Ryan Swenson of Officeworks:

A case study for reducing waste

Please note that this episode was recorded before Covid-19 preventive measures really started to impact businesses and people in Australia.

In this episode of Plastics Revolution, I chat with Ryan Swenson, the Head of Sustainable Development at Officeworks about their initiatives towards a zero waste to landfill goal.

Ryan Swenson of Officeworks

Five years ago, Officeworks created its first long-term sustainability strategy with the ultimate goal of sending zero waste to landfill. While overall operational waste has increased during this time, they’ve slashed the amount they send to landfill by nearly half and are now recycling 82% of their waste – providing a great case study for other businesses to follow.

We hope you enjoy this episode of Plastics Revolution with Ryan Swenson of Officeworks.

Companies, Organisations and Products Mentioned in this Podcast:

Greening Australia


Hosted by Tammy Ven Dange
Produced by Jonny Puskas
Theme Music by Joseph McDade
All Rights Reserved 2020

Full Transcript

This transcript has been modified for clarity.


T: Tammy Ven Dange, Host
R: Ryan Swenson, Head of Sustainability Development


T: Ryan, welcome to the show.

R: Thanks Tammy. It’s great to be here.

T: I originally contacted Officeworks a few months ago. I read somewhere that your Melbourne store in Ringwood had done a significant reduction of waste. In fact, they hit a 95% reduction in waste. And I just thought that’s incredible for really any business to be able to achieve such numbers, but especially one that was a part of a larger organisation.

T: I wanted to know specifically what were those people doing at that store that allowed them to achieve such success? I understand that you’re working with them on this initiative.

R: Yeah, absolutely. And it really is a great example of what can be achieved through the leadership of the store. But also, as you pointed out, part of a larger organisation making sure the right foundations are there to enable them to achieve those type of results.

R: From our perspective, back in 2015, we developed our first long term sustainability strategy up until 2020. And that was really developed by talking to a number of our stakeholders, looking at global best practice, basically identifying those issues of most importance and then setting targets out for the five years.

R: Our strategy included supporting the aspirations of our team and communities through initiatives like balanced leadership and supporting disadvantaged students, supporting products and services in sustainable and responsible ways through ethical supply chain, sustainable paper. And importantly, reducing our environmental impact so through emissions, helping customers recycle.

R: But ultimately working towards zero waste to landfill. And having that long term target obviously set the goal as a business and as our team members, to work towards. But, whilst it’s important to have a target, it’s not necessarily the motivation for everyone. And we’ve really had a program of embedding this as a culture across the business, through a number of initiatives.

Operational waste reduction

T: I did look at your plan this morning about your operational waste reduction. It said that in the 2018/19 report, you achieved an 82% operational waste reduction. From 82% percent operational waste reduction from your program, or that amount, I suppose, was recycled, from 76% percent before. Now, how do you identify what’s operational waste?

R: Yeah, ultimately it’s everything that we generate across our business. Whether that be through our support offices at our distribution centres, or at our stores. We have 167 stores and about 8000 team members. So, it’s really everything that comes into our business which is considered waste.

T: So, that includes packaging for your products as well?

R: Yeah, it includes packaging, things like the pallets that they get sent to stores on. (It includes) obviously a lot of cardboard in stores, but also things like faulty furniture that we have return issues. And also, when we look at the support office, obviously different waste streams. More food waste, for example. So, all of those streams combined.

T: If you had an 82% reduction across all the different offices and warehouses and such like that …

R: Tammy, I should probably correct you. It’s 82% recycling rate.

T: Okay.

R: 21% reduction.

T: Got it. Okay. So, 82% of all your waste is recycled?

R: Mm hmm.

T: And how is it then that this particular store achieved a 95%?

R: We take quite a strategic approach in terms of how we enable our stores to hit those targets. If I look at broadly what we’re doing, first of all, it is about making sure we’ve got the right infrastructure, back to basics. We’ve got the right bins in the right place. It’s also making sure we’ve got the right service schedule. And this was one that looked like a really obvious area we could drive change quite quickly.

R: When I started in the role – traditionally waste services are: you go to tender, you set the schedule and you leave it until the next review comes up. But it was obvious. If we were having a much greater focus on reducing what was sent to landfill and ultimately putting recyclable material in the right bin, then we needed to be a lot more agile and responsive around how we adjust our service schedules.

Behaviour change and culture

R: So, one area that actually drove change quite quickly was moving most stores – we were on a three-metre bin and a weekly collection. We looked at the data, and we changed those stores to a fortnightly pickup. And obviously, when someone from support office makes a change to a service like waste, it’s generally not received that well in store land.

R: But whilst there was a bit of short-term pain over a couple of weeks, it did provide that trigger. That meant team members had to reconsider, which bin they put it in to make sure they essentially could have their general waste bin last.

R: There’s some stuff that we can do from a central function to help motivate it. We’ll get it moving in the right way. But ultimately, it comes down to having the right behaviours. And as we know, behaviour change is probably the hardest part. And when we talk about waste and recycling, ultimately, we just want to have a culture that’s really about waste avoidance and resource recovery.

R: I think what Ringwood have done is a great example of that. They saw the target that we set and that was going to be relevant to them. They said, “Well, we can get to 95%.” Led by the store manager, Brendan, he obviously had the passion. But I think as an organisation, recognising that it was a priority for the business also gave him the opportunity to leverage that. And he was pretty creative when we talk about behaviour change.

R: One thing he picked up on pretty quickly with a team of 40 was that, it’s on every one of those team members to make sure they’re putting their waste in the right bin. In the early days, he was getting a bit frustrated that he’d find cardboard in the general waste, where he’d find bottles, plastic bottles.

R: So, he put in a roster where the team would have to sort the bins. One team member per week and get the right waste in the right bin. Essentially, he said to them, “We’ll stop the roster when it’s all in the right bin.” And so as you can imagine, it really changed that discussion and that culture around ownership and accountability. That was probably one of the first key steps.

R: But then really looking at waste generation elimination, he then put in initiatives like his own compost bin that was outside one of the gardens in the car park. So, through these processes of identifying and getting the buy-in across the team, (he) was able to move away from the general waste bin, through our waste provider, altogether. And move to a small 240-litre—a household sized bin—collected via the council.

R: What I love about this is it’s not just environmental benefit. He’s eliminated his waste expenses for that store. Also, the unintended benefit is the compost in the car park is actually now forming a community link. So, people from the apartments next door have been coming in, putting their coffee grounds in there. And there’s a local community garden that comes and collects the compost for their allotment. It’s a really nice example of hitting all the sweet spots and ultimately just embedding that as our own culture within our store.

Sustainability performance targets

T: It’s so interesting to hear about these extra initiatives that that store manager took. Because it was great that you guys were already setting some high targets at a corporate level. But I imagine that like most places, when you’re working in a large organisation or company, sometimes it’s hard for the individual employee to feel like they can make a difference.

T: What, in the cultural behaviour and initiatives that you guys have put in place, has prompted someone like Brendan to be able to say, “Hey, look, I think we could do this. And I know I have support to do these changes?” Because a lot of people would feel like they’re disempowered to make anything significant happen when they’re part of such a large organisation.

R: Yeah, it’s a really good point. And I think a lot of it talks to the commitment from our leadership team. So, it really does start from the top. It talks to having that strategic approach to our sustainability strategy and identifying those priorities and setting targets and working to them.

R: It really talks to celebrating the successes. We call out the great work that the likes of Brendan and his team are doing, because it is over and above the day to day running a store. But also it comes down to looking at how we want to operate as a business.

R: For example, our store teams are not just measured on their financial performance, but through their balanced scorecard. Looking at things around where they’re performing on their recycling targets, how much waste they’re collecting from customers and how they’re supporting the local communities. So, it is taking the lens that is ultimately operating a sustainable and responsible business, it is better for business, as well as being better for everyone and the planet.

T: So, you were just saying that your employees, or the store itself, is being measured on a balanced scorecard that includes things like recycling?

R: Yeah, correct.

T: So, both employees and the store? That’s incredible because most people, I think would say “The store manager is responsible for that.” But the individual employee scorecard or evaluation will look very.

R: I would say it’s a shared effort. And those stores operate as teams in order to achieve those targets.

Tip the bin exercise

R: It is very transparent around where they need to focus on. As I mentioned, one of the challenges is that behaviour change component. So, whilst we have the target, how do you really get the buy-in? And one of the opportunities that was obvious to me is actually just having a look in the bin.

R: If you look at the work Craig Reucassel did on the War on Waste where they tipped the bin upside down for the school and have them sort it, you really quickly got a visual of the opportunity just to put the right waste in the right bin.

R: So, we started a program back in 2018. First of all, we did it at our support office. We took a few people out, and we tipped up our general waste bin. And, we saw pretty quickly there were some easy ways we could improve our waste management.

R: One example was there were half-full rolls of large toilet paper that were in the general waste and there was a number of them. And we worked out it was around $8000 a year just of toilet paper.

R: When we went back and spoke to the cleaners about it, we found out that they were changing the rolls every day, whether that were full or empty. As opposed to waiting until we used it. So, that was an easy fix. And it spoke to the need to get an education session with our cleaners and talk about it.

R: But I also noticed that there were some of my documents in a general waste bin. And I was certain had put them in the paper recycling bin. And so that again spoke to that issue of making sure that the cleaners were putting the right waste in the right bin. It’s a great example. And it helped us implement a lot of change at support office, like coffee cup recycling.

R: So, then we looked at “What does that look like for our store teams?” And taking a leaf out of the War on Waste book, we identified five stores in New South Wales. We said to them, “Look, you’re coming for a day just to learn a bit more about recycling.” And unbeknownst to them, we took their general waste bins and we had them at the facility. And on the day we said to them, “All right, well, actually, what you’re going to do is sort your general waste bin, to see the opportunity of how you could reduce waste in your store.”

R: It could’ve gone one of two ways. But, the passion of the team was just like, “Oh, wow, I can’t wait to see what’s in there.” And they were actually so engaged about it. And what that did, as we spent the day sorting the waste. You could easily see that, “Oh, here’s some plastic that should have been recycled. Here’s some cardboard that should’ve been recycled.”

R: We then workshopped through the cause and effect. “How did it end up there? And what changes could you make?” Through that, they went back to their store and really took ownership and embedded the change. We’ve since rolled it out to about 25 stores.

R: One comment when I was over in WA recently. At the end of the day, a guy said, “We used to go to the pub and have our team days and now we’re sorting through waste bins.” But it kind of spoke to that power of coming together around a common purpose and also seeing the issue firsthand. And the opportunity that they can make a difference in their store.

T: Yeah. I think sometimes those practical exercises are probably the most meaningful for someone who might otherwise think it’s the cleaner’s job to sort the waste.

R: Yeah absolutely.

Using data to measure waste reduction

T: So, how do you measure waste reduction? (Earlier) I got the numbers mixed between the reduction of waste in your company, as well as the percentage that’s been recycled. Obviously, two different numbers. How do you actually measure waste when you’re measuring the various stores?

