James Calver was still a university student when he had one of those classic ‘there must be a better way’ entrepreneurial moments.
As part of the work-placement component of his degree, he was coordinating major events – doing everything from sourcing packaging to booking local parks to working with councils on waste-minimisation strategies.
“At some events there would be something like 10,000 people turn up, eat, drink, make a mess then take off,” he recalls. “One day as we were watching the trucks drive away with all this rubbish I thought ‘there has to be a better way than all this going to landfill’.”
The ‘better way’ he and business partner Alex Magaraggia (the pair have been mates since primary school) came up with is sustainable packaging company Ecoware.
Returned to nature
All of Ecoware’s food packaging products – from coffee cups to cutlery to noodle boxes – are made from plant-based materials, such as plant starch and bamboo fibre. That means unlike traditional products made from non-renewable, oil-based plastics, Ecoware’s solutions are sustainably sourced.
And because they’re made from plant-based materials, Ecoware’s products are also biodegradable and commercially compostable, meaning once used the can be returned to nature (addressing that original landfill issue). It’s a trailblazing idea, and one that’s led Ecoware to become New Zealand’s first and only CarboNZero certified packaging company.
Despite coming up with the concept for Ecoware as uni students, it wasn’t the duo’s first foray into business. A previous venture, set up while in their early twenties, involved selling unbreakable glassware to the hospitality industry.
“We got a little bit of revenue, but while we realised it was never going to become the next big thing it was like a ‘university of business’ experience – we learnt a huge amount about all sorts of things, like how to develop and distribute a product.”
Outsourcing to experts
They spent two years planning and researching the Ecoware business before it launched six years ago, developing not just a unique product line but a thoroughly modern business model.
“We outsource a lot of the services we need to the experts,” explains Calver. “For example, Alex and I realised we didn’t really know how to run a warehouse and that we don’t really want to be running a warehouse because that’s not our strength. So all our warehousing and distribution is done by the best in the business. At the moment we have eight full-time staff and four full-time contractors, but the way I look at it is our job is to steer the ship.”
But it hasn’t always been plain sailing. Potential customers initially found it difficult to get their heads around Ecoware’s sustainable, ‘return to nature’ packaging concept. But after a couple of years Calver says “persistence beat resistance” and dogged efforts to get their concept across began paying off.
Over the past four years the company has grown a whopping 670 percent, and begun securing some impressive partnerships; when Christchurch City Council announced a trailblazing trial to make its events waste free, for example, it chose Ecoware as its exclusive food packaging supplier.
Consumers' voice the most powerful
Underpinning such impressive growth, Calver says, is growing consumer awareness of environmental issues and the accompanying demand for more sustainable solutions.
“The consumer's voice is ultimately the most powerful. We would be trying to get customers on board and having them tell us to go away, and then one day they’d just call and say ‘let’s do it’. When we’d ask what swung it they’d say ‘our customers started asking’.”
Calver likens running such a fast-growing operation to helming a yacht in a race – constantly having to tack one way and then the other as myriad obstacles cross your path. One particular challenge, he says, has been cashflow.
“Being a fast-growing inventory business, cashflow is king; if you can't buy stock, then you can’t sell it. When we got on board with BNZ’s invoice finance programme it gave us the ability to chase those bigger contracts, which is what we needed. That’s really opened up the growth potential for us.”
The dream is to go global with Ecoware, and the company is already making inroads into the Australian and Hong Kong markets. But while the ambition is for world domination, it’s one that’s firmly rooted in an ethical purpose.
“This brand is purpose-led and that’s authentic. What gets us going every day is that we have a business that’s changing New Zealand, and that’s making a positive difference in a social and environmental way.”