From eco village to sugarcane plastic: 25 years of ecostore

A long time before being green was cool, and sustainability was a buzzword, ecostore was committed to looking after the planet. Henry Oliver talks to the founder, and the new CEO, about how to run a successful business at the same time as protecting the planet. 

A lot has changed in the 25 years since Malcolm and Melanie Rands founded ecostore. In the early 90s, if you believed the six o’clock news, the most publicised threat to the environment wasn’t carbon emissions but CFCs from spray cans. When people talked about driving less it was because of price or availability, not what was coming out of the exhaust. Our recycling bins, when we finally got them, were tiny. Most of New Zealand thought to declare ourselves as nuclear-free was enough, for a while at least. ‘Environmentalism’ was a fringe pursuit, far from the big business ‘sustainability’ would become. Yet the globe continued to warm, the climate continued to change.

But, especially in the last few years, environmental awareness has grown exponentially. And ecostore, a company that sprung from one of the world’s first permaculture eco-villages into one of New Zealand’s most recognisable household consumer brands, has grown along with that awareness.

“For 25 years, we’ve been thinking about the environment, thinking how we can do things better, thinking about products that are safer for you and the environment,” says ecostore’s CEO Pablo Kraus, who took over Malcolm Rands as head of the company last year.

Pablo Kraus, ecostore’s managing director (Image: supplied).

From the beginning, ecostore took on the ethos of the close-knit community the Rands and their friends had built together.

“Permaculture is the circular economy – there’s no waste,” Malcolm Rands says about the Northland eco-village where ecostore was born. “That thinking in 1993 was way out, it was still Gordon Gekko ‘greed is good’ back then. So the genesis of ecostore is that we were living really well and we thought we could share that with the world. We wanted to show that you can sell eco products that people really needed for a price people could afford. Everyone said that was impossible, but we proved that could be done.”

‘Think global, act local,’ had long been a rallying cry of environmentalism. For Malcolm, that meant seeing the chemicals from cleaners just run down the drain. He was worried about grey water and waste, wondering if it was possible to make a cleaning product so natural, it could go down the drain and straight into his organic garden. When he and Melanie started to transform ecostore from a small mail order operation into a mainstream brand sold in supermarkets, business people would ask, ‘What’s your R&D? What did you study?’ ‘Living with likeminded people,’ Malcolm would tell them. ‘Looking at what you needed.’

The Rands and their fellow eco villagers made a promise among themselves that the water coming into a property, which came out of a DOC reserve, would be just as pure when it left them as it was when it came in. “We thought because we were into organics we’d be sweet but once we did more investigation, we were kind of horrified about the pollution coming out of our homes,” says Malcolm. “Everyday household chemicals are toxic to the environment and you and I pay in our rates to take these chemicals out again at the water plants. And, as we found out later, they were also bad for your health. So those were the two main foundations of ecostore – looking after the planet and looking after human health.”

Malcolm and Melanie Rands at the Northland eco village where ecostore was born (Image: supplied)

While Malcolm Rands says for the first ten years ecostore was “basically trading as insolvent”, he understood that for it to do the most good, it had to be successful as a business. If an environmentally conscious company can be profitable, he thought, the business itself could have as much positive impact as its products.

“Back in the day, there were a lot of people on the green edge who just complained about all the companies – ‘you shouldn’t do this and you should do that,’” Rands remembers. “It’s alright saying you should do this, but if no one’s doing it and making a success out of it, then it’s just talk. To me, one of the great successes for ecostore is how commercially successful it is, because it can show you can make good money out of doing the right thing. That’s where ecostore can be really helpful. There’s a way and people can do it and they can still contribute, provide jobs, growth and that’s a thing companies like us have to keep doing, showing there’s a positive way out of this. It’s not all doom and gloom. It’s a real option. It’s not just talk. There’s enough companies doing the right thing that the ones who aren’t, they’ve got no excuse anymore. They’re just doing it out of greed basically.”

And he’s being proven more prescient all the time, as the ‘conscious consumer’ is becoming the fastest growing consumer segment in New Zealand, encompassing food, clothing, household goods, cars and almost everything else you can imagine. “When you walk through the supermarket you can see how much space the green sector is taking up,” says Kraus. “The green space is becoming the main space. Bigger competitors are also changing, doing their little bit of good, which is a real positive impact of companies like ecostore, we’ve have made an impression on consumers.”

It’s not just the changing in the consumer market that have allowed ecostore to thrive, but scientific advances in plant-based chemicals have made it possible for sustainable products to work better and be made cheaper, comparing favourably in price and effectiveness with mainstream alternatives. “When we started, the main thing consumers were thinking was ‘Oh I’d like to use that, but it’s too expensive, it doesn’t really work, or it looks like someone grungy hippy thing.’ That was a massive barrier. Now we can put our hand on our heart and say our products work just as well and cost the same, if not cheaper in some situations. No one wants an expensive dishwashing liquid that doesn’t work, even if they’re the greenest person on the planet.”

“No one wants an expensive dishwashing liquid that doesn’t work, even if they’re the greenest person on the planet.”

