United By Blue’s Aquatic Crusade
by Joseph Master
In 2008, United By Blue founder Brian Linton graduated from Temple, packed up an old Ford and drove down the coast of an America he had never truly experienced on his own. He drove from the tip of Maine to the last teeth of the Florida Keys. And he did it peddling handmade, stone necklaces.
Although he was born in Vermont, Linton grew up the son of an expat IBM executive in Southeast Asia, immersed in a culture encircled by water. So it made sense that he’d take his first significant American road trip along the Atlantic. While Linton majored in Asian studies at Temple, he’d already started a jewelry wholesale business before graduation — proof (as he often says in conversation) that you don’t need to study business to start one.
As Linton met merchants in coastal towns from Hilton Head to Cape Cod, talking his products onto their shelves, the ocean was never out of sight. He began thinking about what would eventually become United By Blue — a company devoted to saving the Earth’s waterways.
United By Blue sells chic and sturdy outdoor apparel (shirts, knapsacks, wallets) made of hand-loomed wool and waxed leather. They sell coffee and light fare, too. But the products aren't half as important as Linton's cause. United By Blue is a certified B Corporation, which means Linton and crew are committed to the triple bottom line — a corporate structure that places people, profit and planet on equal legal ground. With three retail locations, each with a coffee shop for community gatherings, and a bustling online and wholesale business, United by Blue has a philanthropic mission built into its charter — which means he’s not just making donations. He’s getting his hands dirty.
To date, Linton has organized 128 waterway cleanups across 22 states and Canada.
We caught up with Linton between projects at his flagship storefront in Old City to see what he had to say about college, Philadelphia and the uniting powers of water.
You didn't exactly have an orthodox American childhood. What was it like growing up in southeast Asia?
I was born in Vermont and when I was one 1-year-old my family moved to Japan. My father was in the tech industry, working for IBM. So, we went to Japan in 1987 and after seven years we moved to Singapore. I stayed there through high school graduation. I graduated from an international school called Singapore American school.
Singapore is an international community. Moreso than the U.S. in many ways. It’s kind of like the melting pot of Asia and it really shaped me. This was where my love for water and aquatics came from. It’s a tropical island. So I was raising tropical fish, scuba diving doing a lot of things around the ocean. Traveling to all of the Southeast Asian countries and islands.
And then I came to the US in 2005.
What did you learn growing up in Singapore that you might not have learned growing up in the US?
So, one would be that the world is really a small place that is interconnected by water. Singapore takes water very seriously. They don’t have access to much clean water. They have to import it.
The opportunity to grow up in a small geographical country – a 30-mile country that you can drive across faster than it would take for us to drive from Philadelphia to the beach — meant that I traveled in and out of different countries growing up.
Also, how much opportunity there is for businesses to participate in a global economy. Lots of times, a brand like United By Blue might not think much outside of our geographic region. But I look at the world as our market and opportunity. So I do business in the U.K. and Canada and Australia. Doing international business was never something I second-guessed. It was natural to me.
Also, I think I learned tolerance, understanding and acceptance for the world and the people in it.
So, you graduated from high school in Singapore, moved back to the States and ... picked Temple? How did you make that decision?
I went to college in Michigan for my freshman year. A small college called Calvin College. And then I went to Beijing to study Chinese for a year. It wasn’t a big jump. It felt more natural for me than being in Michigan.
So, I moved to Philadelphia at 20. I didn’t know anything about Philadelphia or Temple. But when I was in China, I met my future wife, who was going to Bryn Mawr College. And I was stressing about where I was going to transfer to finish college.
So, of course, I was looking – as any international kid would – at New York and Seattle and D.C. Philly wasn’t on my radar. And I couldn’t go to Bryn Mawr. So I decided on Temple.
And it was a really great decision.
You majored in Asian studies, which really wasn't a much of a stretch for someone who grew up in Asia. Why study what you already knew?
I knew I wanted to do business and do my own thing, but I never thought I needed to go to business school to do it. And I believe if I had done that, my trajectory, my decisions and my life would have been shaped by something else. I doubt United By Blue would have happened if I had gone that route. By going the Asian studies route, I focused on something I was passionate about. And I fully believed that entrepreneurship could be achieved with any degree.
The College of Liberal Arts provided me everything I needed at that time – a place to learn, a place to get a degree, and ultimately, a place on the side to nurture and grown my business.
And I graduated in 2008. United By Blue was started in 2010.
What did you learn at Temple that was applicable to starting your business? While studying the liberal arts? Is there a link between Asian studies and entrepreneurship?
I learned more about people and more about community and organization and things that were not necessarily in the curriculum. By not going to accounting and finance like my business peers, I learned about things that I have directly translated into the success of my business, because I learned how to mobilize and engage communities. I’ve learned how to be a part of a community. And to build community. It shaped me as a member of Philadelphia, and the community of people who care abut causes other than making money.
I think people who go to the College of Liberal Arts, in many ways, aren’t necessarily the kind of people, chasing dollars. They’re not trying to become consultants and make money for a life filled with material things. A lot of people in the College of Liberal Arts are setting themselves up for jobs that are more about people, about community, about the environment, about society. We’re creating value for the community, not just value for shareholders.
United By Blue is a reflection of the values of the College of Liberal Arts. To go out into the world and be members of a productive society that is thinking about improving the world and not just taking from the world.
