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Rinse and repeat

In an era of fake news, too much news and political uncertainty, startups that offer practical, accessible solutions to world issues may just be our saving grace. Alice Griffin spoke to Zero Co’s founder Mike Smith about his no-nonsense approach to eliminating single-use plastic from Australian homes.

Published —
04.30.20
Writer —
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Save the planet. We hear about it, we talk about it, we campaign for it, but the magnitude of humanity’s toll on the world is so staggering that this pledge, for most of us, remains just that. A good intention; a point on the to-do list; a worry that lingers late at night between bouts of sleep. We all want to save the planet, but given the urgent and dire state of affairs, the task seems insurmountable.

We’re drowning in plastic. In 2018, 359 million tonnes of plastic was produced globally. An alarming report released that same year revealed that of all the plastic produced in the world, 91% of it isn’t recycled. In 2019, scientists for the Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimated that, by 2050, the amount of plastic in our seas will outnumber the fish. Global warming, once a scary yet faraway prospect, is now having real and tangible affects around the world – Australia has just endured its most devastating and severe bushfire season in recorded history. In the UK, the impact of recent floods has been devastating. Globally, we’re seeing fires and famine; crop blight, storms and hurricanes. 

It’s no longer a question of if plastic waste, climate change or air pollution is bad for the environment – only the most stalwart and nonsensical of deniers still manage to rebut these facts with a straight face. No, the questions we face now centre around how we can possibly tackle these issues. While governments and big corporations continue to placate and look the other way, a new generation of socially-minded startups and entrepreneurs are stepping up to the plate with a mission to find business-led solutions to the world’s vast environmental concerns. 

One of these startups is Zero Co, a company founded with the objective to eliminate single-use plastics in Australian homes by creating environmentally friendly cleaning and personal care products, delivered direct to consumer. These products are then returned to Zero Co, cleaned, and refilled to order, with the necessary dispensers and satchels created from recycled materials and plastic collected from the ocean. 

 

At only a year old, Zero Co is already making a name for itself as a game changer in the eco market. It was Australia’s most successful Kickstarter campaign in 2019, receiving more than AUD$740k (around £372,000) in funding from thousands of backers. Zero Co’s first nine products are due to be sent to customers in June of this year, with plans to expand its product portfolio well underway. The team is already plotting global moves, too.

To understand Zero Co’s rise, you only need to look at its founder, Mike Smith. An entrepreneur for 15 years and with a handful of successful businesses under his belt, Smith had just sold his latest venture, boutique Australian wine brand Cake Wines, and was travelling with his wife, Alyssa, when he had an idea. 

“The goal of our trip was to go to the most far-flung, remote parts of the planet. We did basically 12 months of camping and trekking, and we were just blown away by the amount of plastic rubbish that we saw everywhere we went,” Smith recalls. “You expect to see plastic when you go to dense population centres like China, India, Indonesia or whatever, but when you’re out in the middle of nowhere and you see plastic everywhere… it was quite disheartening.” 

After a year mulling it over, Smith returned to Australia in March of 2019 with a game plan. His business plan was complete in April, and by September, he was sharing his idea with venture capitalists and incubators. After months of knock-backs, investors started biting, but Zero Co still needed to fund its first production run. Enter, Kickstarter. The crowdfunding campaign was Smith’s first. Regardless, he and the team were quietly confident that it would do well, they just weren’t prepared for how well. 

“I think we hit our target [of AUD$250k] in two-and-a-half days. We went live at 9am and I remember the first time we clicked refresh, it went from zero to AUD$15,000 in one second … That was a very crazy experience for me; to see that kind of support from everyday people, it was amazing,” Smith says.

Sure, ambition, drive and his own self-belief played a part in Zero Co’s early success, but Smith is quick to credit timing, including the years upon years of campaigning by environmental organisations and other anti single-use plastic companies like KeepCup, which he believes gave Zero Co the runway it needed to break through. 