R: Yes, I think it comes back to making sure we’ve got the right waste provider in the first instance. And before we really address this strategically, we identify with the need to go to market and find that right provider. A key part of that was making sure that they had good data and good reporting that was available to us in a timely manner.

R: And having the one provider that does look at the weight that’s going into our general waste bins and also the weight of all the recyclable material through the different services that come back – giving you a picture of that total waste generation and the mix between what you’re sending to landfill versus what you’re recycling.

R: We took the approach to work with one waste provider. It’s probably an important step because we’re reducing waste we send to landfill by 20% year on year, and putting it more in recyclable streams. Working with a partner that actually recognises, “Well, that component of the business is going down and rightly so.” And ultimately you’re going in the other direction in recycling.

R: I can’t understate the importance of having reliable and accurate data. It was one of the challenges when I started in the role. There were a lot of queries from our teams around the accuracy of data. Once you’ve got that as a discussion point, it kind of undermines the purpose of it, which is to have reliable measurements in place. That’s a fundamental part that has enabled us to build that into balanced scorecards and annual reporting targets.

Sustainable procurement

T: You just talked about selecting a provider and sustainable procurement is such a hot topic right now. I just attended the National Plastic Summit and government, in particular, is trying to put together some measures for sustainable procurement. What is Officeworks doing in that space right now?

R: Our current focus has really been looking at the overarching initiatives. So, as a customer, if you shop at Officeworks, what does that mean in terms of sustainable purchasing? The first one would really be around that commitment to sustainable paper.

R: So, part of our strategy, we set the goal that by December this year all of our about paper products would need to be FSC certified or made from 100% recycled content. And with around 10,000 paper products, it’s been quite a process to shift the dial on that.

R: But that then created the foundation for us to launch our Restoring Australia program, which is ultimately a two for one tree planting program. For customers that purchase paper products from us, we look at the weight of paper and how does that kind of equate to trees? Then through that, we’re restoring landscapes across Australia with our partner, Greening Australia. Since launching that in 2017, we’ve planted nearly 600,000 trees.

R: Again it’s that overarching impact that customers can have by buying paper. A lot of work is being done on making sure that our packaging is recyclable across all of our private label products and engaging local suppliers. And then, from a customer perspective, also supporting them to dispose of their e-waste and pens and batteries in a responsible way by offering recycling collection points in stores.

R: So, that’s addressing some of these overarching initiatives. Clearly, we’re seeing that move towards more sustainable products, or the circular economy transition. And so that does then give us the opportunity to look at what other sustainable products can we bring to market. Whether that be more products designed from 100% recycled content, for example.

A more sustainable packaging example

T: Let’s go back to, first of all, to packaging. Do you have any examples of when you’ve actually worked with the vendor to change your packaging so that it could be properly recycled?

R: Yeah, I’d say the most recent example is in our furniture range. We sell a lot of furniture for the home office or more commercial products. By its nature, it’s a lot of the products that have typically been designed with polystyrene to protect the product.

R: Clearly, we know there’s issues associated with polystyrene. And again, want to make it easy for our teams and our customers to recycle their packaging when they buy products from us. So, that was very much around eliminating the use of polystyrene whilst ensuring that the packaging is still fit for purpose.

R: We did some trials with some of our suppliers overseas on how we could remove that. As with anything, it’s a change of how they operate. And basically it was a matter of our buyer having to visit each factory and work with them to identify ways that we could remove the polystyrene, redesign the packaging – but do it in a commercial way that it wasn’t just replacing it ‘like for like’ and adding cost.

R: What we’ve been able to do is balance that. So, it hasn’t caused any issues from a financial perspective. But we’ve been able to make the right decisions from an environmental perspective. And so, we’ll start seeing all that product flow through from this month.

T: Instead of polystyrene, what are you using as a replacement?

R: Recycled cardboard, basically.

T: Brilliant. Obviously, a lot easier to recycle, and it’s compostable as well.

R: Yeah.

Recycling soft plastic – easy changes

T: Are you guys able to recycle soft plastic right now?

R: Yeah, a certain grade of soft plastic in our store. And we’ve put bins around our support office. But in-store…and this is where you talk about how you can influence the supply chain.

R: Obviously, when China changed its approach through the National Sword Policy, that really put a focus on the contamination rates. And so, one area we saw is plastic wrapping that came in on pallets, where it was a mix and we would have black and clear. We obviously needed to go to a cleaner stream. And so, we worked with our suppliers just to remove black plastic altogether coming into our stores so that we could have that cleaner stream.

T: Great. Well, certainly the recyclers here will thank you for doing that, because if they get a hold of the plastic, then they’re always complaining about it being dark. “Why can’t it be clear?” So, that’s good to know.

R: Yeah.

More about Ryan

T: Ryan, we’ve talked a lot about Officeworks, but I’m really curious to know about how you got into your current role. And how did you become so passionate about sustainability

R: Sure. So (in) my post-uni career, I found myself in buying and did that for a few years. But I came to the conclusion I needed something a bit more. So, I set off for a year with my current wife, and we backpacked through South America. And as we headed down to the southernmost city, Ushuaia, we cottoned on to the fact that boats booked from Ushuaia headed down to Antarctica from there.

R: And if you’ve got time to wait around, there’s often last minute deals you can capture. So, we debated it and then decided just to put it on a credit card and jumped on the boat after waiting a week. On that boat was the climate scientist Doctor Steve Running.

B: And as we crossed the Drake Passage (which is one of the roughest passages in the world), he gave a series of presentations on climate change. And that really piqued my interest. And in talking to him and weighing up what I was doing next, he put me in that direction of considering an MBA in sustainability. That really played a pivotal role for me. And when I went to London, I did that. And after taking a role at Officeworks, have transitioned into this field.

T: Well, it’s completely appropriate to go from a buyer to someone who’s advocating sustainability, given this day and age where the two go hand-in-hand.

R: Yeah, absolutely. And I really appreciate that commercial background because it’s so much more than just doing the right thing. There’s a business case in why we would do all of this. And so, it’s bringing that all together.

Other sustainability efforts at Officeworks

T: In your current role I think you do actually a lot more than just waste and recycling. And you did mention climate change and carbon emissions. I noticed on your reports as well, that you guys have been doing quite a bit of work to try to reduce your energy consumption and your carbon emissions. Do you want to talk about any of those programs?

R: Yes. Again, it was a key pillar of our plan. “How do we reduce our emissions?” Which, at the time, we set back in 2015 a target of 20% by 2020. So, a lot of the work we did was around addressing energy efficiency in the first place. So, implementing LED lighting, putting building energy management systems across our network. That’s seen us achieve that goal.

R: Now, we’ve looked to the next five years and we’ve said, “We’ll reduce it by another 25%.” And really that’s through the role of renewable energy, particularly solar. So, we’re starting to roll out solar across our stores. I think, this is one where you look at the commercial lens and, really not just reducing emissions, but mitigating the cost increases that we’ve seen in the electricity sector.

T: Good for the environment, good for business, too.

R: Yeah.

Officeworks’ next sustainability plan

T: Now, your current plan is only until 2020, which we’re here now. Are there any plans at Officeworks that you’re able to share with us now?

R: Yes. We’re working through what the next five years look like for us now. We’ll expect to have that firmed up sometime this year. But we’ve shown through our first plan that, back in 2015, setting some pretty bold and ambitious targets at the time, that we’ve been able to achieve or exceed them.

R: That’s really set the foundation for us as a business to say, “Okay, where do we next want to play? How bold do want to be?” And whilst we might not have all the answers of how to get there, we know that there’s a need from our stakeholders’ interests: whether that be customers, team members, more broadly around those areas. So we’ll continue working through that at the moment, basically.

Advice for employees who want to make a difference

T: What advice would you have for employees in other places that might feel like they don’t have the authority to implement such programs?

R: I think it’s about how you can put the case together around why you can change and who you ultimately need to influence to help make those decisions. So, if I come to our waste example with Ringwood. It has reduced the cost of doing business. And that benefit is then around the environmental impacts as well.

R: So, depending on the driver and the situation, I think it’s how you frame your case. It may be taking a more community lens approach, and representing the needs of the community, and building those community connections if that’s what helps get the initiative across the line.

R: And look, one other example. We talk around the role of individuals to help influence change. We had an example in our support office. You’d probably be familiar with the soft plastic recycling that Coles and Woollies offer through REDcycle, the collection points. So, this team member identified that there was a need to have those collections around our office.

R: So, he set up a couple of collection spots, and he would take those bags and put them in his car boot. And drive them down to Coles once a week. And it quickly became twice a week and then a couple of trips. It really just showed to us, well, actually, we need to partner with REDcycle and actually implement that as a service. And so it’s something that started, just with that individual action showed the need for us to offer something more appropriate.

T: Have you actually partnered with REDcycle?

R: Yes, we have. Just last week we became a member of them. So that we can start to update our messaging on our packaging – where we have soft plastic and we can’t avoid it, to encourage people to recycle that at the appropriate store collection point.

T: Fantastic.

One employee can make a difference

R: I’d say one thing that we’ve seen is that anyone across the business can have a great idea. Particularly in an environment where we use Yammer, the internal social media app. How some of those ideas can gain traction is really powerful through those channels.

R: An example I had the other day, in our Jandakot store. They’ve considered the role of repurposing and reusing some of their waste out of the print and copy centre. So, they’ve set up a free collection station of these items. And we’ve found that teachers and early learning centres are coming in and taking these cardboard rolls and other items for their arts and crafts projects.

R: And just by one person taking that initiative and sharing it, there’s been a lot of momentum from other stores saying, “That’s great. We’ll implement something here.” I think sometimes just getting something off the ground and showing how it works and then sharing that, helps build that momentum behind it as well.

T: What a great example, too, of taking something that would otherwise be considered waste and turning it into value for teachers and teaching.

R: Yeah, absolutely.

A preschool field trip?

R: I have one other story around that unintended benefit with that community link. Just this week, we had a childcare centre come in with their educators and the kids to spend a bit of time in store to learn about sustainability. And recently we’ve just rolled out some new bin signage which features images of the most common queries we get in our waste streams. Stores have been able to set up (these) across all their bin systems.

R: And what we did was use that signage and play a bit of a game with the kids around which bin does the waste go in? A really nice example, again, of how we have developed something for our teams, but it’s kind of gone beyond. And they’ve been able to engage the local community to help educate them as well.

T: I’ve never thought about taking preschoolers to an Officeworks for a field trip.

R: I know. Time’s changed.

Avoiding landfill by working with charities

T: Were there any other stories, that you wanted to share Ryan?

R: Yeah. One example I’d give is just our focus on furniture that we’re doing at the moment. This kind of links to the circular economy. We’ve started partnering with The World’s Biggest Garage Sale in Queensland. We’re sending them some of our faulty furniture that comes back from customer returns.

R: Basically, what they’re doing is using their team to actually start repairing those items. So, they may have 10 faulty chairs, and they can make 6 good ones out of it over a 12 week period. Avoiding those going to landfill, and then ultimately selling them on. And the benefit is a better understanding of where the faults are.

