Grassroots business has gone global

Picture supplied
SUSTAINABLE BUSINESS: “Convenience is killing us,” says Mick Williams who along with partner Anna Proctor founded Go Bamboo, a business that was voted the country’s waste minimisation champion by the Ministry for the Environment in 2012. Picture by Rebecca Grunwell
NO PLASTIC: Toothbrushes, clothes pegs, surfboard wax scrapers and cotton buds are among eco-friendly products created by Gisborne-based business Go Bamboo as an alternative to plastic. Picture supplied

A surfing friend’s account of the amount of plastic detritus he encountered in the sea around the Galapagos Islands helped set Gisborne couple Mick Williams and Anna Proctor on a bamboo products business path.

That path began with the creation of biodegradable bamboo toothbrushes for their children.

Before long Mick and Anna had started up Go Bamboo, a highly successful, sustainable business with a global reach. Not only is Go Bamboo eco-friendly, the business steps outside the conventional model of borrowing capital, long hours, manufacture, distribution, packaging, branding, advertising and sales.

The business began with frustration at the extent of the plastic detritus Mick sees as having spread from the city to the country to the sea. A UK survey revealed more than 50 percent of plastic found on beaches can be assigned to 10 large corporations, he says.

“It’s an unenvisioned spin-off, an emergent phenomenon of modern life that relies on convenience. Convenience is killing us. We found a problem and tried to live a life that didn’t contribute to it in the process.”

When he and Anna began to replace single-use plastic items, they managed to find alternatives to most plastic products. The one item they couldn’t find a substitute for, however, was a child’s toothbrush. Wooden toothbrushes were available, but not for children.

Mick and Anna’s approach was literally grass-roots. Bamboo lent itself as an efficient material for the creation of a child’s biodegradeable toothbrush and, it turns out, other household products.

“There are issues with forestry but bamboo is not a tree, it’s a grass,” says Mick.

“It grows to full height in one growth season — six weeks — and is woody enough for manufacture in five to six years. Some estimates suggest that, per acre, bamboo sequestrates carbon dioxide better than trees. No pesticides or herbicides are needed.

“It’s an incredibly hardy grass. It’s beautiful, incredibly strong and light, so it’s easy to harvest. And it’s an easy material to work with.”

Go Bamboo has since rolled out clothes pegs, cotton buds, vegetable brushes, orthodontic toothbrushes, end-tufted toothbrushes, surf wax combs and dish scrubbers. The home-grown business uses rice glues and vegetable inks, neither of which leaves residue, in its products and packaging.

“Our ethos was to create a product and packaging that could be disposed of around the home,” says Mick.

Another item to come out of Go Bamboo is not actually made from bamboo but steel. It has the same basic design as the primitive grass, and replaces one of the most ubiquitous plastic products in the world — the plastic straw.

Production of bamboo clothes pegs followed the success of the bamboo toothbrushes.

“The reason we did clothes pegs is they are one of the most common plastic items found on beaches,” says Mick.

“The design needed only a tweak to the spring action and packaging. They were easy to make.

“After the pegs we noticed cotton buds came in plastic boxes so we made cotton buds as well, to get rid of the plastic packaging.”

Footage of a seahorse with its tail curled around a plastic-stemmed cotton bud in David Attenborough’s 2017 documentary Blue Planet II resulted in a huge boost to sales of Go Bamboo’s environmentally-friendly product.

“Once the world saw that seahorse, people went mad over it. We felt that ripple. We thought ‘Yes!’ It allows us to strip the price of everything.

“The more people who buy our stuff, the cheaper it gets.

“You’ll find I go the other way every time. I’ve seen how business goes and I don’t enjoy it. How much does everyone need for a business? The answer is ‘enough’.”

Mick and Anna have never borrowed money for Go Bamboo products. They have worked within the limits they could afford, and afford to potentially lose.

“Our business is absolutely sustainable. Every business decision we’ve made we’ve asked ‘can we afford to lose this amount completely and multiple times?’ If the answer is ‘yes’ we proceed. We have grown slowly and consistently.”

Mick and Anna do not manufacture, distribute or advertise their products themselves.

The couple decide what products they want to make, then research and develop them in conjunction with any one of the four to five offshore manufacturers they work with.

“I just make sure we have enough product to sell,” says Mick.

“I want to choose and create products that don’t exist in the right form.”

New Zealand cannot compete with manufacturers of low-tech products in India or China, says Mick.

“I’ve outsourced as much as is possible to outsource. That gives me time and my time is invaluable to me . . . because I’m old,” he laughs.

