Zero Co. Artwork by Russell Baker.

Zero Co started with a simple idea. What if you could eliminate plastic pollution at the source? The company offers home cleaning and body care products in containers made from recycled ocean plastic along with refillable, reusable pouches. Mike Smith, founder and visionary behind the brand, explains how small steps can make for big changes and why we should have fun along the way.

Note: Check our recent mini and full-sized Zero Co reviews.

I’m joined today by Mike Smith, the founder of Zero Co, a company focused on un-trashing the planet by providing eco-friendly and sustainable home cleaning and body care products. Mike, welcome to AMR.

Mike: My pleasure. Great to be here with you.

Zero Co’s incredible story of growth, especially in the face of such tumultuous world events, is incredibly inspiring. Can you share the tale of how Zero Co got started? What was your motivation to start the company?

I just said, I’m going to spend this next period in my life, trying to work out how to solve the global plastic problem. And that’s what I’ve been doing almost every single day, for almost three years.

The idea for Zero Co came about in 2018. Basically, I sold my previous business, a wine brand called Cake Wines, I sold that company and convinced my now wife Alyssa to pack up our lives and go on a once in a lifetime adventure. The brief was to travel to the most remote and far-flung corners of the planet, get as far off the tourist trail as possible and get as deep into wilderness as we could. We essentially lived in a tent for the better part of a year, trekked and hiked some pretty wild places. We went to Kamchatka, which is in the far northeast of Russia, basically opposite Alaska. It’s the most northeastern province of Russia up in the Arctic Circle. You can’t get there by land. It’s cut off from Russia. It’s the most densely volcanic region on Earth. I got within two metres of 10-foot-tall wild brown bears on a photographic mission that I was on. We also trekked along the border of Afghanistan and Tajikistan for about a month. You know, we went to some super wild, crazy places, places most people don’t even know exist, let alone have been there.

During that time I was blown away by the amount of rubbish that I saw in these super remote parts of the planet. And you know, I’m not an eco-warrior, I wasn’t then and I’m still not now. I just think about myself as an everyday guy. I love the outdoors. I’m a surfer, I do trekking and hiking holidays. And yeah, it really affected me seeing all of this rubbish in some super beautiful parts of the world. So, I came back to Australia and said that I was going to try and solve this problem as, ridiculous as that sounds. And as woefully unqualified as I am, I just said, I’m going to spend this next period in my life, trying to work out how to solve the global plastic problem. And that’s what I’ve been doing almost every single day, for the last almost three years now.

That’s an interesting and unique origin story, and quite amazing that you drew inspiration through visiting such remote and idyllic places, volcanoes, the Middle East… yet found that there wasn’t a place on earth seemingly untouched by pollution.

Yeah, it was such an epic thing, it was the year of my life. It’s one of those things that I’ll never get to do again. I’m about to become a dad, and you can’t do those kinds of things, when you’ve got kids. It was an epic year of my life that I’ll always look back on and go, ‘wow, I did some really crazy stuff, saw some really crazy places and ended up having a life changing kind of experience’.

Epic-ness, for lack of a better word, really does shine through from a branding perspective. From social media to your site and the products you offer, everything comes across as fun, vibrant and unique. You also have an amazing online presence, which definitely sets it apart from others. From a branding perspective, how important is it to be embrace playfulness and stand out from the pack?

We try to make people smile, or laugh, while they’re doing something good for the planet. That’s how we believe we’ll have a shot at building a global community of people that want to get involved and help solve this problem.

It’s critical to everything we do at Zero Co. Because, you know, we’re taking on this really big problem, we’re trying to tackle, a big global problem, and for me there are two environmental crises that we have to solve. It’s climate change, and it’s plastic pollution, they are the two challenges that our generation will be judged on, our ability to deal with those. It can feel really daunting, trying to tackle these big, huge, almost impossibly large problems. Our approach has been, let’s not get caught up on the problem. Let’s just talk about the solution, right? Because everyone knows that there’s a problem. Everyone is in alignment that we should be doing less plastic, not more plastic, there’s not people out in the streets protesting saying let’s put more plastic in the ocean!

