Simplicity and Sustainability: a Values-First Business Approach

0 0 751
By Ashley Baker, Scientific Content Manager (Contractor) at the ACS Green Chemistry Institute

As part of our environmental justice-themed issue of the Nexus Newsletter, we had the privilege of interviewing Huia Iti, Director of R&D at ecoStore & Chantal Organics. He shared his perspective on an approach to aligning business needs with core personal and cultural values. Read about how ecoStore is navigating the intersection of greener chemistry, sustainability, and social responsibility.

Huia Iti MarApr Nexus Images(600 x 300 px).jpg

As part of our environmental justice-themed issue of the Nexus Newsletter, we had the privilege of interviewing Huia Iti, Director of R&D at ecoStore & Chantal Organics. He shared his perspective on an approach to aligning business needs with core personal and cultural values. Read about how ecoStore is navigating the intersection of greener chemistry, sustainability, and social responsibility.

For 17 years, Huia Iti has worked at ecoStore, a New Zealand-based company that develops, manufactures, and packages sustainable home and body care products. But Huia’s commitment to sustainability, simplicity, and stewardship goes well beyond his professional title of Director of R&D. He began our conversation by introducing himself formally in Māori - the spoken language of the Indigenous people of Aotearoa - which is at once poetic and grounded in place:

Ko Huia Iti toku ingoa (Huia Iti is my name), Ko Nga mahanga a tairi toku hapu (my sub-tribe), Ko Taranaki toku iwi (my wider tribal group), Ko Taranaki toku maunga (my mountain), Ko Kura haupo toku waka (my canoe), No Oakura pa ahau (I am from Oakura pa).”

Huia’s lifestyle sounds idyllic. At university, he was able to follow his natural inquisitiveness and passion for creating through studying chemistry. Now, on a five-acre property in Auckland that may one day (he hopes) be fully self-sustaining, Huia lives with his family and tends to an orchard, a garden, and cows. Giving freely and without the expectation of reciprocity is one of his core values, and he’s been a volunteer firefighter for over 11 years. Huia tries to align his life with his principles and culture, particularly the Māori concept of kaitiakitanga.

“It’s the role you play to look after the things that are important to you, to your family, to your community, and to your environment,” he said, explaining the term. “It’s understanding that these things are precious and I am here for a short time, so I’m going to use a portion of my life, energy, resources, and expertise to contribute, look after, enhance, and remediate.”

Having this core value, working at a sustainability-focused brand like ecoStore poses unique challenges.

“To be honest, we’ve made some decisions that actually aren’t fantastic for the company.”

Huia says this even though the company, which was founded in 1993, continues to expand to markets in Australia, China, Japan, and South Korea, among others. In other words, like any successful business, they’ve grown. What Huia means, however, is that compromises have to be made that balance the company’s principles with economic realities. For example, he explained that they switched to sugar-cane-based HDPE plastic for their packaging even though the cost is “through the roof” compared to the same material derived from petrochemical feedstocks. For ecoStore, there was no question of whether or not to do it.

“No matter how much it doesn’t make the bottom line look great sometimes, people love to know that their bottle used to be sugarcane,” Huia said. “It kind of blows their mind that it used to be a plant. It’s recyclable, refillable, and reusable.” 

Guardianship and responsibility have been at the core of EcoStore from the very start. The company’s founders, Malcolm and Melanie Rands also came from a rural area, and they recognized that chemicals going into the ground from their homes had a way of making it back into their water, their gardens, and their bodies. Systems-level thinking born from their lived experiences positioned them to become early sustainability leaders. This leadership caught the attention of Peter Kraus who joined the journey along with his son Pablo Kraus to form the nucleus and launchpad for global expansion. In their quest to transform the industry, ecoStore strives to keep no secrets, encourages customers to research ingredients, and to contact ecoStore if they can’t find enough information. When developing a product, the company evaluates available toxicology data sets, commercial viability, stability in products, irritants and allergens, and accessibility. Huia says they also consider consumer perceptions of chemicals, whether these concerns are data-backed or not.

“We do that analysis to make sure we’re using the safest but also effective ingredients in our products. We use a precautionary principle,” Huia said. “It makes our jobs harder because you can always find something to worry about. We’re looking out for people’s health, we’re looking out for the environment. It’s tricky for our team though.”