Now, some of the world’s biggest chemical researchers and manufacturers bring their newest chemicals to ecostore, in the hopes that if they pass its high standards, other ecologically-friendly companies will follow suit. But just because it’s from a plant, doesn’t mean ecostore will use it. Plants create chemicals for certain reasons: for reproduction, for evolution or for protection, so to simply say a product is ‘plant-based’ means little if the fact that it’s derived from a plant is its only claim of sustainability. Cyanide is derived from plants (it’s in apple cores!) but you probably don’t want to clean your bench with it. “You have to be really careful when you take those extracts from nature, extract them, refined them, concentrate them,” says R&D manager Huia Iti. “You can end up with this stuff that could be dangerous.”

“It’s a minefield out there,” adds Rands.

“There are a whole bunch of plant-based chemicals and it can just mean that their life started as a plant, but it doesn’t mean that they’re not irritating, it doesn’t mean they’re not causing other issues,” Iti continues. “Contamination is a big problem because if a substance comes out of a plant, it’s still got to go through so many industrial processes to turn it into the functional ingredients – catalysts, synthesis, all sorts of unwanted material can be in your final product. It may have started off being squeezed out a plant, but it ends being a detergent with all sorts of other creepies in it. So we look at all of the plant-based materials, but in a holistic way, not just by looking at just the fact that it came from a plant, but asking is it healthy for you? Is it good for the environment?”

To ensure that its customers have the opportunity to know what’s in the products they’re using, ecostore details what’s in every product it produces, including homecare products where comprehensive ingredients lists aren’t legally required. “Our transparency is probably our best strength – we’re the only brand that if you go into any of our products you can actually trace them all the way back through the supply chain,” says Rands. “Every ingredient we use, you look at the international independent body who looks into the health effects of chemicals and we’ll show the rating.”

But isn’t ecostore worried about giving away its secrets?

“We’re here to convert an industry,” says Rands emphatically. “We want to be leaders. We want to knock down all the barriers for producing responsibility manufactured products and if our competitors end up using the same materials as us, that means they’re doing some good as well. We are here to do good on a large scale so it’s not just about protecting our space. We’re almost open source.”

It’s not just its ingredients and business practices that ecostore are hoping will become increasingly influential. Four years ago, it swapped all its packaging plastic for a new plastic made from sugar cane, which grows quickly and takes carbon out of the atmosphere while doing so.

Ecostore had initially investigated compostable packaging but quickly learnt that it wasn’t a viable option. It would need to be industrially composted and the facilities just don’t exist at scale in New Zealand. Plus, because it looked like regular plastic, many people just out it in the recycling bin even though it wasn’t recyclable. “You could call it compostable because, in theory, it was, but there was nowhere you could put it so you were just polluting the recycling stream,” says Rands.

Sugar plastic, on the other hand, is fully recyclable. It is nearly molecularly identical, except if you carbon dated it, one would be 100 million years old, one would be a few years old. “We aren’t using petrochemicals anymore so there’s no more oil being drilled to make or package ecostore products,” says Rands. And by using sugar plastic we’re actually capturing two kilos of carbon per kilo of material that we use.”

When it first went on the market, Malcolm assumed that his multinational competitors would grab the whole supply, but, he says, they’re so bottom-line driven that they wouldn’t take the slight hit to the bottom line by using the more expensive sugar plastic. “We were brave enough to lead by example and say we can do it,” he says. “We’ll take a hit to the bottom line because it’s the right thing to do.”

But ecostore isn’t stopping there. One of its current projects is building its refilling operation which has expanded from its flagship store in Freemans Bay, Auckland to over 60 stores throughout New Zealand, mostly independent health stores. “We’re just at the start of what’s going to be a really big change in packaging,” says Kraus. “It’s early days, but then that’s what we’ve always done, start those journeys into these new spaces.”

The flagship Auckland ecostore, where customers can refill their bottles (Image:supplied).

One of the most difficult things is changing consumer behaviour, but as we’re seeing with disposable plastic bags, sometimes habits don’t change until change is convenient. “People are so used to it being so easy,” says Kraus. “So what can we do to make refilling easier for them and make that consumer change more pleasurable?”

Backing up its commitment to eliminate plastics pollution, last month ecostore joined the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment, to help eradicate plastic waste and pollution at the source. The initiative is led by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation in collaboration with the UN. Companies that have signed the commitment will publish annual data on their progress to help drive momentum and ensure transparency. Ecostore has pledged to, over the next five years, make 100% of its plastic packaging reusable or recyclable, move away from single-use packaging by increasing bulk and refills sales by 140% and continue to invest in use of sugarcane plastic.

“What you’re up against is people don’t want it to be any harder than it is now,” says Rands. “One of our mottos has always been making it easy and pleasurable for you to make a difference. If it’s easier and it’s pleasurable, you’ll do it. But if it’s hard, people think that’d be nice to do but they won’t do it.”

And that’s at the core of what ecostore is about. Doing good by making good products that leave as little trace as possible while being easy to access and pleasurable to use. Ecostore products have to be holistically sustainable – not just ‘green’ or ‘eco-friendly’ or ‘plant-based’ – and they have to work. New ingredients are appearing all the time, new alternatives that are made from natural resources that are good for you and not harmful to the planet. For ecostore, that means always looking for ways to make things more sustainable, healthier, and more effective. Not doing what’s easiest or cheapest, but doing what’s right. And what works.

This content was created in paid partnership with ecostore.

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