We’ve just said, let’s not only talk about the problem, as in, you’ll never see an ad from Zero Co where, you know, a turtle has a straw in its nose or a dolphin with a bag around its dorsal fin. We fundamentally don’t believe that’s how you’re going to inspire people to join the mission. In a way we’ve said, let’s ignore the problem and instead let’s talk about the solution. Let’s be really positive and paint this vision of a better world, a better future, and try and invite people to join the mission, welcome people onboard, and invite them to take part in this journey with us.

The best way to do that is to make it fun, right? If we can, we try to make people smile, or laugh, while they’re doing something good for the planet. That’s how we believe we’ll have a shot at building a big global community of people that want to get involved and help solve this problem. So, we’ll do whatever it takes to get a laugh or a smile… you’ve probably seen me dressing up in stupid dolphin suits! We just do whatever we can to make sure we keep this lighthearted and make it fun for people.

I love that approach to inspiring change. Let’s return to something you said earlier, that you’re not an eco-warrior, per se. So, what keeps you on mission, what gets you excited about work every day?

The reason I sold my last business, prior to starting Zero Co, was because it was ‘just a business’. It was not particularly doing anything good for the world, just another business that existed to make money. I realised I didn’t want to do that, I wanted to have some purpose in my life. And if I could build purpose and entrepreneurialism into the same thing, then that was the Holy Grail. I get excited about the fact that I can wake up every morning and know that no matter what happens today, or tomorrow, that I am spending my time trying to have a real, positive, genuine impact on the planet.

Every time that we make a sale at Zero Co, we generate good in the world. It means that we can do more ocean cleanups, it means we are stopping more single-use plastic. That’s the stuff that I get excited about, the mission-based part of this business. And my favourite things to do at Zero Co are to get up and talk about the mission and try and rally people, try and inspire people to stop using so much plastic in their lives. Then getting out in the field and actually doing the cleanup. I try and get involved in one, at least one a month, so that I’m out in the real world, literally getting my hands dirty, pulling plastic out of the ocean or off beaches, or out of riverways or wherever we are. I love that.

Entrepreneur’s often make big bets and take risks on new ways of doing business. Zero Co offers products through an optional subscription service, a business model more commonly associated with entertainment services. What made you decide to offer consumers the choice of a subscription?

Well, when we first launched, we didn’t have a subscription business, in fact, we only just actually started offering a subscription service around three months ago now. For the first 15 months of our existence, it was just, order whatever you want, whenever, and you can get a refill whenever you need it. We did that specifically, because we knew that purchasing the products that we make online was already a jump for a lot of people. Many don’t necessarily think about buying laundry liquid online or shampoo online or deodorant online, they just go to the supermarket to buy that stuff.

We wanted to make it as easy and as least friction as possible to get people to make that first change. And then what we discovered is that people were asking us for a subscription service. That’s why we built it, because people were saying, can you just get this laundry liquid delivered to my door every two months, I don’t want to think about it. We realise that people are super busy and most of the products we make people don’t really think about all that often, right? Like, when was the last time you thought about your toilet cleaner, for example, you don’t until it’s empty, then you go to the shops. So, if we can make it even easier for people, to give people one less thing to have to worry about by having their products arrive every month, every two months or whenever, it makes it easier for the customer to keep using Zero Co. That way, they are not using single-use plastic and they are funding ocean cleanups. So, it’s a win-win-win-win-win for us, for the customer and for the planet.

Speaking of benefiting the earth, your company’s mission statement is to ‘un-trash the planet’. What does that entail?

We’ve got to stop the single-use culture, we got to stop this idea of you buying something, using it and throwing it away.

It means doing two things; ocean cleanups and stopping single-use plastic. Basically, to solve the global plastic problem, there are two things that the world needs to do. We need to stop making more single-use plastic, because as long as we keep creating more waste, we can do all the cleanups in the world, all the recycling, but we’re never going to be able to keep up with the waste problem. We’ve got to stop the single-use culture, we got to stop this idea of you buying something, using it and throwing it away. We always talk to people about the fact that there is no such place as ‘away’. We have this colloquial term in Australia, ‘I just throw it away’, right? There isn’t a place called ‘away’ and I’ve been around the world! I’ve seen where ‘away’ is. It’s our oceans, it’s our rivers. It’s our natural environment. That’s where all the rubbish ends up. That’s what un-trashing the planet is, those two things. Solving plastic getting made in the first place, and then working out a way to go and get all of this plastic that’s already been put into the natural environment. So that’s what we’ve been doing from day one. We’ve pulled about one nearly 1.3 million water bottles worth of rubbish out of the ocean since we launched the business. We’ve stopped over a million water bottles from getting thrown in people’s bins as a result of people returning the empty pouches to us first to clean them, refill them, and reuse them.

