Why we became a B Corp: ecostore
13 December 2021 at 3:56 pm
Since launching in the early 90s, ecostore has gone from being a mail-order company to a brand stocked in all major supermarkets. We sat down with Romain Mereau, ecostore’s sustainability project manager, to ask him why becoming a B Corp certification was the next logical step.
From the moment Malcolm and Melanie Rands founded ecostore from their home in an eco-village on New Zealand’s Northland coast, sustainability was at the heart of the brand.
In the early 90s, and already living both off-grid and off the land, the Rands were inspired to find a solution to chemical-laden household products being used in the home. They realised that their passion for organic farming was worth nothing if the products being used inside the house were damaging the outside environment.
The idea for ecostore was born.
In 1993, the Rands launched it first as a mail-order company before opening a flagship store in Auckland in 1995. From that point onward the business has continued to grow — launching in Australia in 2004, Asia in 2016 and winning countless awards along the way.
Today, if you’re a conscious consumer there’s a high chance you’ve used an ecostore product or two.
The Rands passed the ecostore baton to another New Zealand family, that of Peter Kraus, in 2013 and stepped away from the business completely in 2015. Now led by Pablo Kraus, the brand’s sustainable heart beats on, and, for the team, becoming B Corp certified was the next logical step.
In 2021, after first starting out on its B Corp journey in 2018, the business became a B Corp.
We sat down with ecostore’s sustainability project manager, Romain Mereau, who led the business through the certification, and asked him how he found the process, what he learnt about the brand along the way and why, when the brand was already known to be so values-led, was it so important to get that B Corp certification.
When did ecostore begin the process of becoming a B Corp?
We first looked at it in 2018 and there was a lot of initial enthusiasm but then the process kind of stalled. I came onto the project at the end of 2020 to pick it up and see what we could achieve. We worked through the Business Impact Assessment (BIA) over a nine-month period before getting certified this year.
Were you already working for ecostore or were you brought in to do the BIA?
I’ve worked for ecostore for 12 years but have been working remotely on projects. The pandemic brought me back to New Zealand and so I was able to step into a much more substantial project.
For a brand that built sustainability into its foundations, and was known for being values-driven, why was becoming a B Corp so important?
It’s nothing too radical! We’re a values-led brand and everyone who works for us, and buys from us, understands what they’re signing up to. From an early stage, ecostore has been very focused on transparency, and doing the best for people and planet has always been at the core of what we do. We saw, however, that going through the BIA gave a level of scrutiny to our operations that we ordinarily might not have had. That was hugely valuable to us as a business.
It also formalised business processes for us. I think that as you become larger as a business, processes become more important. Ecostore has now become a global business and we’re in more countries, doing more manufacturing and reaching more people. We’re only going to grow and so I think that having all the right processes in place will only serve us in the future. Particularly when it comes to safeguarding the values the business was founded on.
As the business continues to grow do you think being a B Corp helps from a global perspective?
At the moment we’re selling in Australia and New Zealand, obviously, and then we sell into around 14 other countries mostly focused around Asia. It’s been really interesting to see how consumers react to our products in Asia, particularly in China. A lot of the products in the Chinese market are counterfeit products — they’re not very safe and it can be hard to know what’s good and what isn’t.
If you are a foreign brand with transparency and your values are a core part of the product you’re selling then that’s incredibly appealing to the market. Everyone in China wants to protect their family and use safe products and do their best for the environment, same as everyone in Australia and New Zealand who buys our products. The Chinese consumers are just having to look at what they choose to buy through an additional lens.
Did being a business so grounded in its values make going through B Corp accreditation easier, do you think?
Oh, for sure. I think that it would have been way easier for us than other businesses. For example, we’d already done a lot of work on sustainable practices. Going through accreditation means you have to formalise your commitments, you can’t just say you’re doing something and not have the documentation to back it up. So, for us, our manufacturing is done to a really high standard and we have certifications to show that. We’ve got ISO environmental management systems, quality management, and those kinds of systems which are separate to B Corp but are formalised processes to ensure that everything we make is made responsibly, that any waste is disposed of responsibly and our manufacturing is always optimised and minimised for negative impacts. Having all that stuff in place really helped us a lot.
