Scoop Review of Books
Network

Sustainability, one bottle at a time

Ecoman: From Ecoman: From a Garage in Northland to a Pioneering Global Brand by Malcolm Rands (Random House, $$39.99)
Reviewed by Peter Kerr

Before starting the review of ‘Ecoman’ by Malcolm Rands, I was expecting it to be a slog; a tedious, hair-shirted, finger-wagging tale of me being told off for existing.

Well, delightedly, it was breeze. Rands, at one stage describes writing for the initial mail-order catalogue business that launched what has become the ecostore range of cleaning and bodycare products as, “keep things as brief and as straightforward as possible.”

This 256 page part autobiography, part business and life philosophy, part questioning of modern commercial practice, is just that.

The promise of all the products sold by Rands and his wife Melanie since launching their business in 1993 is to create safer, healthier products with no nasty chemicals.

To be clear too, Rands started business so he could put some of its profits and eventually his passion into his not-for-profit Fairground Foundation. As he says, it has taken him longer to achieve this than he wished, but he’s getting there.

Rands has stuck to the idea that “simple is hard, long is lazy”. It is well written, accessible to the layperson, and full of more than enough business advice that it easily justifies being a tax write off for those purchasing it through a company.

One small example on page 121 – “launch in spring, because spring is a time of new beginnings. Spirits are rising and it’s a really great time for something new to happen. And that’s not just me being all gooey – it is quite a well-known business fact.”

And throughout the candid acknowledgement of his own transformation from skinny, shy, smart non-sporting kid from Karori, Wellington, to eco warrior selling sustainability one bottle at a time, Rands constantly reminds readers that this is not some hippy trip he and the rest of us are on. In fact, it is the opposite.

Though 95% of ecostore products are now sold through supermarkets, the original business started out under the couple’s house in a communally-owned-land village called Mamaki 40 minutes from Whangarei.

In drumming up business, and building a mail-order database, Rands (including his then two young daughters) would attend different shows around the country.

“I was averaging about six shows a year, and made some surprising discoveries. The people who were using my laundry liquid were not the people I met at the New Age festivals as I had expected. I actually found a lot of the New Age people to be sort of ungrounded, interested in wonderful spiritual things but not all that practical. But gardening people – they’re practical. …The best place of all to get a new customer was the Ellerslie Flower Show.”

One of the book’s major positives is the acknowledgement Rands gives of his own faults and mistakes, and the business and life lessons he’s taken onboard as a result of this learning.

Now, some of this may be a post-factor rationalisation as he’s sat down and wrote the (so-far) story of his life. That is, working out why or attributing a reason he did something, after the event. Having never written an autobiography myself, I suspect this is the opportunity for honest or self-deluded introspection, but, unless Rands is being cleverer-than-clever, he’s straight-shooting.

Initially, in what is mostly a chronologically-based story (after introducing Mamaki), I was worried that Rands was going to have a book full of self-justifying statements and questions. At page 20 he asks, “Imagine the difference if you said to yourself, I’m going to own this land for 100 years. What choices would you make? If you were setting up the land for your great-grandchildren, how would you do it?

Rands does pose other life and style questions through the book (but luckily not too much). They fit. Equally, there’s some hint of a second book’s potential as he raises some interesting ideas.

As a trained radiographer (enabled him to travel the world while working), he came to realise he was working in the “sickness industry”, where the medical industry finds no signals towards making everyone healthy. “Anyone who wants to make money can see that it is much better to keep people sick all the time because that is where the money is.”

At one stage too he riffs on the theme of our culture and what it is to be a Kiwi. He acknowledges we can be passive-aggressive being “nice and supportive, even when we really know that someone is on the wrong track with a bad idea.” He believes that Kiwis have become white Polynesians, with Pakeha having morphed into Pasifika people.

But most of the book is about the broad notion of brand. Some of his early study and learning was about KFC, and the relationship between its founder Colonel Sanders and the company. From him and others (in those early days), “I was learning about the emotional power of a brand”.

Much of the underlying theme is on this, especially authenticity and trust around it.

“A brand is about every single thing…It is also how you treat the people you do business with, as part of your brand. It is not just how you treat customers, but how you treat your suppliers and how you treat your team…That grungy eco image was a big barrier to the mainstream – and we were always interested in the mainstream. That was why we opened ourselves up as authentically as possible, and shared our life story, because I believe you don’t listen to arguments or to reason – you listen to people you can relate to.”

He has convinced me to be more concerned for myself and for the wider environment around what cleaning and bodycare products I use. As he says, companies (though ecostore does) don’t have to say what is in their formulations, and hundreds of thousands of these ingredients’ effects are unknown through absorption by our largest organ, our skin.

Rands has written an interesting, thought-provoking book, and it is published by a reputable company in Random House. In a world where publishing anything in hardcopy is increasingly seen as a risk, it obviously also sees merit, and a dollar, in putting his ideas out there.

********

Ecoman book website, with free chapter, at ecoman.co.nz