Your website provides transparency around sustainability, and a way for individuals to track their impact, which I imagine would be motivating for people to see the difference they are making when they choose to buy your products. What are some of your other sustainability initiatives?

The main thing is ocean cleanups. We’re still a very young business, it’s 18 months since we started shipping products to customers. We’re growing very quickly. And we’re breaking things very quickly. And we’re learning very quickly. One of the things we’re trying to think about at the moment is, how do we scale our ocean cleanups?

We’ve done 1.2 million water bottles worth of rubbish, which is incredible, it’s an awesome start and we’re very proud of that. But we think to ourselves, let’s not give ourselves too many pats on the back, because we should be doing 10 times that amount, right? So, we’re starting to think about how to scale up our ocean cleanups. How do we get more and more people working on it? That’s the first part. Then, we’ve started doing some Eco Tours. We go and do regular cleanups at K’gari (AKA Fraser Island) up in Queensland. It’s a really interesting place in that it’s incredibly beautiful, yet because of the way that it’s situated in the ocean currents, it is a natural collection point for rubbish. It’s actually mind boggling how much plastic washes up on the beaches of K’gari. We’ve been doing cleanups there on a kind of month to monthly basis and have decided to start inviting our customers and our community to come on these trips with us. We took our first group up there in May, took twenty of our customers up with us, and we spent three days cleaning the beach. It was incredible, such an amazing experience. A kind of getaway with a purpose, I guess.

Individual actions help to contribute to collective action. With that in mind, if people are looking to make changes to help give single-use plastics the flick, what would you recommend?

The way we’re going to solve this is if lots and lots of people just make little changes in their daily behaviour. Tiny things that add up over time.

Go to! Go to! (Laughs), you know, look, there are lots of things that you can do. And there are lots of great organisations out there, profit and not-for-profit that you can support. What I always try and tell people is, don’t beat yourself up too much. It is a really big, gigantic problem, right? And I think the way we’re going to solve this is if lots and lots of people just make little changes in their daily behaviour. Just do what you can do. I’ve made this my life’s work, I’ve become a very, kind of, public person talking about plastic problems. But I still go to the supermarket and buy a packet of chips that comes in a single-use soft plastic bag. You don’t have to be a radical extremist about this stuff. But if you can just think about some ways that you can reduce your plastic consumption, that’s a great place to start. So, you know, if you’re one of those people that is still using a single-use plastic cup, when you go to the coffee place, maybe get yourself a reusable cup. You can buy Zero Co products and stop using single-use plastic in your kitchen, laundry and bathroom. You can support organisations like Seabin that are building scalable technology solutions for cleaning up oceans. You could go to the 4ocean website and buy a bracelet that’s going to fund ocean cleanups. There are just lots and lots of little things that you can do, tiny things that add up over time, you know?

Absolutely, those are all good suggestions, available to anyone. What better time to start than now? Speaking of, the company’s call to action page features those famous song lyrics from Rage Against The Machine. Can you share any other sources of inspiration?

Totally, there are a couple of books that have been super influential for me. The first one would be Let My People Go Surfing by Yvon Chouinard. He’s the founder of Patagonia and godfather of for-purpose, mission-based businesses. It’s a book about the rise of Patagonia and the philosophies that they’ve implemented in their business. It’s an awesome, massively inspiring book. Every single person that comes to work at Zero Co has to read that book within the first month of joining so that they understand how you build a scalable global business that’s about doing good. The Promise of a Pencil is another really great book about a not-for-profit in the US, which has built thousands and thousands of schools in the developing world, a really awesome read. Blake Mycoskie wrote a great book about his journey building TOMS, the shoe brand that donates a pair of shoes to someone in the developing world for every pair of shoes bought. Another is Ice Cream Social, which is the story of Ben and Jerry’s. Most people today don’t realise that Ben and Jerry’s started as a hardcore activist brand, that’s how they rose to prominence. They were massively involved in anti-Vietnam War protests, a whole bunch of stuff around fair trade and slavery. They built their business as being super politically motivated, and they ended up getting bought by Unilever. It’s a really interesting story about how that merger happened, how the sale happened, and then how they implemented a bunch of policies to ensure that Unilever kept Ben and Jerry’s core values in place. Which they’ve managed to do to a surprisingly large extent, given the disparate nature of the biggest FMCG (Fast-moving consumer goods) company in the world, a multibillion-dollar company versus you know, some hippie renegades from Vermont! That’s a couple of books that I would recommend reading for sure, they have been massively inspirational to me.