In addition to selecting the right bio-based packaging, Huia has faced difficult decisions around ethical sourcing, preservatives, and fragrances. But because he keeps his values of stewardship and responsibility top of mind, they are problems he’s happy to solve.

“I think our sales and global reach are a testament to our policies of transparency, disclosure, and engagement. We don’t shy away from anything,” he said. “We use a lot of palm oil. That’s just the reality. Palm oil is a tough topic because of the complexities of what happens [in the supply chain]. But you can’t use it and then not talk about it. To be honest, I wish palm oil and its production was squeaky clean, but it ain’t. Acknowledging that is part of continuous improvement and doing better in this space.”

In the products themselves, ecoStore is working hard to find alternatives and simplify. Even sustainable, natural ingredients can irritate the skin or eyes, for instance. They’ve found that sometimes it’s better to subtract than to add, and this approach to product design is well-aligned with Huia’s value of minimizing unnecessary consumption and disposal. Creating preservative-free and fragrance-free options has given consumers “quieter,” lower-additive choices they appreciate. In fact, Huia says their fragrance-free products are now some of their best sellers. Through rethinking existing product lines and formats, ecoStore has innovated – and it’s working.

“Fundamentally, a preservative is there to kill things,” said Huia. “A lot of our products apply to your body and children, and we’re on a journey of taking the preservatives out and finding milder options by changing our product formats. Instead of liquids, we’ve created solid bar soaps, dishwashing bars, and laundry capsules with no preservatives.”

Customer education is also important to Huia because it gives them the agency to make the best choices for themselves and their families. Early in his career at ecoStore, Huia had the idea to actually show customers the ingredients they’d be using in their homes and on their bodies. Now, the molecular structure of every ingredient can be viewed on the website alongside common uses, related policies, and toxicological information. In the case of “Nasty Ingredients” – those that are not used in their products – there is also a detailed explanation of why that ingredient has been avoided. People often find ecoStore, Huia explained, by researching what they don’t want in their products, especially when looking for safer alternatives for their children.

“When people have kids it kind of sets off another level of, ‘What do I need to think about?’ You have your precious little being, you’re doing your best to create a nice warm home for them, providing nourishment through their diet, and then you start thinking, ‘We’re bathing them in this, we’re washing their hair with that, we’re putting this diaper cream on them. What does that stuff have in it?’ At that stage, you start thinking about exactly what you’re using, what’s in it, and what impacts it might have.”

As a product developer, having a visualization of the molecules also inspires Huia to consider them more holistically.

“You can go back in the story and answer where something came from, what sort of certification comes from that, what are the issues on plantations, to pesticides being used, the protection of the areas, the kinds of protections for the people and Indigenous rights,” he said. “When you have something concrete to refer to, then you can start telling the story of its lifecycle.”

For companies around the world looking to improve their impacts on humans and the environment, Huia has advice: look inward to drive change. If you ask yourself what’s really important and what kind of world you want future generations to inherit, making responsible choices gets a lot easier. From his perspective, it’s never too late for a company to change and adopt a more sustainable approach.

“It starts at the top. It starts with the shareholders, the chief executive, the board. If you can go, ‘We’re going to leave people and this planet in a better place than we found them,’ then that’s the starting point. As soon as someone makes that decision, I think the practical side falls into place. It trickles down to the chemist,” he said.

Huia’s perspective showcases how getting in touch with our values, focusing on what is important in life, and deepening our connection to the places we inhabit can drive authentic business strategies where simplicity and sustainability are the priority. Growth doesn’t just mean selling more products; we also have room to grow in how we take responsibility for safeguarding our communities and the environment.

“As humans, we’ve drilled holes in the ground, used the products, and our planet is warming as a result. That’s the reality. But is that your legacy? Take responsibility for what you do, and challenge yourself to be better. Focus on renewables and focus on regenerating the planet and our people. Focus on safer ingredients for our populations, their health, their families, and the environment. That’s how I approach it. That’s my advice. Understand who you are. Have a reality check, and be a good human being. It’s as simple as that.”

Our sincere thanks to Huia for taking the time to share his perspective and the story behind ecoStore. At this year’s Green Chemistry and Engineering Conference, don’t miss the session, “Unheard Voices and Perspectives in Global Green Chemistry and Sustainability: Research, Leadership, ...” for more insight into sustainability and green chemistry approaches around the world.