R: Ultimately, we don’t want any faulty furniture ending up there. We want to be addressing it upstream or having a repair or solution that our team members can easily address. It kind of comes back to that data. Having that data to help address these issues upstream is a really important part of that. So, partnering with others that are not likely partners is also really important in this space about how we can continue to reduce our environmental impact.

T: I think that’s a fantastic initiative. I imagine that some of that furniture that you had before with even some small faults might have just ended up a landfill otherwise. So, being able to partner with —they’re a charity, aren’t they?

R: They are. Yeah, And this is in Queensland. I think this is where it talks to the changing policy landscape because there’s a landfill levy in Queensland now that is a great deterrent of sending things to landfill. So, when we talk about the value in something, we’ll come back to a business case, not just why this is the right thing to do. But it avoids that cost of sending it to landfill.

T: And someone is getting some use out of that product that would have otherwise been considered waste.

R: Absolutely.

T: Once again, good for the environment, good for business.

Listener request

T: Ryan, is there any request that you might have for our listeners?

R: Yeah. We’re having some challenges in what we can recycle, particularly with laminating offcuts. And as you’d imagine with our distribution centres, the back of labels. We’re trying to find a solution in the background, but I haven’t had any luck yet. If anyone knows how we can recycle that material locally, we would be all open to hearing it.

T: OK. I’m thinking of at least two companies that may be able to help you out.

R: Yep. Great.

How to find out more about Officeworks’ sustainability programs

T: Ryan if people want to know more about the Officeworks programs, where can they get more information?

R: Yeah sure they can head to our website, officeworks.com.au and there’s a section on sustainability. You can read our latest report and some of the initiatives we offer in store.  

T: There are some great videos there too on some of your programs.

R: Yes.

Final words

T: Ryan, thank you so much for your time today. I think that people start to think of the bigger businesses as immune to the waste management issues that the small businesses or the medium sized businesses might face on a daily basis. But the reality is you probably have far more waste than they do. And so, it’s a much bigger problem, which is usually harder to solve.

T: You guys have done so much work in the space already. There’s a lot of other programs that you hadn’t mentioned that I’ve noticed.  I just wanted to thank you guys for, first of all, for being open to having this conversation on the podcast and also for the work that you’re doing and continue to do to try to reduce waste. And specifically for this podcast, plastic waste, too.

R: Yeah. No problem, Tammy. I appreciate the opportunity to share some of what we’re working on. Hopefully others will learn something from it, and it supports them in what they’re trying to achieve.

T: Cheers.

Scott Cooney of Pono Homes

Scott Cooney of Pono Home:

Greening one home at a time

In this episode, I chat with Scott Cooney – the founder of Pono Home and Pono Home Essentials in Honolulu, Hawaii.

Scott is a serial entrepreneur in the sustainability space, starting his first business years ago with an electric lawn mowing service. Now his latest start-up provides a line of fully organic, natural body care products for consumers in refillable bottles.

While his desire to provide all things green for your home is obvious, the software company that lies beneath all of these businesses is not.

I hope you enjoy this episode of Plastics Revolution with Scott Cooney of Pono Home and Pono Home Essentials.

Companies, Organisations and Products Mentioned in this Podcast:


Hosted by Tammy Ven Dange
Produced by Jonny Puskas
Theme Music by Joseph McDade
All Rights Reserved 2019

Full Transcript

This transcript has been modified for clarity.


T:  Tammy Ven Dange, Host
S: Scott Cooney, Founder of Pono Home and Pono Home Essentials


T: So, Scott, welcome to the show.

S: Thank you, Tammy

T:  I’m actually here in Honolulu, Hawaii, and I’m so excited to have a chance to talk to you. I’ve done some research on your background, and I could see you’ve been a serial entrepreneur specifically in an environmentally conscious type business.

About Pono Home Essentials

T: I think the first company I’d like to start with, though, is the one that really drew me to you to begin with when I was doing my research about businesses I should speak to here while I was in Hawaii. And that is you’re refillable product collection, which I guess is called Pono Home Essentials?

Pono Home Refillable Bottle Line
Pono Home Essentials Lotions

S:  Yes, that’s correct.

T: Do you want to talk about that a little bit more? And describe how that product line works?

S: Sure. Pono Home Essentials is a sort of a spin off from the company brand name, Pono Home, which we do energy efficiency, water efficiency, retrofits for homes. So, this was the natural evolution of it. And so, it became the essentials line for a green home – more or less. So, our whole business is about green homes and the green residential space.

Pono Home Shampoos
Pono Home Shampoos

S: We basically created a line of non-toxic products. We started with that and said everybody here wants something that doesn’t contain a bunch of carcinogenic compounds. Then we said, okay, we can make products. Can we figure out the packaging? So we decided to jump into the packaging and see if we could make it into a zero waste model. And so we attacked that and came up with a solution for that.

S:  And then, we wanted it all locally sourced and as organic as possible. So, multiple tiers to the whole thing. But the packaging is a big part of how we pitch it and how it is sold and certainly a big part of what customers are most interested in these days.

T: Are you selling directly to customers or are you selling through wholesalers?

S: Both.

T: And how did you start off in terms of the market testing for the products?

S: We have a motto at Pono Home: Don’t make the perfect the enemy of the good.

S: And so we started off with a good product and moved on from there. And the journey towards the perfect product is never complete. So, we just keep trying to get better and better. We started off with a handful of products that we felt good about. We didn’t feel amazing about them, but we knew we could figure out how to put them in good packaging and get them out and try testing them with people. So, we started selling these eight ounce, aluminium bottles of shampoo and conditioner.

S: We found a supplier of this shampoo and conditioner – we didn’t even make it ourselves – that would sell us some bulk stuff.

S:  So, we found that and started marketing it. And then I quickly moved on to other products because the quality was not amazing, but we had figured out at that point how we were gonna keep track of our inventory of everything from the product to the bottle to the caps, to the pumps, to everything.

So it was really necessary just to get started so that we could figure out how we were going to keep track all that stuff and build a system around that.

T:  I think there’s a lot of discussion right now about the minimum viable product in terms of just getting it shipped as soon as you can.

T: So, you went private label with an existing company.

S: Right.

T: Where did you source the bottles from?

S:  Well, we had a couple of different wholesalers that that basically make packaging materials that you can buy in bulk. So, we started buying what we could afford and that was the eight ounce aluminum bottles. And it was fine, and it worked for a little while. And then we quickly started just listening to customers – like what the customers want. And everybody consistently wanted bigger bottles. Some, we went to the 16 ounce bottle and that seems to be the perfect size for those products that we put in there.

Distribution channels

T:  When you talk about, “you went to customers” were you doing farmers markets? What were you doing?

S: Yeah, we were doing direct sales models where we had groups of friends getting together and talking about this stuff. We worked with some environmental groups, and we went to farmers markets to market this stuff.

S: Here – luckily we have one set of farmer’s markets run by two awesome ladies who are really good about vetting all the products before they go into the farmer’s market. Some farmer’s markets here, they’ll accept any vendor who will write a check. And so we steered clear of those farmer’s markets to get some authenticity in our customer base.

S: So, we went straight to these farmer’s markets that have only allowed you to be in it if you are a local food maker or a local grower. So, we went to those farmer’s markets first. And once we got into those, we started building a customer base and got a lot of people signed up for our newsletter and Instagram and stuff like that that way.

The challenges with reusable packaging

T: When you started the program, did you actually have the reusable bottles’ process already in the background? Where people actually showing up at the farmer’s market to refill their bottles or were they just replacing them or swapping them?.

S: Yeah. So we don’t actually refill on the spot for anybody. We don’t have that bulk model. That is one model. And a lot of people do ask about that. So I think there is a niche around that as well. And there are a handful of people here in Honolulu that have contacted us and are interested in starting that and doing it on the side. And I think that’s cool.  I wish them luck. It’s different enough from our business that I want nothing to do.

T:  Why did you decide to go down that route if people were asking for it?

S: Well, there’s a handful of stores here where you can refill things. More people will bring in their own bottles and you very filled with Dr. Bronner’s and other things in bulk.  I just think that the point 0.1% of people who are willing and able and remember all the time to bring their own bottles and stuff like that is just a pretty small niche. And those are customers that are gonna do it themselves no matter what.

S: And so what I really wanted to focus on was the other 99% of people who are concerned about plastic, but are not of the mindset of bringing their own bags and bringing their own bottles and all this kind of stuff. And so instead we just sell the full product and then we buy the bottle back. So, it’s the milk man model from when I was a kid.

T: Yeah.

S:  Here in the United States, we had a milk man that would leave milk on your front porch, and you would bring it in and then you’d leave the other bottle out and they would take the bottle away and they would clean it and refill it and whatever. It’s that model. So that’s all we’re doing.

S: What we had to figure out was if we can sell a package to somebody, and then that person brings a package back. What do we do? And so that was what we set out to solve that issue.

T: Were there any legislation or policy issues that prevented you from doing what you wanted to do with that?

S:  There definitely are regulations here in the States, and I don’t know how they are in Australia, but there there’s definitely regulations with the FDA and the US Department of Agriculture and others around a lot of things. There’re labelling requirements and so there certain things you can say and certain things you can’t. There’re levels of cleanliness that are required in all sorts of things. We just had to dive deep.

S: Thankfully, I have somebody who is a self-described policy wonk, and she loves to dive into government regulation type stuff. So, thank God I have somebody like that on my team. So, she drove in and figured out what we needed to do. And then once we knew our rules, the game are clear then everybody can compete on those rules.

S:  That’s what I love when regulations are nice and clear and easy, and we can figure it out and just go with it. And then we know that if we’re playing by the rules, and if somebody else is not playing by the rules, they’ll get violated. So it’s like, “Cool, we know where the boundaries of this football field are. We just go out and play.”

T:  But in saying that, you’d also have some infrastructure you have to put in place to meet those requirements, which is a capital investment.

S: Indeed. Yeah.

T: Was it a big one or a small one in comparison to actually getting the product up and going?

S: In comparison to all the HR (human resources) time that we’ve had to put into it? No, is was a pretty small amount.

T: Okay. So once you understood the rules, it wasn’t that hard or that expensive to get that into place.

S: No.

T: There is a huge movement, I know in Australia, for bulk buying and bulk replacement of different materials and especially those that come in single use or even larger types of containers for personal hygiene –  like you were saying, shampoo, soaps and things like that. And he (Scott) gave me a chance to actually try out their mango lotion, which smells really nice.

New competition for Pono Home Essentials – maybe

T: I have a question regarding the competition right now, because there seems to be more and more businesses and even large businesses like Procter and Gamble and Loop and some of those bigger organisations with TerraCycle that are in the space now. And I don’t know how well it’s going in the US, but they just introduced the idea that they’re gonna do something in Australia soon. What’s it like in terms of competing against the big boys now that you’ve been in place for a while, and they’re just coming on?

S:  They’re not here in Honolulu. They’re not here in Hawaii yet. And I think just the isolation of us out here in Hawaii is going to create some sort of a barrier. It’s gonna be a little harder to do business out here. Hawaii is just a very different place to do business. And I think that gives us a number of years to kind of work things out.  So we don’t really have competition here locally.