You certainly come across as well read, and what a great idea to foster that acquisition of knowledge through your company’s onboarding experience.

Yes, well, we have a book club here, there’s a list of twenty books that people have to read. Once a month, a different person reads a different book, and then over lunch, we catch up and have an hour together and they present their learnings, their findings from the book back to the team so that they can start to implement some of the things from those books in our company.

That’s one way to stay in the ‘always learning’ zone. 18 months, a lot of change, a lot of growth. What’s next?

Yeah, it has been a crazy, crazy ride to be honest! I feel like at times we’ve all just holding on for dear life as this roller coaster goes crazy! What’s next is we are literally about to roll out into supermarkets and pharmacies around the country. That’s the next big evolution for Zero Co, making it easier for more people to be able to purchase their products and stop using single-use plastic. We’re in about 60,000 homes at the moment. About 60,000 people have purchased from our website, but as you know to have a scalable impact we need to be in a million homes. And the only way we’re going to get to a million homes in the near future is if we’re in Coles, Woollies (Woolworths), IGA, Chemists Warehouse and Priceline. All the bulk food stores, basically everywhere that anyone shops for these types of products. We believe that people do want to be part of the part of the solution, and if our shampoo was sitting next to another brand that was ‘not doing good’, we believe that most people will do the right thing and buy our product. That’s the first, immediate, big evolution for Zero Co. And then we’ve got a heap of new products that we’re working on. We’re moving into dental care, we’re moving into skincare, we’re moving into home accessories. There’s lots of exciting things happening in the next 12 months.

It’s easy to see how getting into stores would be a game changer. Definitely sounds like Zero Co will be a company to watch, and it will be interesting to see how the market and consumers react as you continue to grow and become even more accessible. On that note, I’m always curious about how changemakers such as yourself view the world, considering the myriad challenges affecting us both collectively and as individuals. The signature question that we like to ask is, what is a modern remedy to the issues we are facing today?

We all need to work together, to create an inclusive, inviting cultural movement, where people are not shamed, where people are not spoken down to.

That’s a great question. I think there’s two things that we have to do. First of all, we all just need to roll up our sleeves and get busy! Sometimes people are hesitant to just get started. We’ve got to just get started today, whatever it is, that you’re going to do to help solve the problem. Don’t worry about the fact that it might not work. Don’t worry that people might laugh at you, or you might embarrass yourself, don’t worry that for whatever reason, the whole thing might fall over. We just need more people daring greatly and just getting out and trying to implement change, taking small actions every single day. That’s the first thing.

The second thing is, we all need to work together, to create an inclusive, inviting cultural movement, where people are not shamed, where people are not spoken down to. And I think unfortunately, there’s a bit of this happening that I’ve noticed in the sustainability space. There’s a lot of haters that want to throw mud from the sidelines. If you’re not absolutely perfect, if your solution is not absolutely 100% perfect, then it’s not good enough. We’ve got to get away from that, we just need to all work together, all chip in and do our little bit, because it’s super cliche, but lots of tiny actions add up to big impact on a global scale.

Well said. Any positive impact should be welcomed. We should not criticise people for taking a step forward, just because it’s not a great leap.

Totally, totally. There are no silver bullets here to any of these environmental problems that we face. But we just have got to start putting more solutions on the table and trialling a whole bunch of stuff at scale, that’s my belief.

A belief hopefully shared by many. How can people find out more about Zero Co and take part in un-trashing the planet?

Head to our website where you’ll find everything about our mission, what we’re trying to achieve and of course you can purchase our products there. And then in a couple of months ahead, you’ll be able to see us in supermarkets and pharmacies around Australia as well.

Mike, thank you so much for your time. It’s been exciting to see the success you’ve had in such a short time and look forward to seeing all the places where Zero Co goes in future.

Thank you so much. My absolute pleasure. Happy to be here with you. ■

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