The traditionnal single-use packaging is a real environmental problem today. The easiest solution is simply to reduce them in our everyday life. Nevertheless, sometimes you have to use packagings… so do it sustainable! EcoPack is a South African supplier of compostable and biodegradable packagings, which has already sold 16 million cups in the country! Lauren Clack, who founded this organization four years ago, helps us to understand its model.
Interview conducted in February 2014.
SparkTour Africa: Why the traditional single-use packaging is a problem today?
Lauren Clack, founder of EcoPack: The main problem is the fact that all packaging pollutes and there is not really a way of getting around that, whether it is compostable or traditional oil-based packaging, it is always going to be left behind. What we would like to see is a closed loop cycle, where products are not taken to landfill, but reused or recycled. Essentially in South Africa a huge problem is that we are running out of space in our landfills. The two landfills in Cape Town are going to be full is the next two years, and then we are trucking our waste 40 kilometres out of Cape Town, which is an additional cost, additional carbon footprint… it is just an absolute waste! Ideally, we want to see the move away from single-use packaging that is not being recycled or composting, that is just being put in the bin!
‘What we would like to see is a closed loop cycle.’
How did you have the idea to sell biodegradable and compostable packaging?
We really want to form a company that made a difference to the environment, so something to do with sustainability. We were looking for a product that was not established in South Africa, and that was a relatively simple buy and sell model. When we were doing our research, we found an Australian company that had a packaging that looked amazing, what they were doing made sense for us, so we made contact with them! We found a way to work together and we essentially started importing the same products that they use. It is going from then!
Now, who are your main customers?
We try to stay small. We have supplied a national coffee chain with cups, although we did not do any distribution ourselves. We do not want to get involved in vehicles and transport; it is not our core business model. So, we focus on the smaller businesses: coffee shops, restaurants, frozen yoghurt containers, cutlery, picnics…
EcoPack was created four years ago, what was for you the biggest difficulty since the beginning?
When we founded the business in 2009 – and our first stock arrived very early in 2010 – the challenge for us has been the price, largely driven by the exchange rate fluctuation. For people who care about the environment, they prefer to pay a slightly higher price for a quality product, where they know that the impact is less on the environment. We fight a lot against people who have no knowledge about the environment impact, just because I think they are not interested, they are not aware! Another issue is moving the products around the country. Our biggest market is Cape Town; we would like to expand into Johannesburg too, and we are have a distributor in Durban at the moment. Because the product is not too heavy, but very bulky, our cartons are quite big, and the transport companies charge volumetrically. Sending products within the country is very expensive.
Today, a lot of young South-Africans want to embark on an entrepreneurial adventure to help society… could you give them an advice?
The only thing is just ‘get involved’! First try to find out what you are interested in, and learn more about it, study further if you can. Try to get involve in companies, do an internship, it is about who you meet and the opportunities that are presented that way. There are a lot of companies nowadays doing internships, offering advice and mentoring. I think it is a great way to understand how a business works. Sometimes people have a great idea, but they don’t necessarily have the business mind to go with that, and a great idea can fall flat if there is no business knowledge behind that. Then, the next step is maybe finding a partner who can support you financially. A huge challenge for entrepreneurs is getting finance!
‘The only thing is just ‘get involved’! […] It is about who you meet and the opportunities that are presented that way.’
How do you see your organization in five or ten years?
We are definitely looking at expanding into South Africa. We don’t want to grow into a massive organization, we want to keep our values, our integrity and keep our business ethical. We want to stay small, supporting the businesses and keep our integrity in terms of product line. We want to make sure that we stay with a sustainable packaging that makes some difference… and making sure people are enjoying coming to work!
A last word?
At the end of the day, we are a small group of people trying to make a difference, and having a good time doing that!