S:  But we are doing this on the mainland, of course, we do have to compete with all those guys who are doing this kind of stuff.  Loop’s got a great model, and I support the whole effort. And I think, for me, the bottom line is that if we can get to a zero waste future, I’ll be stoked. I’m not worried about whether I become a millionaire doing this or not. I’m much more concerned that we rid the world of plastic globally around the world. I don’t care who succeeds. I just think that we all need to succeed on some level.

S: So that said, I actually directly reached out to TerraCycle and said, “Hey, look, I see Loop is doing their thing and that’s cool. I wish it much success. I would like to know how niche brands like ours can grow to a certain point. And if and when Loop becomes this global behemoth, how do we fit in? Do we carve out local niches or do we sell our customer base?”

S: What do we do with this global behemoth that’s gonna come in? They’re gonna fill everybody’s house in the United States with every product that people in the United States want, which is, you know, the stuff that they’re used to. Having the option to switch from Tide to Seventh Generation is a nice option for people. And if that exposes them to that in a zero waste way, I’m so supportive.

Local concern for sustainability?

T:  What’s it like here in Honolulu with people’s interest in buying an alternative soap anyways? That might be healthier for the environment? Australia, I find is a very different marketplace, especially where I live, where people are very, very conscious of what they do now.  Where I always find it interesting when I come back to Hawaii because it’s such a beautiful paradise, and yet it feels like the care factor is less than where I come from.

S:  If you’re around this weekend, there’s a beach cleanup on the North Shore. There’s a beach called Kahuku. And if anybody is listening and wants to Google this, this is potentially the world’s dirtiest beach. It captures an amazing amount of the funnel from the Pacific Gyre, just from the currents and the way that the bay itself is shaped. And so it’s a beach here on the North Shore that every week is covered in just megatons of plastic.

S: It’s an insane thing. So, we’re doing a beach cleanup this weekend. We expect to take away 10 tons of plastic – at least five.

T: How often do they do the clean-up?

S:   They do them pretty regularly. That’s the thing. It’s like you’ll do one, and within two weeks you’ll go back out there and you’ll be like, “Wow, this looks like a plastic beach.” It’s insane.

T: So when you talk about that particular beach and probably a lot of your beaches, that’s not necessarily all coming from Hawaii. But when I go where we’re staying near the harbour or the yacht club right now, that’s all coming from out of the storm water drain right in there. That’s all local. And it’s just filthy.

S: Yeah, it’s true.

T:  Are Hawaiians – I’m not talking about native Hawaiians, but people that are actually residents here – are they actually as conscious as you are in terms of the environmental impacts of their actions?

S: Yeah. I think there’s a fairly high level of conscientiousness here around these issues, and it’s rising all the time. Every beach cleanup that we do, we tried to invite different groups. So we’ll try and get a corporate sponsor to come out like one of the banks here locally to bring a bunch of their employees so that we can reach out into different groups.

S: We get school kids to come out and do it. And as soon as somebody sees all this, you can’t unsee it. And so it changes your mindset quite a bit. You go back and you’re like, “Oh, I just can’t keep buying plastic. I got to figure out something.”

S:  So the education has been going on. Two nonprofits here: Surfrider and Sustainable Coastlines have been both been doing this for years and years. And I think they’ve made a huge difference in terms of the local awareness of these things.

T: It’s still so interesting to me because once again, I feel like where I come from, it’s maybe ahead of the game – even in Australia. In the hotels, you must have tons of tourists just come through here every year. I’m still being offered plastic straws. I’m not even given a choice. They’re still giving me a plastic straw without me asking for it. They’re still giving me plastic utensils or cutlery without me asking for it. It just seems like it’s also an issue with the industries.

Challenges of changing the industries

S: Yeah, definitely. And within the place where most people live here in Oahu, I think you’re starting to see the locally owned restaurants typically going plastic free now. And it’s happened faster than you could possibly imagine, which is really great.

S: However, there are some local restaurants that are so dependent on plastic. There’s a local restaurant chain here. And not to throw anybody under the bus, but they serve everything in single use everything. They have been the number one lobbyist against all the plastic bans for years and years and years, refusing to switch their business model. And it’s because they set it up the cheapest way possible way back at the beginning, and then they got into this path dependency, and they just don’t see any other way to serve their food except to use this cheap plastic, single use plastic.

S: So it’s interesting. They actually just launched a plastic bag. That is unbelievable. It’s, for all their take-out stuff. They give you a plastic bag with all the plastic stuff in it to carry out with you. And the bag has a turtle on it, and the turtle has a bubble over its head and is saying, “Howzit?”

S: Not only is it like horrible cultural appropriation, but it’s also just right in your face. It’s a turtle who don’t like plastic. And, you know, here’s a plastic bag with that turtle.

T: They’re pushing it back.

S: Yeah. So it comes and goes. But I think that the majority of people and a lot of the locally owned restaurants are really into the zero waste stuff and all the straws have been replaced. And everywhere I go, it’s like, wow, paper straws, everything is compostable and it’s great. Waikiki is a whole different animal. And that place is all about single use convenience because that’s where all the tourists go. So, it’s a challenge.

S: So, we’re doing what we can to start where the soil is more fertile for this kind of stuff, which is where most people live here – downtown, Kakaʻako, all the other neighbourhoods. Waikiki is just going to have to be afterwards.

T:  It’s still interesting to me as it as a tourist who actually does care about this thing. I can’t be one of the few people here. I did notice that some of the higher end hotels like the Sheraton were the ones that were more likely used the paper straw. Your business to me seems to be so appealing to people that just care about the environment in general, wherever people are.

Types of Customers for Pono Home Essentials

T: It seems to me that with this many tourists coming to Honolulu that you would have a great opportunity to be taking more people on this journey because you do have all these natural and organic ingredients that are Hawaiian, and you want to have these memories from when they were here and recognise you’re doing these things for the environment. What’s your percentage of business is in Hawaii compared to what you’re selling on the mainland right now?

S: Oh, we’re 90% here.

T: In Hawaii?

S:  Yeah. We have two employees on the mainland, and they literally just started selling. So we’ve been in production and facilities and operation and just like training and all the things that you need to do to grow a brand.

S: Our two mainland folks are now starting to sell at markets and online and that sort of thing. But we’ve been in business here a year and a half doing this product line – five and a half years total. But yes, just way more here.

T: And as far as what you sell here in Hawaii. Is that mostly through the mail? Or is it actually done still through the farmers market model?

S: It’s most mostly through the mail. And then as I said, we started just started doing wholesale. So we just got into Down to Earth, which is our big natural grocer here. Tthey are in five locations and they’re an awesome partner. And they source everything local, organic as possible. They’re my grocery store. They’re amazing.

S:  So we just got into there, and we’re doing our first store with them and scaling up to just produce enough for their five stores is gonna be like the next level of what we’re doing because they’re gonna blow through a lot of our products.

T: I bet. Can they also drop off the bottle off there at the grocery store?

S:  We’re still figuring that out. So that that’s always been the challenge with the retail model – returning a bottle and having the bottle deposit is how do you collect those? And so we pay people for those bottles to get them back. Much like recycling sometimes has like five cents or whatever. Ours is a dollar. And so you can bring it back in and get the dollar back. So, we’re trying to figure that out with Down to Earth right now how that’s gonna work. But so far people have been mailing us their empties.

Return rates for Pono Home bottles?

T: What percentage of the bottles do you actually get back right now?

S: It’s a great question. Keep in mind that like a lot of bottles are still full. Right. So people buy like a 16 ounce lotion that’s gonna last them three or four months for a lot of people. So we have been selling for a year and a half, and I will say that out of the total number of bottles that we have put out into the world, we’ve probably gotten maybe 10% of them back out of. That other 90% – how many are still sitting in somebody’s shower waiting to come back or they’re empty and sitting in the cupboard and waiting to come back? We don’t know. So that’s this is the big unknown of what we’re doing.

T: And of that 10%, are they predominately just a few families or are does that 10% make up a huge population of people that are involved in this process?

S:  It’s a good question. And I don’t have an answer for this. Ultimately in entrepreneurship, you just guess so much. You take the best information you have, and you try to make an educated guess. We’re still guessing on so many things.

T:  Well, you’ve done a lot in a year and a half, considering you’re already in some of the major health food stores here. I mean, those are not small stores either.

S: No

T: I think when people think of a health food store in most places, the independent ones especially, they’re probably thinking of something that is not much bigger than this conference room – maybe a little bit bigger. Where we’re talking about something that’s like the size of a normal grocery store in some parts of Hawaii.

S: Yeah,

How big is the Pono Home team?

T: That’s amazing. How many employees do you have right now?

S: Twelve.

T: Twelve? And are they all working on the Essential line or do you actually have them working on the other products?

S: Oh, just on the other side. So our company, as I said, we green homes, we do light retrofitting. So, kind of like a green handyman service. We fix toilet leaks and change light bulbs or LEDs and shower heads and faucet fixtures and all that kind of stuff. So that’s the predominant number of people in our company. I think eight people work on that side and we have some people that kind of do a little bit of both like me.

T: So probably about four. And you said a two on the mainland at the moment.

S: Yeah, exactly.

T: Well, it’s still phenomenal growth for just a year and a half in this particular space. And congratulations on that.

S: Thanks.

T: I’m actually looking forward to seeing some of these organic natural options maybe in Australia at some point.

S: Yeah.

Scott’s first green business

T: Well, I went back and did some research on your background. It’s clear that you’ve been in this green conscious entrepreneurial space for a very long time. It’s not just a trend for you. It’s something you’ve been involved in for quite a while. And I can see that you’ve had quite a few businesses over that time. I think it’d be really interesting to hear about maybe your first business and how you got into that.

S: Sure. I’m definitely a lifer. Sustainability has always been my passion since high school. And I think back then I was like the hippie, granola kid that you know. I was a pretty small minority of the population.

S:  So after school, I took a job just because I had school smarts, but no, like actual skills. And so I just needed to actually get some skills. And so I took a job. I worked at Merrill Lynch doing financial stuff and kind of using my MBA. And then I was moonlighting at Anheuser-Busch because my undergrad was in biology. And so I was doing biological testing in a beer lab at night and then doing financial spreadsheets during the day. It was kind of hilarious.

T: Very unusual mix of side hustle with a full time job.

S: Indeed.

S:  So, during that whole time I was looking at these giant companies and how much waste there was and how lack of innovation was happening. And I just kept thinking of business ideas, and I still couldn’t come up with anything. So, at some point I was like, “God, I just gotta quit now. I’ve just gotta do my own thing. And how better to learn how to market and talk to customers and customer retention and business models and all that kind of stuff, then just to dive in.”

S:  So I started the world’s simplest business, which was a what we call here in the States, a “mow and blow,” which is where you mows somebody’s land and you blow the clippings.  So I started, uh, a company called Eco Mowers back in Salt Lake City back in 2004. And, that that company basically had electric lawn mowers, electric blowers, hedge trimmers, weed whackers, all the things.