“I think we’ve reached a level of awareness in a broad section of society that that we do need to make some changes to the way we do things, otherwise the future’s not going to be that great,” Smith says. “Even five years ago to say that … it was a niche or marginalised viewpoint and you were deemed a bit of a crazy lefty if you said those kinds of things, but now that attitude is much more mainstream.”

When Zero Co launched its Kickstarter, China and India were refusing to take on any more of Australia’s plastic waste for recycling; the popular ABC documentary series, War On Waste, had recently wrapped its second season; and reports on how plastic was affecting Australia’s marine and bird life were in the media every other day. Australia’s single-use plastic problem was reaching its crescendo – the next step for Zero Co was to find a way to speak to the millions of Australians concerned about this and offer them a solution in the simplest terms possible.

With its laidback, practical approach and lighthearted tone of voice; Zero Co is the antithesis of defeatism. “I’m just sick of doom and gloom. I don’t want to see any more turtles with straws in their noses. You know?” says Smith. “So, what I said to everyone in the team [was], ‘we’re just going to provide a solution, and it’s not a perfect solution … but it’s a start.’ I just wanted to put this idea in the world and go, ‘Here’s something that you can do as an everyday Aussie today to help solve this problem. It’s convenient, there’s no judgement, it’s a solution, you can do it today. Come and join us.’”

Zero Co isn’t political. In fact, it strives not to be. Zero Co’s success lies in its ability to plainly get to the root of one of the most heightened political issues today, focus on what we can agree on – plastic pollution is bad – and offer a convenient solution; one that a good portion of Australians will be able to afford. 

Most eco-friendly brands lose customers on price and product efficiency, so the focus for Zero Co is making sure its products are competitive in both of these areas. Zero Co’s cost per product straddles the middle to upper end of supermarket brands, and Smith cites lab testing that shows the products work just as effectively as your standard supermarket buys, too. Convenience and customer service are also key in motivating people to make the switch. “If we can deliver a really great range of products that work, as well as the supermarket brands at the same price, and deliver them straight to your door. [If we can] do all that, while stripping away hundreds of millions of single-use plastic bottles every year, we hope that people will support us and rally behind that,” Smith says. 

Creating a business with an environmental mission takes guts. Accusations of greenwashing – where companies tout eco-friendly messaging more as a branding exercise, rather than a genuine commitment to change – are slung at businesses regularly, and there’s a lot of cynicism surrounding the eco market. Smith knew a business only addressing single-use plastic wasn’t enough: every element of Zero Co’s process needed to be environmentally conscious if it was to stand up to weary and discerning consumers. “There’s lots of layers to what we’re doing, it’s been very well thought out and I think people have responded to that,” Smith says. “We’re attacking the problem at both ends of the supply chain. We’re taking plastic out of the ocean, we’re stopping the production of new plastic, all of the products are environmentally friendly.” 

Smith follows a business model of radical transparency, which he says is morally sound. Considering we as consumers are savvier and have more access to information than ever before, it’s a good business move, too. “If you’ve got nothing to hide as a business then you shouldn’t hide anything, right? Like, why shouldn’t we tell customers how much it costs us to make a box of products and send it to them? Why shouldn’t we tell them, ‘This is the margin that we make and then out of that margin, we’ve got to pay wages and office costs and rent..’ The more real you can be, the more honest you can be with people, the more chance you have of getting them to support you, I think,” Smith tells.

The success of Zero Co provides a blueprint for brands looking to engage disenfranchised people keen for change on an overwhelmingly complex issue. While we’ve realised far too late that we know little about how Facebook, Google and other top dogs operate, the time is ripe for value-driven startups with nothing to hide. Zero Co, for one, is planning to capitalise on that.

“That’s the ultimate outcome: get as big as we can [as a company] and then hopefully pull as many companies in the right direction to copy us as quickly as possible. The more companies that move to a model the same as ours or similar to ours, then everyone wins. And look, if we make some money along the way, that would be a good thing too. [The UK’s] very much on the horizon.”

Find out more about Zero Co here…