Feature

Eco-entrepreneurs

Green Lifestyle magazine

Escaping listless days at a corporate desk, these entrepreneurs had green dreams and took the daunting step to make them reality.

Sean and Kelli

Sean and Kelli from Pure Pod, www.purepod.com.au.

Credit: Mark Lefebvre

Matt-Ward-story

Matt Ward, Honest to Goodness (www.goodness.com.au).

Credit: Gail Kendrick

RAITHE HANDIMAN

Raithe Handiman's business Blessed Earth (www.blessedearth.com.au) started from the bottom up.

BEATRICE KUYUMGIAN-RANKIN

Beatrice Kuyumgian-Rankin started The Hemp Gallery (www.hempgallery.com.au) to offer a promising alternative to toxic materials.

RACHEL BENDING

Rachel Bending helped pave the way for carbon neutral fashion in Australia.

Credit: Fran Flynn from Frangipani Creative

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KELLI DONOVAN & SEAN WATSON

Created at the end of 2006, realising a long-held dream, eco-fashion label Pure Pod (www.purepod.com.au) is all about sustainable, practical clothing.

Kelli: “I’d always felt like a fish out of water in the fashion industry. I’d wanted to start an eco-fashion label ever since I studied at TAFE, which was over 20 years ago. I learnt my trade in big companies that sold to department stores, so I’d travel all around the world designing garments. Once I’d left, I knew I couldn’t go back into the normal mass-production, polluting industry. I had to do my own thing, so I did.
“I see Pure Pod as bringing to the market a product with a conscience. Once I start telling people the story about the fabrics and why I do it, people fall in love with the product and want to wear it.
“One of the biggest lessons in starting a business was all of your money goes back into it, and it taught me to be humble with everything I purchase. It made me more environmentally aware of what I’m spending my money on from a personal and family level.
“I love being my own boss, and running our own label I’ve had to put on all sorts of hats. We do the whole works from production, design, purchasing the fabrics, selling, everything. I work with my partner Sean, and we’ve both got the drive and passion to make it work. I don’t think I’d still be going if it wasn’t for Sean’s input – we’re a team.
“It’s really important to support Australian design, because our fashion industry is dying. People need to think about what they’re buying.”
Sean: “I love being able to educate and pass on the knowledge we have. Bringing to the mainstream fashion market an awareness of sustainable fabrics and ethical manufacturing is really important, as is working for ourselves.
“I’ve learnt you must maintain your goals and focus when building a new business from scratch; everyone will have their opinion, but believe in your dream and focus on where you would like to take it. A good business plan really helps.
“The carbon tax is a step in the right direction. Businesses need to think about their processes, and understand what parts they can change straight away, and what parts need to be adjusted.”

MATT WARD

Honest to Goodness (www.goodness.com.au) have been selling certified organic and all-natural food products since 2002.

“Previously, I was working for large growers selling nuts to big retailers whose sole way of purchasing food is price-driven. I was in this strange situation where the growers wanted to put the best product on the shelf, but the retailers wanted the cheapest product on the shelf. I could see that, for not a lot more cost, you could put a far better product on the shelves.
“But the big end of town tends to say value is price, whereas I could see there were other values we need to associate with food. For the mass market retailers, price is the easy way to sell food, but when you’re standing behind a table full of nuts at a market stall, you have the opportunity to engage with customers and engage them around values other than price, or alongside price.
“I firmly want a business that sells food our customers want to buy, that keeps them healthy and sustains them. I think what needs to change is that we, as a society, start to value broader considerations in food other than just price. And that comes with increased interest in where food comes from, how it’s grown, and better education.
“We’re lucky that most of our customers have these broader values and considerations around food, and I think it’s becoming more mainstream that people are starting to value the sustainability, integrity, authenticity, health, and nutrition profile of food – not just the price.
“Nobody goes through life without copping a few knocks on the chin and having a few small setbacks, but I think if you’re passionate and believe in what you’re doing, then those setbacks are just small obstacles in your road that you can swerve around and then continue on your path. They’re not road blocks.
“My usual advice, talking to anyone thinking of starting up a business, is to start small and see how it goes. Evolve around feedback, and experiment, rather than bet your house on something you think will work. Wait until you get some feedback from the customer.
“I think small business has this fantastic competitive advantage in the current environment. You can align your interests with the interests of the green consumer and, hand on your heart stand behind it and carry some authenticity with your offer. It’s what big guys can’t do. They can’t on one hand have a range of organic products and say they care about Australian farmers and then, in the same newspaper they’re running those ads, tie up the whole business section with stories of them beating growers over the head on price and making people drop their asking price by 10 per cent because they have market dominance. They have a problem, and I think that’s a competitive advantage for the smaller guys.”

RAITHE HANDIMAN

Starting the journey into organic homewares in 2004, Blessed Earth (www.blessedearth.com.au) really did begin from the bottom up.