S: And so I drove around. I put a tow hitch on my Saturn, which is a sedan, small car because it got good gas mileage. And I put a toe hitch on it and had a utility trailer. And I looked like the most world’s most ridiculous landscaping service pulling up in this tiny little red sedan with a tow hitch behind it with a bunch of black and decker electric lawn mowers on it. It looked absurd. And I’m sorry that I don’t have pictures from those days. Like I wish I had taken so much more documentation because at the time I was embarrassed. But now it’s like so good historical.

S: So anyway, that’s what I did. And it actually turned out to be a great business. It really helped me learn about green marketing and communications and customer retention and just how to listen to your customers and do the customer discovery. So that was my first company.

T: And are you originally from Salt Lake?

S: Florida.

T: Florida? So from Florida to Salt Lake. And then how did you get to Hawaii?

S: I was in San Francisco working in a sustainability consulting firm. So, after I sold the Mow and Blow Company, and I actually sold it twice. And that’s a funny story if you ever want to get into it.

T: I’m happy to hear it now.

S:  So, I was at the end of my rope. I was kind of done doing the job. My back was hurting.

S: I was like in my mid 20s and I was like, “I don’t understand how people do this work.” My back was hurting. I was  being so whining and complaining about it. Some people, physical labour is what they do for their whole lives. And I was doing it for like three years, and I was like, “I’m done with this.”

S: So anyway, at the end of the three years I was trying to figure out my exit strategy, and this guy contacted me and he’s like, “Hey, have you thought about selling your business?”

S:  And I was like, “Yeah, let’s talk.” It turned out, he was a guy who was running a similar company and was looking at franchising. And I think his idea was basically to buy out his competition. And at the time, I was the only other competition in the in the country that we knew of. So, he bought out my company, and he made me sign a five year non-compete clause. And I was fine with that because I never wanted to mow another person’s lawn or  step in dog poop ever again.

S: I signed this thing and I sold him the company and he took over our operations in Salt Lake City. And about a year later, he shut them down, and I checked the non-compete clause and there wasn’t anything that said that I couldn’t do some marketing for somebody else. And this other guy contacted me and said, “Hey, these guys aren’t doing it anymore. Could you help me get it started?” And I was like, “sure.”

S: So, I went to my client list, and I called them and I said, “Do you still want service? Got a new guy.” And they said, “Yep.” So I sold the client list two years in a row which is kind of hilarious.

T: You noticed something that a lot of people would’ve missed. Right? Like you recognize that there is still some value in that old client list.

S: Exactly.

How did Scott land in Hawaii?

T: So you made it to Hawaii from San Francisco?

S: Yeah. I was on a sustainability consulting firm in San Francisco.  I got laid off during the big recession back in 2008, and I met a girl on a dance floor while I was unemployed who happened to be on vacation from Honolulu. And she was the president of the Sustainability Association of Hawaii. And she was in San Francisco just literally on vacation. And we hit it off and just became good friends.

S: She convinced me that there was enough sustainability work that needed to be done out in Hawaii. That they needed people like me to come out here and do stuff like this. And, I think it’s one of those things you hear what you want to hear. And I wanted to hear that I was being recruited to Hawaii. So I came.

T:  But did you have a job waiting for you when you got here?

S: No.

T: So that means you probably started another business?

S:  Yes, I did.

T: Anyone else would look for a job. But you actually started another business.

S: I did. I was already kind of thinking about it. I was playing around with some ideas. And so I said this idea that I was working on was a virtual kind of thing. So, I just decided to up and move and come out here and figure it out once I got here.

T:  But Hawaii is not a cheap place to just do that.

S:  No. But thankfully, I was in my thirties. I had no kids and had no rent to pay back in San Francisco anymore. And, it worked out. I had gotten a severance from my previous job when I got laid off and I came out here and just decided to do it.

T: So that’s two thousand eight?

S:  2010.

Let’s talk about Pono Homes – the main business line

T:  So about nine years now here in Hawaii. And we’ve been talking about the Pono Home Essentials line. Bu why don’t we talk about your main business, and how you really started that off? We just briefly chatted about it a few minutes ago. Why don’t we talk about that? Because that’s really how you were able probably to fund the Essential line, right?

S: Still. Yeah, it’s still paying for it. So Pono Home got started in 2013 as an idea around educating people and doing light retrofits for their homes and looking at everything from lighting to HVAC to plumbing and figuring out all these little things that people don’t tend to fix on their own or maintain on their own, which add up to higher electric and water consumption.

S: So something like super simple like ACs (air conditioning), you need to change your filter out pretty regularly, otherwise the filter gets clogged and then it gets harder for the device to move air through the system. Once that happens, it’s like moving the motor a lot more and you’re sucking a lot more electricity. And a lot of people just don’t do these simple maintenance things around their house.

S: After educating myself around this and then seeing every home I walked into needing sustainability work, I just decided that there could be a business model around it. So, I started this business to do exactly that.

S: And, you know, our whole economy is built on convenience, so we shouldn’t expect sustainability to be any different. And that’s where the Pono Home Essentials mail model of getting stuff through the mail and making it super easy or this Pono Home going into people’s homes and doing the job for them. That’s where it’s super convenient.

S: So Pono Home was set up to be this convenient green handyman service and just do everything for people and keep it at such a level that it was like cheap enough that it would pay for itself in less than two years. And we guarantee that, and we have been guaranteeing that for five years now. So now we have served over 12,000 homes.

T: Wow.

S: Across three states. So we’re in Nevada, here in Hawaii, and we previously had a contract in California. So we’re in California for a little while, too. So we’ve greened over 12,000 homes.

Sustainability Stats

S: The statistics are pretty mindblowing in terms of carbon and water and that sort of thing. I haven’t done the numbers for 2019 yet because it’s not the end of the year. but when I did it for 2018 and then extrapolated forward, we could be getting close to saving 200 million gallons of water per year. And that’s an annual per year kind of thing.

S: And with every home that we do we’re saving more and more. We have offset probably 15 to 20 million pounds of carbon pollution every year already, and that grows every single day.

So, doing energy efficiency and water efficiency is hands down the fastest, easiest way to tackle climate change. And, I recommend it for everybody.

T: How do you measure these things? You have such a wide range of services that you’re providing. I know they have smart meters to put on certain things, but it’s one thing to say that you have the potential to do it, it’s another thing to be able to track that we’ve actually done that.

S: Yeah, so we worked with some engineers at a third party consultancy, and had some calculations around what we expect energy savings to be.  And so we looked at everything from very simple calculations around watts that are reduced to much more complex calculations like what the ground water temperature is when you pull it up and then you have to heat it to a certain level before it goes through a shower and then goes down a drain.

S: So we had and obviously why you outsource these kinds of things to people way smarter than you. But once we had verified calculations for everything that we install and do and maintain and that sort of thing, then it’s just plugging numbers in and being like, “okay, for every furnace that we do this for, every air conditioner we do that for, we can save this and we can check that.

T: Do you have customers actually confirming they’ve had a reduction in their, maybe not bills, because a lot of the cost electricity keeps going up, but are they able to come back to you and say, “Yeah, we can confirm that that the average use has gone down?”

S: Oh yeah. We have been guaranteeing that “our service pays for itself in less than two years or people get their money back” for five and a half years. And we’ve never had a single return.

T: Not one?

S: Not one.

T: That’s incredible.

S: Yeah. And we have case studies all over our website. Every documentation we’ve ever done has shown a decline. Some are lower and some are higher, but everything is in decline. We decline people’s utility bills 100% of the time. And that’s amazing.

Franchising versus Licensing

T: That is amazing. Now I think you’re doing this via franchise model. Is that right? Is that how you’re doing so many homes?

S: We were looking at franchising. Franchising is very difficult.

T: Yes.

S: We just decided this year to not offer the franchise anymore. So what we’re doing is we’re actually offering a white label version of what we do through home efficiency and that’s on a website called homeefficiency.com.

S: And basically the idea is that people can get trained in our model and just go and call it whatever they want. They can call it Joe Bob’s Home Efficiency Service and it can be in Atlanta, Georgia. It doesn’t matter where it is.

S: Franchising is limited on a billion levels. And so it just became one of those things that once you put somebody through this rigamarole and qualify them and whatever and then they’re at the finish line, then they still have to read a 200 page document that’s legal-ese to sign and become a franchisee. And a lot of people don’t like that.

T:  It’s also a stakeholder management issue.

S: Oh, my God.

T: Ha Ha!

S: So here we are. We decided to kibosh that. So, all of these 12,000 homes have been done in-house. Our own company has done all of those.

T:  You must have people in Nevada.

S:  Yeah, we have people on all the neighbouring islands here. So we have Big Island, Lanai, Molokai, Maui, Oahu and Hawaii. Huh.  And then we have people in Las Vegas now.

T:  To turn that into a licencing model instead is basically what you’re doing more or less.

S: Yeah.

T: And that makes so much sense. You could trade the IP for your cash, and not have to babysit them.

S: Exactly. Yeah.

T: That makes a lot of sense.

S: Yeah. And the software tools that we built and all the contracting and all that kind of stuff, people can basically get all of that, too. So, we have figured out the business model. It’s a business in a box. We’re looking to hand off to people and let them run with it. And then if they need some support through the software and that sort of thing, then we can provide that. But they probably won’t. So that’s a nice part.

T:  And the nice thing is, it’s not physically limited either.

S: Not at all.

T: Would it be limited by like, say, in the U.S. you have a different system?  We use metrics and most of the world.

S: It probably will be a little bit different in terms of inventory. I haven’t been to Australia in many, many, many years. So I don’t know what base types you have for light bulbs and like what the typical pipe fittings are for showers and faucets and all that kind of stuff. The plugs will be different like so many things, but really those are just widgets. And our model is good at keeping track of widgets and our software is really good at keeping track of widgets. So, you just sub one widget out for another widget and you’re good to go.

But it’s really a software company?

T: It’s funny because you’re talking about widgets and are talking about inventory models. We just talked about that regarding your Home Essentials business, and being able to work that.

S:  You see how my brain works.

T: Well, it actually turns you into more of a software company in some ways rather than the widget business. Right? Which is not obvious.

S: Right. But we had to prove the widget business first.

T: But ultimately now you’re licencing a software essentially more or less?.

S: Yeah that’s the direction we’re going – in this direction our investors want us to go and that sort of thing.

Funding Models

T:  So let’s talk about investors really quickly, because obviously it’s one thing to have to buy physical inventory, which depending on how big your customers are – and we just talked about one that could be quite expensive for your Home Essentials – doing software development work, though, could be quite expensive.

S: Yeah.

T: And when you start talking about infrastructure and making your own product line like that starts to add money, you have investors involved? What’s the model? Did you bring them on right away or with something you decided to do later?

S: So we started off with debt financing, so finance the company through a loan first and then, within about a year got into this incubator program. We were able to get about a year’s worth of funding through this incubator program. And that incubator program was set up through the Department of the Navy here in the United States.

T: Interesting.

