One of the most important ways to protect public health is to clean the spaces where people come to work, play, and learn. Some cleaning supplies can contain harmful ingredients, though, so companies often market safer “green” cleaning. Sadly, it is not always the case that cleaning products advertised as green are guaranteed to be safer for the environment.
When most consumers receive their news only from television, radio and print media, the combination of limited access to information and seemingly unlimited advertising allows companies to present themselves as caring environmental stewards, even as they engage in environmentally unsustainable practices. This led to the term greenwashing: providing misleading information about a company's products being more environmentally sound. Greenwashing is a big issue in the household cleaner industry. Most people don’t realize that, chemically, there really isn’t much of a difference between traditional products and “greener” brands.
Many “green” cleaning products claim to have less of an impact on the environment compared with conventional products - but in some areas, they may have more impact. This includes damaging the ozone layer, and causing runoff, resulting in ocean acidification and ecotoxicity, not to mention, the pollution in relation to the plastic containers both are sold in.
Located in Baltimore, Echotopia is company looking to change that by producing zero-waste cleaning products for Baltimore consumers. Founder and operator Diane Wittner has been selling her products at Baltimore farmers markets since June 2015, with a focus on using only zero-waste packaging: selling the soap in used containers that would otherwise be thrown away, encouraging repeat customers to bring their own containers to take home, and selling colorful jars for repeated refill. As of January 1, 2020, Echotopia has sold over 2,500 products for refill - that's over 2,500 transactions with no trash produced at all! We asked Diane a few questions about what got her started, what her successes and obstacles have been, and what it will take for local zero-waste businesses like hers to thrive in Maryland.
How did you get interested in zero-waste as a business model?
"It’s been a long and rewarding journey. Being outdoors in natural settings brings me joy and spiritual renewal; this is where I feel deeply connection to all existence. From witnessing the variety of life in my garden to kayaking on the Chesapeake Bay, to bird or whale watching, or walking on the beach, I am grateful to be a part of the exquisite natural world.
"While raising my family, I always worked to be a responsible consumer, transportation user and clean energy promoter, even if such behaviors took time. For years, I would grocery shop with a bike, or a wheeled cart, using fabric bags; I have been repulsed by trash and plastic for a long time! I also purchased an electric scooter, and became Maryland's first electric scooter owner with insurance (smile!). Today, August 1st, 2019, is another milestone, the realization of my decades-long goal; my home/work space will receive electricity from community solar through Neighborhood Sun (disclosure - Echotopia is a partner of Neighborhood Sun).
"I am also a longstanding creative activist in the larger world of environmental, political and social justice advocacy. I learned a great deal in this work. Over time, and desiring increasingly to ‘be the change’ I grew impatient with the slow or non-existent pace of improvements needed on a range of related topics. Finally, as a career arts and interdisciplinary educator, I began to reflect on how to continue to be effective for future generations.
"I eventually concluded that I was ready for a big new challenge far outside my comfort zone; I could enjoin my passions, knowledge base and skills, and create a new business model. I am a woman founder/owner. Echotopia is all about the local living economy, being reciprocal and restorative to nature in our collective behavior, while enriching our own lives in multiple ways. Everything about my business is designed to gently encourage fellow humans to go green in delightful, tempting ways: smell, color, texture, and a renewed appreciation for nature’s gifts."
How did your company get started?
"Starting in 2011 or 2012, I began to experiment with reducing trash, by reusing plastic containers in my home. I wanted to go beyond recycling. I had grown frustrated when I had no choice but to purchase products, such as laundry detergent, in big plastic containers that I knew would become trash. Plus I knew that plastic is a petroleum byproduct; we need to eliminate fossil fuel use. The chemicals in plastic harm people’s health.
"At the same time, I took a Small Business Administration class in Baltimore for women starting businesses, then I took a follow up class for women about the finances of starting a business. Given my background in the arts, in advocacy and in education, I was truly in uncharted territory. My learning curve was steep. I engaged in two years, at least, of research and development. Along the way, many generous people and groups gave me friendly advice and counsel. I remain grateful to each. As a member of the predecessor of Impact Hub Baltimore, I launched Echotopia with a crowdfunding campaign.
"Sometimes I am amused by the fact that I sell everyday household items that aren’t sexy from a marketing standpoint, or yummy like food or drink, but just plain practical. And I do not wish, ever, to imply that cleaning is a woman’s job. All cleaning, including restoring health to the planet’s precious soil, water and air, is everyone’s job."
What's an example of a big success?
"I can name several areas of success. I am most proud of our refill numbers which are climbing faster than before in this 4th year of business, as well as the fact we are contributing to cleaner regional waterways, since our products are biodegradable. Also, so many businesses fold in the first years – we are still here and are continuing to expanding our customer base. My encounters with customers are fantastic; they are so appreciative, and impressed with the creativity of my green business models. Young people love seeing that I am showing how to go green and be zero waste right now. My customers make the effort to return for refills, though I am not at markets every week. Customers love using my products! Seeing people’s happy faces when they see the pretty jar lids, or smell delightful soothing or refreshing garden herbs or essential oils is also a treat, kind of like showcasing art, or engaging in pleasing performance art!"
What barriers have you faced while launching your company?
"My crowdfunding campaign was fun but only modestly successful, and I could have used a great deal more start-up funding. I was new to being a business owner and had to learn and do everything myself. These challenges have become important lessons for next steps for Echotopia."
What's an example of your biggest struggle while operating?
"As I sell my products primarily at farmers markets, my business is dependent on weather conditions. I also have a weekday job, so time management is critical. As the sole worker/owner, I always have always more work to do; I try to strike a balance between what is immediately necessary and what can wait, while still setting and achieving goals each year. Maintaining a balance between product cost and returning a sustainable profit to the business can be a challenge. As of now, given our scale, it has not made economic sense for my products to be sold in stores, and this is an area for future exploration. Finally, as a green business owner interested in a revitalized and fair green economy in Baltimore I look forward to what the future holds."