“The work I was doing before was not fulfilling or satisfying. I was working for a large corporation and I was part of a system that really wasn’t serving any purpose. The realisation that the corporate world held nothing for me had been there for quite some time. But Blessed Earth came up when my partner at the time wanted to buy cotton organic underwear and couldn’t get it anywhere. So we took it upon ourselves to work out how to make it.
“The difficulty back then was there was no real market acceptance of organic cotton – that was yet to come. There was no awareness that we should be wearing organic cotton next to our skin.
“We started off in underwear, and then realised that wasn’t going to keep dinner on the table, so we got into clothing, then bed linen, and then we started to make mattresses. After that we moved to what you see online now. But it’s been a long process of trial and error trying to get to that point of working out what can be made well, and what people really want. Now we specialise in wool mattresses but we also have a range of lifestyle products. We found that the customers looking for our organic underwear and bed linen also want a range of things all from the same place. We tend to get orders in a lot of different categories.
“What I really love about Blessed Earth is creating new products. A lot of our products are something we developed, to offer something that wasn’t there before and that’s very satisfying.
“The biggest lesson I learnt was perseverance. As a business, I don’t know how we survived the first five years.
“I think consumers are already saying they’re not satisfied with the department store mentality, which really has it’s head buried in the sand by offering the same old stuff coming out of China. People are looking around online to find more sustainable options because the department stores don’t have ethics that support sustainability.
“The big hurdle for people who want to start a business is often they don’t understand business or marketing. They set out with the best of intentions thinking it’s all going to be easy and it isn’t. I recommend the government’s New Enterprise Incentive Scheme (www.deewr.gov.au/NEIS) to anyone starting out.”

BEATRICE KUYUMGIAN-RANKIN

As our drought-stricken country relies increasingly on toxic materials, The Hemp Gallery (www.hempgallery.com.au), started in 2003, offers a promising alternative.

“Ray [Beatrice’s husband and business partner] and I never really set out to start a business; we just grew organically as the public became more aware of hemp products. For us, it was love for the diversity and beauty of Australia as our adopted country and wanting to protect it that led us to start The Hemp Gallery as well as the NSW Industrial Hemp Association (www.ihansw.org.au).
“We wanted to inform everyone about the benefits of industrial hemp – such as for food, clothing, shelter, and fuel – and also to connect with other like minded people interested in ethical and sustainable manufacturing.
“As environmentalists, we could not stand idle, watching the damage done to our earth by large greedy corporations trying to control nature, chopping down trees, fracking, genetically modifiying foods, and putting chemicals in everything. One day you just have to stop and ask yourself ‘what can I do, in my little way?’ and that was the start for us. From there on, the learning has been constant.
“Ten years ago, there were not many hemp products available for families to use. We decided to invest in hemp fabrics and manufacture bed linen in Australia but, without design background, we realised it would be better to introduce the organic fabrics to Australian artists and designers so they could create the range of products we now promote for them. We have grown to stock everything from hemp lounges, curtains, and even office partitions, which all absorb toxic fumes to create better indoor air quality. I enjoy empowering people with information and choices while working to promote the industry.
“It’s sad to see people working at jobs they don’t like, but feel they have to continue. Changing vocation comes down to passion.
“It’s been hard work. Ethical and sustainable products initially cost more, however with the carbon tax in place we will see some major changes happening. One thing we’ve noticed, is how people come to thank you for what you’re trying to do – it’s been very rewarding. If, at the end of the day, you still have a smile on your face and a warm fuzzy feeling inside, then I think you’re doing pretty well.”

RACHEL BENDING

The distinctive designs of Bird Textile (www.birdtextile.com.au) came into being in 2002, and have since paved the way for carbon neutral fashion in Australia.

“I spent most of my 20s working in a very fast-paced world and I climbed the career ladder quite quickly in the UK. I was headhunted to work for a public relations offshoot of Saatchi and Saatchi, but after several years I burnt out and decided to quit. It was a bit of an epiphany, but it was something that built up over time as I became disillusioned with the corporate world I was living and working in.
“I suppose if you spend a bit of time with high-profile people, in a very well-paid job, going to all the right parties, it all seems very fabulous from the outside, but, actually, it’s pretty soulless. So I made a decision to really come back to my roots. I moved to the other side of the world – to Australia – and in making the decision to get back to community and nature I ended up living at an alternative community devoted to sustainable living on the mid-north coast.
“After living in this tiny little shack in an alternative community with solar, I thought, this is crazy, we’ve got all this sun here in Australia, and we should be using it and harnessing the power of the sun. So it made sense when I started the business to start running it on purely 100 per cent renewable energy. As far as I know, nobody else in Australia was using renewable energy to produce textiles for fashion at that time... In addition, we were the first business in Australia to become entirely certified climate neutral in 2004.
“As a green business, what you have to learn – and hopefully this will improve over time – is to be resilient when competing with mainstream brands who are often manufacturing cheaper, lesser quality products. But don’t be afraid to negotiate with suppliers and retailers. We’re all doing business in a new way now; there are new rules and so it’s important not to be afraid to push away from traditional business models and ask for things to be done differently. In my experience, if you explain why, people are often quite open to listening to your reasons.
“I think that in another 10 years’ time, the kind of ethical purchasing decisions that people are making are going to be mandatory, it’s shifting so fast. So I think it’s really essential that businesses take it on board now, and really make the changes they need to become more sustainable.
“If you want to take the green plunge, absolutely do it, but be prepared to live fairly lean because it does take a few years to get on your feet. I have no regrets about starting my business, I’ve learnt a lot along the way and it’s been a very enriching experience.”

**Unfortunately, Rachel's business Bird Textile is no longer making their gorgeous products, but there is a limited selection of old stock still available for sale from the website.