Navy Incubator Program

S: And that incubator program basically provides seed funding for technology solutions that can help the Navy use less oil because the Navy is very oil dependent. And for us to patrol the entire Pacific Ocean with all these vessels and aircraft and that sort of thing, the Navy needs a good supply line of oil. So it’s really silly that homes here in Hawaii are using oil, and that we’re using oil to make electricity. Ninety percent of the electricity that’s being generated right now in this room is from diesel.

T: Wow.

S: Hawaii is very diesel dependent.

T: And yet you could do wind. You could do so many other things.

S: So many things. Yeah. So the Navy is very interested in basically getting more oil and having a better supply of oil. And of course, if there is a humanitarian disaster out here in the Hawaiian islands and generators are cut off and that sort of thing, we’re gonna need more oil to come in and more small generators and whatever else.

S: The Navy had some good foresight and decided to invest in technologies that could reduce everybody else’s use of oil in addition to probably their own. So they invested in these small start-ups that can help them use less oil, which is cool. So, our company got a small grant from this incubator, and that’s how we got started and we started working on Navy homes out here. So, the Navy has a lot of homes out here in Hawaii.

T: So, you had an automatic customer base?

S: Yeah, exactly. So that was a big part of the incubator. And so they already had the Navy as a partner and the Navy wanted these solutions. It’s not a direct kind of thing. They have a property management company, and there’s a lot of other stakeholders and whatever else. We had to navigate this whole process to get through this, but since we did, they funded a 10-home pilot for us to do Navy homes.

S: And so…

We went and did 10 Navy homes and showed that we paid it back in four months.

T: Wow!

S: The charge that we had to put to make it worth our time versus what they made back in their energy and water bills. So much of it just translates directly into saving oil. That it paid for itself in four months.

T:  That’s incredible. That payback period is not heard of anywhere.

S: It’s unheard of in any kind of business to make three times your money back in one year. It’s mind blowing, right?

T:  That really made sense. But it’s interesting that the Navy be finding these types of products for their own benefit, but at the same time helping the environment.

S: Yeah. If you can check two boxes, that’s great.

Future Plans

T:  Yeah. And so obviously you’ve moved on from there. What are your future plans?

S: Well, it’s pretty clear what we’re looking to do is this Home Efficiency model is great and we’re looking to scale it through that white label kind of offering. We want to empower people, wherever they are to be able to use our program or our software. We’re looking at developing an app in this coming year that will kind of transform a lot of what we’re doing into something that people can do on a phone and like do for themselves and do as a business and all this kind of stuff.

S: And then with the Home Essentials line, make that an add on sale. And so hopefully our app can help tie those things together really nicely and allow people to green their own home. And then the people who are really into it are people who could then subscribe to something a little bit bigger, which is our software play, which will allow them to do this for a living.

T: So basically, you’re like the one stop shop for anything green in their home.

S: Trying to be. Yeah,

Contact Info for Scott and Pono Home

T: So just a wrap up question. If people wanted to know more about you or your businesses or even some of your ideas, how can they reach out to you?

S:  Well, just on our website, they can follow us on Instagram – Pono Home or at Pono Home Essentials. If they’re more interested in the zero-waste line and then our website site, ponohome.com has contact information on online so people can contact us that way.

T: And you’re (personally) on social media as well?

S: Yes.

T: Okay. We’ll, make sure to put some links onto the show notes. So if people want to reach out onto your Instagram page or Facebook page or website, then they can do that. And I think that you have some ideas that are definitely transferable to many places. I mean, who knows? You might get your first person from Australia that’s interested in your license program from this show. They’re always looking for ideas as well.

T: Scott, thank you for so much of what you’ve done throughout your career. It’s obvious that you’ve have this massive passion for the environment and the way that we treat the environment. And you’ve just constantly come up with different solutions to make life simple for people, but at the same time, providing a value to protecting Mother Nature.

T: So thank you for all the work that you’re doing and your business is doing for that. I hope we have a chance to talk further down the line because I have a feeling that your business is going to continue to evolve, and you’ll have some more interesting things to talk about in the future as well.

S: Yeah, thanks. Thanks for having me on the show.

Used plastic bottles

Should we still recycle?

With this being National Recycling Week in Australia, the common question that is being asked right now is, “Should we still recycle?”

After all the negative media lately on what some shady recyclers have done (i.e. sending contaminated rubbish overseas and/or putting recyclables into landfill as the War on Waste program revealed), it’s not surprising if the general public think it’s a waste of time.

Personally, between my podcast and business, I’ve had the privilege of speaking with quite a few experts in this space and to see recyclers in action. And I can tell you that there are plenty of great companies out there that are doing the right thing. Furthermore, they are making great products from these materials too.

In fact, when interviewing Mark Yates of Replas, I saw the mounds and mounds of rubbish that they were turning into outdoor furniture and industrial products even with high levels of contamination in them at times.

But Australia has Plenty of Land

One common argument to the recycling campaign is that Australia has plenty of land to bury our rubbish. While it may be true that we have plenty of land, how practical and costly would it be to transport thousands of tonnes of waste to such locations every day from metro areas? And think about the additional carbon emissions that would add.

Let’s Burn it Instead

Some say that we should just burn these recyclables instead, but to many in this industry, it’s just like burning money. There were a lot of resources expended to make plastic, and it is still has usable purposes beyond its one-time use.

Furthermore, it practically encourages people to continue to waste these non-renewable resources to keep the incinerators sustainable. Remember, plastic is made from petroleum and cannot be replenished.

But is Burning it for Energy a Better Option?

There are better technologies coming out in this space all the time. However, at the moment, most experts agree that burning rubbish is not a cost efficient source of energy yet. Furthermore, there are still carbon emissions, health concerns and a huge requirement for water with most of these options.

Is there even enough demand for these recyclable materials?

Large recycler, SKM collapsed earlier this year and others are apparently struggling in various parts of the country as the demand for recyclables has fallen. This can mostly be attributed to exports being limited by other countries, but the self imposed export ban by Australia will also add further pressure if that ever gets implemented.

So, should we still recycle?

Absolutely! As long as we continue to make and use plastic, recycling is the most environmentally sustainable and economical way to generate value from this resource.

But it’s important for consumers to know that recycling doesn’t end when you put something into the yellow bin. It’s only recycled when it’s turned into something else, and companies can’t do that unless more people are actively buying Australian made, recycled material products.

And that includes you too!

Cathy Costa

Conder House: the return to cloth nappies

In today’s episode of Plastics Revolution, I’m chatting with Cathy Costa of the Conder House Laundry and Linen Services. They provide the only modern cloth nappies or diapers cleaning service in the greater Canberra, Australia area.

Cathy started this business originally as a side hustle to meet her own family’s needs.  However, in just two years, her business has also diverted an approximate 62,000 disposable nappies or 3.4 tonnes away from landfill. Her business is making it easier for environmentally conscious families and day care centres to switch to cloth diapers.

I hope you enjoy this episode of Plastics Revolution with Cathy Costa of the Conder House.

Companies, Organisations and Products Mentioned in this Podcast:

Conder House Laundry and Linen Services
Canberra Cloth Bums
Cathy Costa on Linkedin

Other Resources:

Australian Nappy Association
Clean Cloth Nappies Down Under
All About Cloth Diapers
Cloth Diapering Mamas


Hosted by Tammy Ven Dange
Produced by Jonny Puskas
Theme Music by Joseph McDade
All Rights Reserved 2019

Podcast Transcript

This transcript has been edited for clarity.


T: Host Tammy Ven Dange
C: Guest Cathy Costa, Owner of  Conder House Laundry and Linen Services


T: Cathy, welcome to the show.

C: Thanks for having me, Tammy.

T: I found out about your business through a forum that I went to where people were trying to convince future parents to go to a cloth nappy. And I know that’s a big thing right now because so many people are worried about the environmental impacts of (disposable) nappies or diapers for the length of a child’s use of these.

T: I understand that you’re the only cleaning service for cloth nappies here in the greater Canberra area, is that right?

C: Yeah, that’s correct.

T:  So tell me how your service works.

C:  Right. So we provide modern cloth nappies to our clients, as well as, doing all the washing, which is the bit that turns people off the most. So, we happen to deliver nappies twice a week. The client just checks them at their front door, and we swap them over up to twice a week and take them away and give them back a lovely clean bag.

C: We also, provide training on their first bag, and we can provide ongoing support for clients for as long as they need really. If they’re having trouble or if they’re experiencing extra leakage or anything like that, we can work with them so that they get a positive experience using the modern cloth nappies.

Cloth Nappies versus Modern Cloth Nappies

T: The difference between the old school cloth nappy and today’s modern cloth nappy, what’s the difference between the two?

C: So the old school was a terry flat. So it was just like a bath towel, but it was a square shape and you folded them up and clip them up with pins and then you put these plastic pants – PVC plastic back in the day over the top.

Terry Flat Nappy

C: The modern cloth nappy now is a breathable, waterproof fabric, which is called a polyurethane laminate. It was originally designed for the health care sector, and now they use that as the waterproof barrier on the outside of the nappy. And it comes in all pretty colours and patterns and prints. And it’s really quite cute.

Modern cloth nappy

C: And they’ve got all of these snaps so you can adjust them. And some of them have Velcro as well. But ours are with snaps so that you can adjust them to the shape and size of the baby. And on the inside you’ve got a fabric that draws the moisture away from the baby’s skin. And then there’s an insert, which is a combination of, in our particular case of bamboo and microfiber, that holds all of the fluids in there and elastic in the legs.

C: So it looks a bit like a disposable. It’s sort of shaped already like that. So it’s a lot easier to put on.

T:  And it’s also probably more complex to clean.

C: Yes. Yes, absolutely. Because when I was doing cloth nappies with my children, once you took off the solids, you just dunked the terry flats into a bucket of water with Nappy Sand (a laundry detergent in Australia specifically to wash cloth diapers) in it. But Nappy Sand doesn’t have sanitizer anymore. So that’s not what we do anymore. And obviously the modern cloth nappies can’t tolerate the extreme heat. So that’s where for us, in particular, that the sanitizer comes into play.

T: Yeah. I think it’s important for people to realise that the modern cloth nappy is so much different and so cute.  It’s kind of funny that we’re going back to this cloth nappy. I know that certainly when I was a kid and my brother was a kid, my parents definitely used cloth nappies and probably yours as well.

T: The disposable nappy, though, is so convenient. The cleaning process (described in) that forum is what made it so hard. Is the process you go through at your service, is that the same process that a parent might go through at home?

Cleaning Cloth Nappies at the Conder House

C: Yes, to a certain extent. But we’re in the industrial market, so it is technically a lot easier for us because we’ve got these ginormous machines that can wash 200 nappies in one go. And we’re using industrial chemicals and obviously we’ve got to meet Australian standards, which is not happening in the home.

C: But that’s okay in the home because they’re putting their nappies back on their baby. But that doesn’t work for us because a nappy might be used on one baby one day and then the next week it’ll be used on another baby. So that’s why we have to meet Australian standards so that we don’t pass on any germs from one baby to the next, and you get that satisfaction of sanitisation in every single load.