We’ve also been in a carbon offsetting program for quite a long time, which is another way we look to measure and offset our emissions. I think that if we had none of these things in place, going through the BIA would have been insanely daunting. However, saying that, I do like the accreditation process for that reason. It’s not just a box-ticking exercise. And it’s also not just something that once you get B Corp status you can just forget about it — it’s hard to maintain.
Yes! And you need to go through the process every three years…
That’s right! And, you know, as a business you should always be looking to improve. The depth of it can be super daunting, and it does require a lot of commitment, which is why you need people who are senior in the company to buy into the process. It’s not easy.
Did ecostore have to make any changes to get through the assessment?
Something we did do was get in place a supplier code of conduct. We already had layers of scrutiny when it came to choosing who we work with but there was nothing formalised.
At the start of this year we rolled out a certified code of conduct, which I’m really pleased with. It’s got an incredible amount of detail but it required us to look into human rights and supply chain, for example, and then formalise our commitments in those areas.
At the moment we’re not in a position to audit our suppliers based on the code of conduct but the first phase was to roll it out and ask them to agree to what we’ve stated. And then we have to trust that they will.
Eventually, the business will grow to the size where we’re able to apply more scrutiny to our main suppliers. Right now our code of conduct is intense in terms of standards, human rights and the environmental protection we expect from our suppliers and I do believe the work we’ve done so far is meaningful.
And as you were going through the process was there anything you came across that you thought the business could improve on?
Oh, everything! I think you have to look at it that way. There are also many things that we look at and think “wow, okay, how would we even start doing that?”
For us, specifically, it was questions around supply chain biodiversity management and supply chain biodiversity. And that stuff is tricky for us to even consider. How would we measure biodiversity impact through our supply chain let alone do anything about it? So that’s something that we just don’t even know about yet. And we definitely don’t have the resources to do it.
So, what I’m really saying is that once you get into the BIA there are so many areas to dive into and find places you can improve that you need to focus on where you can have the most meaningful impact. An area that we are looking to focus on is ensuring all our workers are on a living wage and we want to be doing more work in the community. We have a long history of donating products and supporting schools and community fundraisers but I think there’s an opportunity for us to improve on our community impact and how we measure and track that.
No real red flags then?
I haven’t seen any red flags that have made me go “oh, my God”. And I think that’s because of the kind of company that we are. For sure there are areas we want to prioritise, like water management. We use water in our manufacturing process and we have water capture and cleaning systems on-site and that came up as an area where we want to do better and so we’re installing a new system next year, which will allow us to not just capture and clean the water but directly reuse a very large portion of that water on site. It gives us a much smaller water footprint as well.
Do you think being a B Corp is important to your customers?
Consumer awareness of the certification doesn’t seem to be very high currently but we’re expecting to see that change at a more pace because of the boom in the number of B Corps over the last few years. And I think that the more those brands talk about it the more it will drive awareness.
We didn’t become a B Corp purely for consumer awareness. We are in a space where we have a lot of customers who are passionate about the environment but for most people they wouldn’t recognise it.
The value for us is how it improves our own practice and we can put it on our packaging and then have a conversation about it.
Where we are finding it helping is within the industry in which we play, which is fast-moving consumer goods and we’re on the shelves of the big supermarkets. It’s a very competitive space, particularly in Australia, and it’s tough to get ranged in a supermarket. And so when we’re talking to the supermarkets about them stocking our products, they want to know what makes us different to the 10 other eco brands they’re considering stocking.
Being a B Corp helps us get a foot in the door where we might otherwise not. I also think it’s a really robust and meaningful accreditation in the business world and we’ve found we’ve received a lot of respect for going through the process. People have said to us, “wow, becominga B Corp can be hard to do and so congrats.”
That in itself is just awesome.