“Women were marginalized and left on the sidelines because they couldn’t show up to work in a way that ‘Corporate America’ decided we should show up,” she says. “There was this whole brain trust that we were not tapping into.”

She negotiated working three days a week and having a full-time assistant to achieve the balance she was seeking — and successfully spearheaded the domestic portion of the Vancouver 2010 Olympic bid in nine months.

She knew she had to be part of helping redefine how we “show up at work” and what we are trying to accomplish.

“There are things we got wrong in conducting business over the past 50 years that have hurt our planet, our homes, and our lives, and made a handful of people rich,” she says. “Somehow, we have deemed that acceptable and that is just wrong.”

After a move back east to Cape Breton, NS, Milburn’s career continued while raising a family, with a 13-year stint as director of foreign direct investment for Nova Scotia Business Inc. But she was still fuelled by the feeling that things needed to change.

“I believe very strongly that it’s not what you say, it’s what you do that matters. I felt it was important to show my children that if you saw an opportunity or idea, you go after it.”

She wanted to create a business that operated differently than what she had experienced and was defined by alternative measures of success. Her business Ethical Swag was born.

Her main objectives were transparency and sustainability — prioritizing planet and people with profit.

“Shareholder success is different than stakeholder success,” she says.

After a few years of running the business off the side of her desk and with a basic online brochure, she completed market research in the fall of 2017 to more fully understand her target market.

“For the first time, a light bulb went off about how I was going to make this company a force to be reckoned with.”

Over the past six years, Ethical Swag has become a leading online distributor of sustainably sourced promotional products in North America, even in the face of a global pandemic.

Milburn says she made very specific decisions on how to structure the business based on core foundational values of sustainability and empowerment, like operating fully virtually and paperless well before the pandemic forced remote work to the forefront. Also, hiring for talent and not for location — providing meaningful work for people regardless of their situation.

The company also achieved its B Corp certification in May 2020, which means it has been audited to a high global standard for sustainability.

“The B Corp certification was our way to demonstrate, with a third-party audit, how we operate as a business,” says Milburn.

As part of its mission, Ethical Swag also donates more than 20 per cent of profits annually to charity, primarily in support of the homeless population in Cape Breton, including using its supply chain to provide warm jackets.

Milburn also strongly believes in Ethical Swag’s governance structure and empowering her employees to make their own decisions — a structure based on compliance, not permission. Ethical Swag currently employs 13 people across Canada and internationally and is expanding.

Tara ('90) and Ellie ('19) Milburn

One of those employees is Milburn’s daughter Ellie (‘19) who also graduated from Mount Allison and is now an account manager for Ethical Swag based in Vancouver, BC — where her mother’s career began.

“Ellie is passionate about sustainability and she reflects who our customer is, which has been really helpful,” says Milburn.

Last October Milburn was invited to partner with Advertising Week New York — one of the biggest marketing events in the U.S. — as the official swag partner. Milburn also took part in a panel on sustainable business practices alongside Anna Rathmann, executive director of the Jane Goodall Institute, and Michele Malejki, global head of social impact at HP Inc. Moderated by Junmian Sun, managing director of the Shorty Awards, the panel discussion was titled “Planting Seeds: Stories and Partners Shape the Change We Make.”

Milburn says building Ethical Swag has been about showing you can run a profitable business that cares about more than the shareholder value. Her goal is to get the business stable and strong, where it will run smoothly without her at the helm.

Next on her agenda? She plans to write a book about sustainable business practices.

Check out Ethical Swag at
Facebook: /EthicalSwag | Instagram: @ethicalswag