T: What do you do differently that ensures that you have that lack of cross contamination?

C:  So we’re actually of barrier laundry. So if you picture a big square room with a wall down the middle and then this ginormous washing machine sitting in the middle of the wall has two doors that opens on each side of the big square room and you can only enter one side at a time.

One side of the Conder House Barrier Laundry
One side of the Conder House Barrier Laundry

C: So what we call the dirty side – all the dirty laundry, including the nappies, goes in the dirty side and then it gets processed through the machine and opens up on the clean side through the door that’s on the clean side. So that’s how we can ensure that there is no cross contamination between clean and dirty laundry.

C: And our van is set up the same as well. We’ve got a vapour barrier in our van and only clean laundry goes on the clean side and only dirty laundry goes on the dirty side. But that’s how we ensure we don’t cross contaminate stuff. But the other mechanism we use is sanitisation.

Conder House Van
Conder House Van

C:  And with the modern cloth nappies, we have to use chemical sanitisation because we can’t do it thermally because we can’t wash the nappies to the temperature that we need to get to because they melt, because they’ve got a waterproof layer on them.

T:  And so you’re using chemicals to get rid of all the bacteria and other things. A lot of people say that the environmental impact of having to wash cloth diapers or nappies could be just as bad as the disposal cost or the landfill cost to the environment. What’s your view on that?

C:  There’s always going to be an impact. You can’t get around that. So it depends on which you consider to be the worst. I actually consider that washing of cloth nappies to be less of an impact than the landfill that we’re putting in with disposable nappies. So all of our chemicals are biodegradable. That’s a necessity for industrial laundries. But when you think about the landfill,  it’s tons and tons and tons of waste that is really going into landfill.

C: So, yes, we do use a lot more water, but we wash it 200 nappies in one go. So if you are looking at people doing nappies at home and everybody doing two washes to get the washing done, we actually only need to do one wash each time. So we cut down on water then there. And we also, as I said before, we wash 200 at a time. So we’re actually economising as much as we can.

A load of 200 nappies
A load of 200 nappies

C: And then when we scheduling our delivery runs, we’re also economising there as well because we are scheduling it in the most efficient route that we can do. So, we do try as much as we can to cut it down. Also when we’re supplying bags for these nappies, they’re all reusable, rewashable. So, the bags that our clients are using to receive their nappies and to drop them back to us, they’re not plastic bags either. So we cut it down as much as we can.

The Cost of Disposable Convenience

T: I ran some numbers the other day and tell me this is right. If the average baby uses about 12 nappies a day, especially when they’re first born, and maybe they need it up until about age two and a half or three.  It sounds like we’re looking at least 4000 nappies per child.

C:  Yeah, probably a bit more actually. I’d say it’s between 5000 and 5500 – around that figure.

T: Wow. And so, how many of the cloth nappies would see a child through until they no longer need it?

C: So if you would buy them and use them in your own home. Most people usually operate on about 30 nappies. It becomes a bit of a cult. And families tend to buy so many of them because they just come in beautiful patterns, and they really like to show them off. So there are families that have got a lot more than 30, but you really can survive on 30 if you’re operating on that in the home.

C: And that can do three or four children if you’re looking after them properly and washing them correctly and yeah, they really can go quite a distance.

C: And my nappies, obviously, they’re not per child. But I’ve been using one set of nappies for two years. Obviously, my set of nappies is a lot larger than what they are in the home. I’m talking hundreds actually closer to the thousands, but we’ve been using those for two years. So they get used multiple times a week because they come and get washed and get sent out again. So, they really do last a long time.

T: If we’re talking about two years, and you have them in use maybe twice a week – that is a significant decrease in the amount of plastic disposables going into the landfill.

C: Absolutely.

T: So that is significant. The biggest challenge, I suppose, is people’s views about washing them.

C: Yes.

Cleaning Cloth Nappies at Home

T: I’ve heard people say, “Oh, it’s so gross.”  I don’t have any children, but I think about when I used to work in a vet clinic, and we used to wash all the dogs’ towels and such. And sometimes those had poo on them as well, but we had a special washer for that. There wouldn’t be any kind of human towels or human anything else with that. How do people get past that mental barrier of, “Oh, I got to wash these pooey diapers and in my washing machine with all the other things?”

C: Well, the bottom line is there are some families that just can’t get past that, and that’s where we come into play there because we put in our machine, not theirs. But in all reality, you’re not creating poo soup at home. You actually are scrubbing out the solids before you’re put into machine. And yes, there will be urine in that.

C: But in the home, they are doing a pre-wash which is just the nappies, and then they’re doing another wash on top of that, which is generally just the nappies. And you can put other little things in like bibs and gross suits and smaller items. You can put underwear in there as well just to fill up the machine so that you get that correct agitation. But generally people don’t wash their clothes in there anyway

C: But again, it comes down to, “That’s okay in your home when it’s your family, but that’s not something that we can do.” And that’s why we have to actually use sanitizer every single load.

T: The other day when I saw you, and you showed me some of your fancy nappies, like there are the cutest ones for Christmas and in all the different holiday ones which were so adorable –  I remember you telling me that since you’ve taken out of the your facility, that now they’re considered dirty.

Christmas Nappies
Christmas Nappies

C: Yeah.

T: And that you would have to take them back and wash them again because they’ve been exposed now to outside elements. I thought that was quite impressive to say that because obviously a baby hasn’t used them, but your view of what dirty is.

C: Yeah, absolutely. As soon as it leaves the laundry, it’s considered dirty in our mind. So anything that comes back used or not has to go back through the same process as if it had been soiled. So again, that’s part of meeting Australian standards and ensuring that we can meet those sanitisation standards, and we can’t spruik that we do when we cut corners – so we don’t.

Solving her own Problem

T: Cathy, I know that the nappy cleaning service is only part of your business. Do you want to talk about how you actually started your laundry linen service?

C: Sure. So it really started off as a side hustle. I set up the business because I have a disabled adult son who’s severely autistic and intellectually delayed. And I was desperate for someone to do his laundry – both bed pads and linen, but also his clothing because we just had so much foul laundry, as you call it. And I couldn’t find anyone to do it for us.

C: The big linen companies would only support restaurants and hotels and hospitals. They wouldn’t just support an individual in a home that just needed a few sheets per week and a few big pads and stuff like that. And they definitely wouldn’t do your own clothing. So, I decided I’d set something up because I thought, “Actually, I can’t be the only person that needs this service.” And as it turns out, I’m not. So that’s how it really started.

Adding the Modern Cloth Nappies Cleaning Service

C: And then the nappies just flowed on from that as I sat in in the laundry and I thought, “Well, what else can I use this wonderful equipment that I’ve now got?” Because it’s quite a substantial capital outlay to set it up in the first instance. So I was looking into what other opportunities exist. And I asked my sister, “What about cloth nappies?” Because she and I used the terry flat cloth nappies on our kids, and she turned around and said, “Nobody does that anymore.”

C: So that’s when I sort of looked at the Facebook groups and started just stalking them and just listening and finding out all about it, and then came to the conclusion that I’ve got the equipment to do this, and I can do it easily. And it just provides another option to families who would like to do it, but don’t do it in the home. But it also provides another option for industry, for the childcare industry in particular.

T: You called it a side hustle.

C: Yes.

T: And what I find interesting is that – when did you actually start this business?

C: So, I started this business in November 2016.

Funding this Side Hustle

T: As a side hustle?

C: Yes.

T: But it’s not like a cheap side hustle. It’s not like you’re doing laundry in your own house for someone else.

C: No. It was a substantial outlay and went and got a loan.

T: You got a loan to pay for – what kind of facilities did you actually have to create for this?

C: So obviously we need to set up a barrier laundry and because I need to keep costs down because I was doing it as a side hustle, what I did is I had my garage in my house refitted into these barrier laundry. Yes, so I went and got a loan. I needed building works done. So, I probably spent about $50, $60 (thousand).

T: Just in facility costs?

C: Just on building works.  And then the machines themselves were in the vicinity of $50,000 or $60,000. And then all the other bits and pieces – a trolley. Just a trolley, a linen trolley can cost $1200. So now nothing is cheap  in this industry so. So I just did a gradually bit by bit, and as we expand I was cognisant of going too big too fast.

C: But the way we did it, having it in the in the garage as such meant I didn’t have rent. So it really kept the costs down for me so that I could continue working full time in the public service as well as doing this.

T: So you’re working in the public service?

C:  I was at the time, yes.

T: How many hours a week were you putting in this side hustle?

From Side Hustle to Full Time Work

C: Oh, I don’t know. If you ask any small business owner, they they’ve got to tell you that it’s just so many. And it got to the point where I couldn’t do it anymore. I had to make a choice.

T: What was that choice?

C: And I ended up leaving the public service. I ended up going on long service leave. And then I kind of doubled the turnover of the company during that period. And so I actually can’t couldn’t go back to work now.

T:  You’ve got too much business.

C: Yeah, that’s exactly right.

First Hire?

T: When did you hire your first employee?

C: Oh, that was probably within six months, and it just started off for a few hours a week. And then as the business grew, her time increased. And again, I’m really cognizant of going too big too fast. So, we did it in a very gradual approach, and I’ve now got three casual employees. And again, they’ve all come on really quite gradually.

Getting Started

T: Did you start off with people (clients) like yourself that were families with children with disabilities that needed some linen cleaning or was it like you started thinking right away, “I want to go ahead and look at childcare centres and actual businesses?”

C: No, at the beginning it was about families caring for elderly at home, people at home with disabilities, et cetera. It was purely focussed on that.

C: That really was the original mission statement. So with the NDIS now, it’s a lot more affordable. To be honest, without the NDIS, it’s probably not something that people could afford. And that really has created wonderful options for them, and they can choose to use us rather than having to slave away at home for hours and hours and hours.

T:  So the National Disability Insurance Scheme is what that stands for.

C: Yes. Sorry.

T: NDIS for those who are not from Australia, that actually came in about the same time that you started your business, didn’t it?

C: It did come in earlier than that. It was about five, six years ago in the ACT (Australian Capital Territory).

T: Oh, yeah. Depends on what state.

C: Yeah it does because the ACT was part of the trial sites, it came in a little bit earlier.

T:  Okay. So, you already knew that there was a potential source of income for these families where they had choices that they could make about how to use some government funding to pay for a service like what you’re offering?

C: Mm hmm.

T: That was a great business opportunity because what I saw instead from the outside looking in was just a lot of people that were scrambling – or charities especially that were scrambling to figure out how to work within that new NDIS scheme. It sounds like you found an opportunity instead.

C: Yeah. And again, it was just purely because I had a child with a disability. So, I knew what I was looking for, and

I designed the service to be completely around what I would want as a customer.

C: Pick up and delivery was a major component of that. And that set us apart from other people, laundromats in particular because they didn’t necessarily pick up or deliver.  And people with disabilities don’t necessarily have a car or aren’t able to drive. Don’t have the time and all those things. So that’s why I went down that path.

T: When you’re first starting off though, and you have a delivery service – the Canberra community is fairly contained compared to maybe some cities – I can imagine you could end up being on the road the whole time.

