Mum fights for toxin and plastic free environment
ENTER Belgium-born Ellie Degraeve’s Caloundra shop and it feels like you’re stepping back in time.
Products are wrapped in cloth or contained in tin, and there’s no plastic to be seen.
“We have dish soap that you can grate and use for your laundry too,” Ellie said.
“I have it in my sink, and you just rub your brush on it, and I clean my plates like that. It lasts you so much longer.
“No plastic, there’s no waste.
“There are a lot of eco companies that send you refills, and it’s better, but I really want to go a step further with Go For Zero – you don’t even need the plastic it comes in.”
It was how her grandparents lived.
“People find it quite weird … I had a man come in – it was very sweet – he said, ‘60 years ago your store is completely normal’,” Ellie said.
“You used to have just soap for your body and your hair – because once you add water, you have to add preservatives.”
Go For Zero has a shop inside Caloundra store Whitepepper Homewares, on Bulcock St, and pop-up shops at Kawana Shoppingworld and Sunshine Plaza.
Its range, from reusable bento boxes and straws to natural suncream, have a few things in common.
They’re simple, useful, and made to last.
“It started with my daughter Grace – we were still living in Belgium and when she was born she was very sensitive, like a lot of kids,” Ellie said.
“As a kid I loved soaps and creams … and as a mum I loved putting nice things on my children, nice smells in the bath, for example.
“But she would always have rashes from things. So I started researching, and found that some products are really not good.”
Ellie said she was no researcher, but as a mother looking for safe products to use on her children, she had read a lot of university-led research papers.
She noticed that the more natural a product was, the less of a reaction Grace had to it.
“A lot of people get headaches from perfume, because it’s synthetic and there are so many chemicals in it,” Ellie said.
“It’s surprising, but there is not enough legislation preventing companies from putting harmful ingredients in products.
“My big dream is to one day be able to get changes in law, to control these ingredients but also to make sure companies are marketing their products honestly.”
When living in Belgium, Ellie’s Brisbane-born husband, Murray, had coached the Belgian national hockey team.
“I’m originally a psychologist, and that’s how we met, I was giving team trainings,” Ellie said.
“We had our girls there, in Belgium – two little girls.”
Moving to the Sunshine Coast three years ago was a big change.
“(In Belgium) I was doing international retail strategy, travelling to the countries to follow up on the strategies that were put out every year,” Ellie said.
“He was the head of the hockey, so we had two careers … and we were like, no, we don’t see our kids enough, we don’t see each other enough. Let’s move for the lifestyle.
“Everyone has these moments in their life – we thought, ‘uh, why don’t we just go’. We loved going on holidays in Australia, to visit his family.”
The recent loss of Murray’s father had also influenced their decision to move to the Coast, where his mother lives at Shelly Beach.
The couple and their daughters Grace, 6 and Harper, 4, settled quickly into their Kings Beach home and one year ago Ellie launched Go For Zero, using a warehouse located nearby at Moffat Beach. Murray now works as a graphic designer and studies design at the University of the Sunshine Coast.
“People are so nice, they are so friendly here,” Ellie said.
“The culture is … I wouldn’t say laid-back, because people work hard, but they value lifestyle. People really make an effort.”
She finds Coast people welcoming.
“We always say Belgians are like coconuts: very hard on the outside and soft in the middle,” she said.
“They are hard to get to know. Here, people are very open.”
The outdoor lifestyle, being able to go to playgrounds and the beach and to enjoy weather – these qualities of the Coast made the transition to a new country easier for their young family, she said.
“I don’t mind the cold in Belgium, but the darkness – you can have days when you go to work in the dark and when you come back, it’s still dark.”
The only downside to the amount of daylight was her youngest daughter Harper, who is used to complete darkness well into the morning hours, has started waking before 5am.
When researching Australian products to begin Go For Zero, Ellie turned up some surprising results.
“I started to order all these amazing products, and then they came in plastic,” she said.
“Here (in Australian weather), it sits in the sun and the plastic leeches into the product.
“I used to stock a lot of sunscreens, and now I just have one sunscreen, and that’s in a little metal tin. So nothing is leeching from it, and it’s in sustainable packaging.”
All of Go For Zero’s products are Australian brands, and most are made here.
The business is starting to manufacture its own goods, including a newly released reusable, washable makeup pads.
Ellie said the business’ philosophy was to bring together care for oneself with care for the planet.
“It’s not that hard to … look after yourself,” she said.
“I really just want to put people and planet together. I think why we’ve grown so fast is that it hasn’t really existed here.
“There are a lot of eco companies, and a lot of toxin-free companies … but I started this because I thought … it was just useless to buy toxin free skincare that comes in a plastic tube.
“If I don’t clean it well enough, then when I recycle it, it ends up in landfill anyway.”
She laughed, agreeing that her line of work was a minefield of complexities.
“There’s so much to think about.”
Many of the brands Ellie stocks are small, and can’t always supply regularly or in large quantity, which adds a challenge.
But the upside was these companies are flexible and often open to suggestion, for example with their packaging.
Go For Zero’s products are surprisingly affordable, for example a natural deodorant paste will set you back about $11.
Asked how she managed to keep costs low, Ellie laughed and said: “I think some brands sell for unfair prices”.
“Honestly, there are so many beautiful natural and sustainable brands out there but the price … it’s just marketing,” she said.
“I just want products that everyone can buy.
“My products might not come with rose gold foil around it … they are simple, but they are pretty, and good quality.”
The Coast community had been very supportive, and demand had increased continually since the business launched.
“We put a lot of effort into customer service,” she said.
Online and face-to-face retail were about even, in terms of product sales, Ellie said.
“We get some orders from overseas, but mostly Australia – and a lot from Victoria, I’m always surprised,” she said.
“We see daily sales in stores that are higher than online, but rent is high and staff costs are also high.”
While it could be tempting to expand faster, Ellie said she will likely contain next year’s pop-up stores to a few months rather than seeking long-term leases, and focus more on growing her online community.
“We will keep our store in Whitepepper, it works really well for us.
“We have many loyal customers, so we will stay there, definitely.
“I do like retail, because it’s very nice for people to be able to test the products. It’s quite hard to buy things like moisturiser online.”
Ellie’s parents ran a hotel on the Belgian coast and she grew up there, sleeping in “Room 15”.
Her parents, who are visiting Ellie at present, love the retail side of her business.
“They get so excited, speaking with customers,” she said.
“For them, they don’t buy online and it’s just not their generation. They don’t feel comfortable giving out their credit card details.”
In many ways Ellie’s business is fusing old and new, she agreed – forging a new path using the wisdom of her elders and the tools of a digital age.