After moving out of home at 15 and losing her mum and grandparents to cancer in close succession, Zoe Piper co-founded the non-toxic paint business Ecolour with no previous experience in the industry.
Armed with a product produced from waste materials, and a strong interest in sustainability, she went on to be named a finalist in the Emerging Entrepreneur category of NAB Women’s Agenda Leadership Awards in 2015, and see her paint featured on the latest season of Reno Rumble.
We ask Zoe to explain why she took the leap, where she found the tenacity to break into a new industry, and how a paint product can change the health of the world.
I’m often asked whether Ecolour is a family business. It isn’t.
I come from quite modest beginnings. I grew up in a small country town of 1,000 people. My dad drove a truck for the local council and my mum was at home or working shifts at the local library. I took every opportunity available to start earning my own money: babysitting, odd jobs and work at the Braidwood Bakery.
When I was 15, I decided to move to Canberra by myself. My parents had already borrowed money from me to pay their rent by this stage so I wasn’t too daunted by the prospect of becoming financially independent. Whether I was packing shelves, assisting dentists or doing reception work, I worked nights and weekends to support myself through high school.
I boarded at a few different places until I was able to get my own government flat at age 16. It was a basic studio, but it worked for me. Education was also very important to me. I was determined not to let the hours I was working impact my grades and I graduated with a 94.65% UAI.
Once I finished year 12 I worked full time at CSIRO and concurrently completed full time university.
The call for change
In my third year of university, my mum passed away from cancer at 47, just 12 months after her father had died from cancer and only a few years before the same thing happened to her mother. Both my dad’s parents had also passed away from cancer relatively young.
I’d seen first hand the pain and suffering that cancer causes, and was passionate about reducing the risks.
An aligned opportunity
Sometime later, I met my business partner on a training course. We clicked in a business sense and wanted to do something together. One day he came across non-toxic paint being sold out of a little shop in Byron Bay. He bought some, used it and thought, ‘This is great. I can’t understand why everybody’s not using paint that doesn’t smell and isn’t toxic.’
He knew there would be a good opportunity to commercialise it and approached me about going into business together. I knew the toxins in traditional paint have been linked with cancer – and I was being given an opportunity to change this.
Research your idea into a reality
At first, I knew nothing about paint or manufacturing, but sustainability has always been really important to me. Working at CSIRO, I was constantly impressed by all the great new technologies they developed. I was also very much aware of the research coming out around that time, in 1998, about the impact that we are having on the planet and the need to do things better.
I did some research. Just domestically the paint and surface coating industry is worth about 3 billion dollars a year. I thought, ‘Okay, that’s a fairly large market. This is a superior quality product and we can sell it for the same price. We should be able to do something good with this.’
I put in some money and took a stake in the business. We set up an Ecolour factory in Byron Bay and have been growing the business over the past seven years.
Product differentiation with a difference
Ecolour paint is unique in being entirely free of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). VOCs have been linked to a whole range of health issues, including asthma, headaches and even cancer. If you’ve ever walked into a freshly painted room and felt a bit dizzy or your eyes start to sting, that’s a small indication of what the VOCs are doing to your body.
The World Health Organization actually classifies painting as a high-risk occupation because so many painters end up with lung and bladder cancer from repeated exposure to VOCs. Paint will continue to outgass VOCs for years after application, so the health impacts remain long after the smell is gone. CSIRO did a study of homes that were 12 months old and found they still had 20 times the recommended safe level of VOCs for human exposure.
It’s not just paint. VOCs can be found in other household materials, such as glues and some furniture, but given the large surface area that paint covers, it’s usually the largest source.
Find your tenacity
My business partner has an accounting background and had previously owned a furniture-manufacturing business before we co-founded Ecolour, and I had fairly diverse experience across IT, private equity and business development. But in spite of this and our product’s superior quality and health benefits, I wouldn’t say business has been smooth sailing. We’ve still faced plenty of challenges along the way but we got through them too; that’s business.
Construction is an interesting industry to be in. There’s typically a high turnover of companies, and a lot of people involved in the decision-making process about what products get used on a construction site. Whether it’s the developer, the architect, the head contractor, the painter or the sustainability adviser, there are a lot of people to get across the line for any particular sale.
But with a belief in your product comes the tenacity to dig deep. And we’re starting to see a shift in recent years. Energy efficiency has now become fairly standard so there’s more of a focus on improving the indoor environment quality (IEQ) of buildings. Indoor air quality is a huge part of that, and many architects now are moving towards a zero-VOC spec.
We’re now in a position where we are supplying many of the largest companies in Australia, including Grocon, Stockland and Programmed Group.
Make yourself the logical choice
As people and companies have become more aware of the impact of VOCs, Ecolour has become the logical choice. Other major brands promote their ‘low VOC’ paints, which can still measure as high as 7.5% VOC. There are even a couple of companies who claim to be zero VOC when the product itself states it is 2.6g of VOC per litre. Our paint and tints are certified 100% free of VOCs.
Painting without VOCs has many practical, benefits too. Painters can come in and paint occupied spaces during work hours, meaning there’s no need to pay overtime rates to have painting done after hours. There’s also no need to flush out the HVAC (air conditioning system) after painting to get rid of the VOCs. Hotels, hospitals, childcare facilities and aged care homes can put people back in a freshly painted room the same day with no worries about smell complaints or health impacts.
Beyond this is the fact that we also use recycled and refined waste engine oil to produce our non-toxic paint, so every additional litre of paint that we sell means less oil being burned, with less C02 emitted. The Carbon Reduction Institute in Australia has calculated that 2.9 kg of CO2e are released per litre of oil burnt as a fuel. At current volumes of paint sold that means Ecolour prevents around 3-4 ton CO2e from being emitted each year. And that C02 reduction is only going to increase moving forward.
Believe in something bigger
We are slowly starting to see a shift in awareness regarding the impact we are creating, and the gains to be had by doing things better, though it doesn’t always get reported in the media that way! The US organisation Singularity University is doing fantastic work with new technologies that have the ability to impact the lives of a billion people within 10 years. That’s their mandate. They’re also the people behind the XPRIZE. I’d highly recommend reading the book Abundance for an uplifting insight into what the future may hold.
My economics degree also taught me there’s good money to be made from clean tech! I recently attended a lecture given by John Hewson where he spoke about the companies he’s started in this space that are generating strong returns. It won’t be too long before others catch on and we hit a tipping point where operating sustainably becomes a given.
There are so many positive things happening in different corners of the world, and that’s fantastic for the future of business – and the world – on a global scale.
Ecolour uses breakthrough technology to manufacture non-toxic paint out of recycled and refined waste engine oil. For every litre of paint that Ecolour sell, less oil is burned. 100% free of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), the product also reduces the amount of toxins released upon painting. Australian-owned and its product manufactured in Australia , Ecolour welcomes residential or commercial orders of any size.
Photo credit: StockSnap