C: Yes, it certainly could. My son John, who is autistic, intellectually delay. He actually does the deliveries with a support worker. So that’s another part of our business that whilst we aren’t a social enterprise, we’ve got a bit of a social enterprise feel and we create an employment opportunity for him.

C: And in all reality, it’s not really about him earning money. It’s more about giving him something meaningful to do for four days a week. He actually works for us. So, he actually does a delivery run four days a week. We don’t do it on the one day because we need to keep the van available in case we need to get it serviced.

T: But is he enjoying the work? Is he actually fully participating in that?

C: He fully participates as much as he can obviously. He’s carrying the bags in and out to clients. He actually comes into the laundry, and he’s engaged the whole time, and he loads the van with his support worker, obviously under the support worker is guiding him as to what order we put the bags into the van. And he then carries them out to the client, and then swaps them over and says goodday. Some of the clients just love it when he comes to visit.

T: Yeah, I bet.

C: They really do enjoy that. And he stops off every now and then, like for lunch and he goes and plays on the swing at a local park. He has a great time.

T: I think we should all do that. That would be a great lunchtime break for all of us I think.

T: So, you have now, though, moved on from just clients within the linen service, moving into the nappy service.

C: Yes.

T: Are you dealing mostly with individual families now or are you starting to build more of a business clientele?

C:  Well, it’s working both ways, really. The home-base clients is really starting to grow. And the number of those clients fluctuates because some clients in the home are just wanting for a short period of time while they get used to cloth nappies, or when somebody buys them a gift voucher as a baby present. They just use it for that period of time. Others have used it more long term, so our home base clients really is fluctuating.

Cloth Nappies in Childcare Centres

C: But where I feel that we can really make the most impact is encouraging childcare centres to be using them because the figures on their usage of disposables is really phenomenal. So, we do have a few business clients and obviously that’s where we are focussing our effort at the moment. I anticipate that the usage of cloth nappies in the ACT  will end up being regulated, but we’ll see whether my prediction comes through.

T:  I think that will be challenging knowing that there’s some parents that just refuse to move into a cloth nappy, if nothing else, because the time.

C: Yeah.

T: And I think that will be challenging. But there’s certainly a more and more people that are up taking this from an environmental conscious point of view.

C: Absolutely..

T: We’re talking about childcare centres, do you have any numbers in terms of what they’re actually going through right now in terms of nappies?

C: Yeah, I do, actually. So, generally a room in a childcare centre is about 20 placements. So I have actually crunched the figures on 20 placements. And a lot of childcare centres have multiple rooms that have 20 placements that are using disposable nappies. So if we just work on one room with 20 placements, that’s 500 disposable nappies per week, 2000 a month or 22,000 per year that are all going into landfill. So if we look at what that is:

From a waste disposal point of view, that is 22.5 to 27.5 kilos per week, 90 to 110 kilos per month, 990 kilos to 1.21 tonnes per year. That’s just for 20 placements in one childcare centre per year.

T: That’s huge. That’s absolutely huge.

C:  Hence the reason why I feel we can make the biggest difference through childcare centres.

T: Yeah, for sure. And if there is only regulation within the childcare centres themselves, not within families, that alone would make a huge difference.

C: Absolutely.  And you know, minimal impact for families at home because childcare workers are paid to change nappies. That’s part of their job description. So, it’s not an impact on the home. It’s also not an impact on those who are managing people with disabilities at home and still using continence aides that are well beyond the normal appropriate age nappy usage.

C: And families can make a choice to if they don’t want to actually use disposables at home. But they’re worried about their environmental footprint. They can choose to use a childcare centre that supplies cloth nappies.

T:  You just said something that made me think about bigger market there. You were just mentioning about incontinence pads and such.

C: Mm hmm.

T: Are there cloth adult type nappies available?

C: There absolutely are. We don’t supply them. And I’ve definitely used them with my son in the past. He doesn’t need them anymore. But yes, you can. But without grossing everybody out, adult poo is very different to a child’s poo. And it’s a lot harder to clean.

T:  Yeah, I think anyone that’s had to change a newborn will know that even a child’s poo changes over time as well.

C: Absolutely.

T: As I confess that from my one year old nephew.

T:  The numbers you just said for the childcare centres is just phenomenal.  I know based on speaking to other people in the recycling industry for plastics, that in Australia right now, there are no solutions for recycling dirty nappies.

T: There are in some countries, and there’s certainly a number of companies that have tried to do it here, and there’s at least one organisation or a company that’s trying to create some sort of recycling process for nappies. But right now, there are basically are no options for recycling disposable nappies.

T: So unfortunately, the numbers you’re telling us right now is something that’s been happening for years. And it will continue to be a sore spot in the No Waste goals that both government and individuals have.

C: Absolutely. And each disposable nappy takes 200 to 500 years to decompose in landfill. So we are putting all these nappies into landfill, but then they’re not decomposing in a year. It’s 200 to 500 years. This is an enormous amount.

T: Which is incredible to see.

Business Growth

T: So, the kind of customers that you’re picking up now, I mean, there’s certainly more and more interest around cloth nappies at the moment. And people are getting over this poo issue to the point that they’re say, “Look, our parents used to do it. Obviously, we can do it, too. It’s not that big a deal.” And if they really don’t want to handle it, or they don’t have the time to handle it themselves, they can use a service like yours.

T: What kind of growth have you seen in the last, say, 12 months?

C: Oh, there’s actually been quite a lot of growth in the last twelve months, particularly for us. Just awareness of our existence is really been quite a significant thing. And even in the ACT. I’m not quite sure how long Canberra Cloth Bums –  that Facebook group you mentioned earlier (note: hosted forum I attended), how long they’ve been running for, but they have contributed significantly to the awareness in Canberra.

C: They’ve got a huge number of followers – 600 plus just in the ACT and there are other Facebook groups, etcetera, that are really opening it up so that people understand all about it. But yeah, the awareness is increasing dramatically.

T: So I imagine that could impact your business as well.

C: Yes, it could. I need to do something about that to be ready for it.

Future Plans for Conder House

T: OK, well, let’s talk about future plans and future goals. What do you have planned?

C: Now I’m looking at expansion because as I alluded to before, I anticipate that cloth nappies will be regulated in the city for childcare centres. And if that happens, I need to get postured to be able to cope with that, because obviously it’ll be a demand that I just can’t meet as we are at the moment.

C: There will probably a few different options. The big linen companies will probably provide just the terry flat option. But if businesses are looking for a modern cloth solution, those companies probably aren’t interested in the extra work that’s going to be required with them.

C: So, I’m now looking at what we can do to expand not only machinery, but obviously in facilities. We’re gonna be far, far too big for our little space in my garage. So we’ll have to look at a warehouse type solution full of lots of machines and more staff, obviously.

T: Well, another investment, though.

C: Yes, absolutely. And again, I’ll have to work out how I’m going to fund that. But again, it will be something that I fund. And again, it’ll have to be a gradual process and quite well planned and thought out.

T: Have you thought about bringing on investors?

C:  No. Yes, I have looked at it, but I’m hesitant to lose control of ownership etc. of the company.

T: Yeah, I think a lot of people that think about investors forget that element sometimes.

C: Yeah. And that’s what discourages me the most in all fact, in all reality. I’m just not keen to hand over ownership.

T:  Do you think that cloth nappies or the revolution back to it? Do you think it’s just a trend or do you think this is something that’s more long term?

C: I think it will be more long term.

I think people will just realise what we’re doing is not sustainable. We’ve had a good run with it, I suppose. It’s coming to an end. You know, where do we put? Where do we continue to put all this landfill? It’s just not sustainable.

T: And if a company does come in with a recycling solution, is that going to impact you?

C:  I don’t think so, because it just gives the families another option, which is great. I would say, there are certain people that just aren’t going to use cloth. It just doesn’t work for them. So those would be the families that would potentially look at a recycling or a composting option. But then there’s others that go the whole hog and don’t want disposables at all. So, it’s just another great option.  I encourage it.

T:  Well, they always say to refuse, reuse first, right? Before you try to recycle? Because that’s the best the best option for the environment in the long run.

C: Absolutely.

T: Would you like to share anything else with our listeners or do you have any request from them? 

C:  The only thing that I really would like to share is that modern cloth nappies, well cloth nappies in general really aren’t for everybody. You either want to or you don’t. And sometimes you just can’t. It’s a personal choice.

C: Services like ours give you a different option. And again, as I said before, if you don’t want to do it at home, but you feel that you need to be responsible in some way, shape or form,

You can always choose a childcare centre that uses cloth nappies and then it doesn’t have a direct impact on you. But give it a go. You don’t even have to do it full time. You can do it on weekends or you can just do it Monday to Friday. You don’t actually have to do it full time either.

C: There’s lots of families out there who only elect to do it on a part time basis because full time basis is just a bit too much for them. Or they just can’t get the support they need overnight – cloth nappies aren’t absorbent enough for them. So they use a combination.

There’s plenty of help out there but just go look for it and you can always give us a call and we’ll help you along on that journey.

T: I think that’s a good point. I know someone right now who only does cloth nappies on weekends because their child centre won’t accept cloth nappies. So that was her compromise to say, “OK, while they’re at a childcare centre, they’ll go ahead and use the disposable ones. But when they’re in my house and I have control over this and I could do it, then on the weekends I’ll use the modern cloth nappy.”

Other Resources

T:  I know that you’re only servicing people within the Canberra community. If we look broadly speaking, if somebody who hears this is perhaps even another country, where can they go for resources to learn about cloth nappies?

C: So, there are multiple Facebook groups. CCN is one of the big ones and I can’t tell you what that acronym stands for. If all of the top my head. But if you just googled “modern cloth nappies”, you would find a whole lot of information would pop up for you.

T: Or “modern cloth diapers?”

C: Oh yeah maybe diapers for US listeners and potentially Asian listeners as well. I think they call them diapers there too.

T: So what we could do is put some resources on the show notes so that if people want to go to some sites, we can give you a couple to start with then.

C: Absolutely.

How to Reach Cathy or the Conder House

T: And then that way at least they’ll have some resources for them. Locally if somebody wants to use your service, Cathy, how else can they reach you?

C: They can reach us on Facebook, Instagram, on our website. www.conderhouse.com.au. We’ve got our phone number plastered everywhere. So they’re welcome to phone or an email.

T: Cathy I think what you’re doing right now is a huge service to start with when you’re looking at people that had perhaps disabilities and needed some sort of cleaning service that nobody else would provide, and obviously (you were) scratching your own itch there.

T: But the fact is you’ve gone beyond that, and you’re providing a service now that is actually reducing the amount of dirty nappies that are going into the landfill is a huge option for the environmentally conscious consumer parent out there. You’re the only one in this area. Melbourne, I think, only has one too.

T: The service you’re providing right now is the only option for some parents. So, thank you so much for extending your reach and recognising the environmental impact you can make within families, but also especially day-care centres to reduce the amount of plastic that they’re consuming. Because without someone like you providing these services, there’s a lot less people that could even think about doing it.

C: Thank you.