So, it's 2008 and you start this business. How in the world did you start a company with the B Corporation model while studying Asian studies in Philadelphia?
I graduated in 2008. That year I entered a business competition that was open to students, alumni and faculty. As a 21-year-old, I won the grand prize. And it thrust me into the larger Temple community, with attention from different faculty members who were able to help and mentor me as a budding entrepreneur. It also gave me a small office space in the small business development center over on Cecil B. Moore Ave. I was in that space after graduation running my jewelry business.
I graduated in August of 2008. And that summer, I was selling jewelry to in beach towns up and down the East Coast. I’d be on the highway and I’d stop in a town and a store and ask the owners where I should go next and base my next move on their advice.
So, you got to know the country for the first time at the age of 21?
I did. Yeah. You know how when tourists come to Philly, they see more than Philadelphians ever do living here? When you’re seeing it for the first time, you tend to embrace things in a different way. I just recently went to Christ’s Church right up the road for the first time. Going up and down the East Coast, in many ways, I saw a lot more than I would have seen if I grew up on the East Coast. I wouldn’t have explored it in the same way.
Folks would say, “You should probably try Hilton Head next.” I’d say: “Alright, cool.” And since I didn’t grow up in the States, I was really exploring the country of my ancestors, essentially. Because my family has a long history in the U.S., but I was the first generation to leave and grow up overseas.
I was peddling my jewelry to retail stores, and I’d come back to my cubicle on Cecil B. Moore. And then I eventually moved into the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Institute in Alter Hall. That’s where I started to grow the concepts, team and ideas behind United By Blue.
Did you think about making money in relation to your college major? Was it on your mind then?
Looking back, I did have that degree and I didn’t ever think about getting a job. I just knew what I wanted to do and I never really put the pieces together of how it was contributing to my mindset. Or the benefit of what I studied. If I had gone to the business school, maybe I would have gotten a job at accompany and not followed my passion.
The College of Liberal Arts, in many ways, was doing that already. Looking back, if I had done any other degree, maybe I would have tried to follow a more traditional route.
And really, there is no traditional route with the liberal arts.
Did you have the idea of the triple bottom line when you started United by Blue?
With my jewelry model, I donated money to non-profits. And that’s what I was trying to achieve. But, I ultimately felt like I was failing because I was giving tiny amounts of money to various different places without a quantifiable, tangible impact I could showcase — both for me and for our customers.
The concept with United By Blue was to get our own hands dirty. Not to be a donation-based model, but to be an inward facing model.
To build a community around the cause, not just contribute to a cause in the community?
Very much so. Community is essential to everything about UBB. Which is why we’re sitting in a coffee shop, not just a store. So, UBB was really started with the concept that we won’t give money away. We’ll create the systems and the infrastructure to accomplish environmental good. And in 2010, there was a burgeoning movement for social enterprise. We became a certified B-Corp as an LLC.
As a certified B Corporation, our operating agreement in our articles of incorporation states that we put all stakeholders above shareholders. And the environment and society. It’s the governing doctrine of our LLC.
Did you know five years ago you were going ot sell tasty treats and coffee as well as well-curated artisanal bags, soap and socks?
Our first store didn’t open until 2013. The brand started in 2010. We’re predominately wholesale. More than half of our business is in other stores. We now have three of our own stores and our website, which represents half of our revenue.
It’s funny, because starting United By Blue was such a very subtle organic route. There was no “aha” moment.
Tell us a little bit about your thoughts on water. Where are we, as a global community, in relation to water?
We’re at a point with water in this world where it’s no longer something that we can ignore – both on the pollution side and the shortage side. It’s the most critical resource we have. We’re a terrestrial species. We live on land. We might not interact with it as much as it should. We drink water. And we tend to love going to the water, but we don’t interact with it all that much or embrace how critical it is as a resource.
But that being said, water represents 71 percent of the surface of the planet. It controls the climates. Weather patterns. The storm last night. The sun this morning. There is no weather without water. There is a tremendous lack of protein in this world without fish. Two billion people get their main source of protein from fish. Water provides more oxygen than all land plants combined. Two out of three breaths that you breathe are oxygen that comes from photosynthesis from within water, not land plants. People don’t realize that. Water is our main source of oxygen.
The way we treat water — with disregard and disrespect, putting 14 billion pounds of trash into it every year – allowing ocean acidification to happen, which is bleaching coral reefs and killing the most biodiverse communities of life on this planet — is having significant impacts for human life.
My hope is that United By Blue mobilizes communities and the mindsets of a younger Millennial generation, which is our target demographic and target customers, to think differently about water and conservation.
You don't just talk the talk. You actually go out and pick up trash, right?
Yeah! We do a cleanup in Philly once a month. We’ve done them in Canada. We’re up to 128 cleanups now, across 22 US states and Canada. From rivers to the Atlantic Ocean.
Brian's three reasons why a student should want to come to Philadelphia to study:
- Philadelphia is underrated.
- Philadelphia is inexpensive compared to other cities. My ROI from Temple was so much faster than it would have been elsewhere. It was super affordable. Philadelphia is affordable.
- If your intention is to do something in Philadelphia, Temple tees you up in a way that other schools don’t. It teed me up for success. Temple graduates are some of the best hires we’ve made.
What's your soundtrack?
Simon and Garfunkel. Crosby, Stills and Nash.