Pablo Kraus is one of the nation’s most prominent—and youngest—managing directors having taken charge of ecostore in 2017, where he had already been a director for five years. An under-40s member of the New Zealand Institute of Directors, he is also a director of all companies controlled by his family business, such as Huckleberry, New Zealand’s largest organic retailer, and organic farming and food manufacturer, Chantal Organics. Verve sat down with Pablo to speak about what it takes to stay green and top of the eco-tree.
“My family has been involved with ecostore since 2003 when my father first invested,” reveals Pablo over a strong long black at the company’s HQ on The Strand. “My father always had an interest in green living and ecostore was one of his first investments. He remembers back to when he was a child, his mother was a school cleaner and she would come home reeking of chemicals. He thinks maybe subconsciously that that was what aroused his interest around health and the environment.”
Now a father to two young children, Pablo is keen to set a good environmental example for them, starting with either cycling or walking them to school and kindergarten each day. “When we had our first, I suddenly became very aware of what products we were using at home,” says the boss. “It was easy for me to become very passionate about it very quickly. Ecostore is all about helping people make better choices for their families and for the world. Hopefully something rubs off on my children from me.”
Ecostore was founded by pioneering environmentalists Malcolm and Melanie Rands at their Northland ecovillage in 1993, with their flagship store opening four years later in Freemans Bay, along with its non-profit arm, Fairground Foundation. Malcolm has twice won the New Zealand Ministry for the Environment’s Green Ribbon Award, while ecostore has twice been named New Zealand Sustainable Business of the Year.
“Malcolm was very much involved in the transition and is still only ever a phone call away,” says Pablo. “I feel very lucky to still be able to pick up the phone and run an idea past him.”
As Malcolm has always been so “vocal within the leadership space”, Pablo strongly believes that he must continue the founder’s “trailblazing” work. “The green space now occupies the main space,” he says. “The conversation has come to the forefront and much of it is about plastic bags and packaging. Four years ago, we made the change from using petrochemical to plant-based plastics—a process that actually captures carbon as opposed to producing it.”
It was never supposed to be this way for Pablo who graduated from Vancouver Film School to work as an interactive developer for five years: “Dad invited me to join the family business and I was thrown in at the deep end!” Pablo mentions a couple of other significant mentors on his journey: a former leader who worked across the family businesses, “helped me grow in terms of understanding how to do business”; and a former CEO of a major Australian pharmaceutical company who “helped me become a leader”.
Advice that particularly sticks in the mind is to ‘follow your intuition’ (“I have been told I have good intuition”), and as for dishing out guidance, then that would be: “when exporting, go to the markets and actually meet people”. “It’s important to build rapport and relationships,” Pablo says. “You can’t be running a business by sending emails. Malcolm talks about the importance of a ‘bump space’ where you bump into others and share ideas—it could be while getting coffee or relaxing in the garden area of his ecovillage. This is so important in business as well as life, there’s no substitute for face-to-face contact.”
Inheriting a brand with such heritage, Pablo admits that he didn’t want to change things too much, though he is making a concerted effort to push further into the Asian and Australian markets. “We are becoming more export focussed,” Pablo says. “China alone represents 12% of our business. There was an interesting study by Alibaba last year that showed there are 400 million conscious consumers coming out of China, which means anything from someone purchasing an LED light to someone being concerned about chemicals in their products. There is just such opportunity there.”
The ecostore brand will be further bolstered with the release of an oral care range including toothpastes, toothbrushes (crafted from that plant-based plastic) and a mouthwash. “It’s something we’ve been working on since I first became involved as a director, so it’s very exciting to finally see it come to fruition,” says Pablo. “We’re really happy with our oral care products that are safer for our customers as well as the world, by using ingredients such as a magnolia bark extract and kanuka oil, as well plastic grown from plants.”
The company also opted to omit the much-maligned fluoride from their three toothpastes. “Another great thing about our toothpastes is that there is no sodium lauryl sulphate which, although is plant-based and can be advertised as natural, is actually a skin irritant. It’s even used to degrease machinery.”
Such instances of greenwashing aside, a major challenge for ecostore is to “change the misconception that green or natural products don’t work”: “Every time someone uses our product, they realise just how well they do work and that’s why we develop such loyalty,” Pablo says. “We were recently voted number two as the most authentic brand in New Zealand (Tesla won, but they’re actually an American company!) and we were also voted the most sustainable brand for the fourth year straight.”
In September, the company will release an expanded ultra-sensitive range with all fragrances removed aimed at those with allergies. The issue of health, adds Pablo, is just as important as environmental concern. “When Malcolm and Melanie first stated out they would receive letters saying that people’s eczema had disappeared since they started using ecostore products,” he says. “We are a health and wellbeing brand.”
Pablo observes that though we have traditionally generally continued to use our family’s favoured laundry powders and shower gels, kids are now becoming more clued up and even educating their parents on green issues and buying habits.
“There’s so much information at out fingertips, so having brand authenticity and honesty is crucial,” Pablo adds. “It’s easy to be found out. The eco-trend is going mainstream now, you can see it with the big companies, who are trying to replicate what we do. Ecostore was founded over 25 years ago around honesty and transparency – to do good. We operate under ‘the precautionary principle’ which means we don’t use an ingredient if there is any doubt about its safety. It’s near impossible for companies to replicate our authenticity because it is in our DNA.”