Kiwi entrepreneur taking on the chemical internationals



CSR | Entrepreneur | Featured | Profiles | Sustainability

By Stephanie Zillman

It’s odd that business owners who are committed to environmental values and minimising their impact are often branded hippies, in a dismissive sort of way.

But if using entirely plant-based ingredients in his products means Malcolm Rands receives this label, then he’s ok with it.

For the past twenty years, New Zealand entrepreneur Malcolm Rands has run Ecostore – his plant-based detergents and body products company.

Now stocked New Zealand-wide, in over 1,800 supermarkets throughout Australia, as well as in the US and throughout Asia, there’s absolutely nothing that can be dismissed about Rands’ success.

His mission is simple: to make chemical-free products readily available to anyone who wants to buy them. Self-described as ‘a bit of a nomad’, Rands spends most his time between Auckland, and two and a half hours north at his permaculture ecovillage, where Ecostore was born.

“Ecostore came about from my frustration at how the whole not-for-profit thing worked. I’d worked in the sector for years, and found that it’s just completely unsatisfactory for sustainability, and any kind of long-term strategic thinking and fundraising gets limited by the board of directors. And I just thought ‘God there’s got to be a better way!’”

Following a major disappointment with the last project he worked on, Rands spent a year thinking about where his strengths lay, and what he was truly passionate about.

“I asked myself ‘What makes me so on fire that I can’t be stopped?’ – and that’s how I came to start up Ecostore.”

Rands wanted to set up his own brand so that in the future he could have a percentage go towards funding a completely separate not-for-profit organisation. “I wanted to set up a business that was completely stand alone, because in my experience, businesses inside not-for-profits are useless. You want it to be just a capitalist beast of a business, but with ethics, because that gives you the flexibility to have it all on the line – and you need those tensions for a business to work,” Rands says.

“And then the not-for-profit would be at arm’s length, and that’s our Fairground Foundation, but 10 per cent of our profits would go over to that. So that’s the model I set up 21 years ago, and it’s becoming much more of a common thing these days, it’s even got a name and it’s known as ‘conscious capitalism’.

Back in 1986 at the ecovillage Rands and his friends inhabited, they set themselves a challenge whereby all of the water used in the village, (which came from a nearby river reserve), would leave the property just as pure as when it entered.

“Now, I must admit we were probably a little bit up ourselves – we were sort of these organic gardeners saying ‘we’ll show the local cattle farmers how to do it’, and while our land practices had been very good, we were suddenly thinking about the water coming out of our homes as well. And no one in organics was really thinking about that, they’re only interested in what’s in their garden. But we started doing the analysis of what’s in our shampoos, our laundry powder, our dishwashing liquid – and we completely shocked to find out that we actually had more chemicals and toxins inside our home than what we had been putting on the land. And all this happening inside our precious home. So we had to start finding an alternative.”

By the time Rands came to be hunting down a business idea, he had already been making organic cleaning products for seven years. He realised that if the concept was important to him, and the people he knew, there was a good chance it would be important to other people too. Although Ecostore was a mail-order only business, nevertheless, it took off.

“It started out as mail-order only so that I could still work from home with no over-heads, and we had the whole of New Zealand – 4 million people – as our potential customers. But I needed a hell of a lot of people because only about 100,000 people would be brave enough to buy dishwashing liquid by mail-order. And I mean really, what a crazy thing to do, why would you buy your dishwashing liquid by mail order from some hippie up north, when you can buy it from the supermarket down the road for $1.99?  But there were enough green people and you couldn’t get that quality anywhere else, so it worked. Four years later we had become so successful that we moved to Auckland and set up a store, the first Ecostore, and it’s still actually the only one we have in the world,” Rands says.

Rands describes the problem he set out to solve as “What can little old me do about it? It’s all too hard, why should I be the one to suffer, and I just can’t be bothered.”

This is precisely why Rands stocks his products in supermarkets. While the purists may decree this to be against the ethics he espouses, stocking in supermarkets allows Rands to make the biggest impact he can. “Really, the relationship with the supermarkets comes down to the consumer, and since that’s where the majority shops, that’s where we’ve got to be.

“The thing is, you could be really ‘pure’ about the whole thing and only be sold in little neighbourhood shops and things, but you’re never going to make a difference in the mainstream if you’re only selling in places where 3 per cent of the population shops – it’s almost like a ‘reverse elitism’ in some ways. You need to make it easy for the people you want to reach.”

Rands believes the use of toxic chemicals in cleaners and body products is rampant and likens it to the Wild West. While there is significant testing and bureaucracy around the use of chemicals in commercial agriculture and in pet-care, “When you put poisons all over humans no one gives a shit.”

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