The Go Bamboo brand has created itself. Branding arises from a good service or what works well, says Mick.

“We’ve never advertised but we have had massive advocacy. It’s the idea behind our product that people like. People have to buy into what you do.”

The success of Go Bamboo has also enabled Mick and Anna to support missions in Nepal and the South Pacific islands.

“Live your life the way you want the world to be. It’s the same with business and how you want the business world to be.”

In 2012 Go Bamboo was voted by the Ministry for the Environment as the country’s waste minimisation champion.

“We design waste out of the product from the beginning. We helped establish the zero waste category,” says Mick.

He and Anna are both physiotherapists, which takes up about 40 hours cumulatively a week. This gives them both time to do other things.

“If I’m busy I’ve got it wrong,” says Mick.

“I try really hard to ensure I’m not too busy. I like to work at a pace that is so moderate I can work constantly.”

Go Bamboo was an experiment to see if he and Anna could create a product, says Mick. And then it was about running a business the way they wanted to do it.

“It has been an awesome experiment.”

A surfing friend’s account of the amount of plastic detritus he encountered in the sea around the Galapagos Islands helped set Gisborne couple Mick Williams and Anna Proctor on a bamboo products business path.

That path began with the creation of biodegradable bamboo toothbrushes for their children.

Before long Mick and Anna had started up Go Bamboo, a highly successful, sustainable business with a global reach. Not only is Go Bamboo eco-friendly, the business steps outside the conventional model of borrowing capital, long hours, manufacture, distribution, packaging, branding, advertising and sales.

The business began with frustration at the extent of the plastic detritus Mick sees as having spread from the city to the country to the sea. A UK survey revealed more than 50 percent of plastic found on beaches can be assigned to 10 large corporations, he says.

“It’s an unenvisioned spin-off, an emergent phenomenon of modern life that relies on convenience. Convenience is killing us. We found a problem and tried to live a life that didn’t contribute to it in the process.”

When he and Anna began to replace single-use plastic items, they managed to find alternatives to most plastic products. The one item they couldn’t find a substitute for, however, was a child’s toothbrush. Wooden toothbrushes were available, but not for children.

Mick and Anna’s approach was literally grass-roots. Bamboo lent itself as an efficient material for the creation of a child’s biodegradeable toothbrush and, it turns out, other household products.

“There are issues with forestry but bamboo is not a tree, it’s a grass,” says Mick.

“It grows to full height in one growth season — six weeks — and is woody enough for manufacture in five to six years. Some estimates suggest that, per acre, bamboo sequestrates carbon dioxide better than trees. No pesticides or herbicides are needed.

“It’s an incredibly hardy grass. It’s beautiful, incredibly strong and light, so it’s easy to harvest. And it’s an easy material to work with.”

Go Bamboo has since rolled out clothes pegs, cotton buds, vegetable brushes, orthodontic toothbrushes, end-tufted toothbrushes, surf wax combs and dish scrubbers. The home-grown business uses rice glues and vegetable inks, neither of which leaves residue, in its products and packaging.

“Our ethos was to create a product and packaging that could be disposed of around the home,” says Mick.

Another item to come out of Go Bamboo is not actually made from bamboo but steel. It has the same basic design as the primitive grass, and replaces one of the most ubiquitous plastic products in the world — the plastic straw.

Production of bamboo clothes pegs followed the success of the bamboo toothbrushes.

“The reason we did clothes pegs is they are one of the most common plastic items found on beaches,” says Mick.

“The design needed only a tweak to the spring action and packaging. They were easy to make.

“After the pegs we noticed cotton buds came in plastic boxes so we made cotton buds as well, to get rid of the plastic packaging.”

Footage of a seahorse with its tail curled around a plastic-stemmed cotton bud in David Attenborough’s 2017 documentary Blue Planet II resulted in a huge boost to sales of Go Bamboo’s environmentally-friendly product.

“Once the world saw that seahorse, people went mad over it. We felt that ripple. We thought ‘Yes!’ It allows us to strip the price of everything.

“The more people who buy our stuff, the cheaper it gets.

“You’ll find I go the other way every time. I’ve seen how business goes and I don’t enjoy it. How much does everyone need for a business? The answer is ‘enough’.”

Mick and Anna have never borrowed money for Go Bamboo products. They have worked within the limits they could afford, and afford to potentially lose.

“Our business is absolutely sustainable. Every business decision we’ve made we’ve asked ‘can we afford to lose this amount completely and multiple times?’ If the answer is ‘yes’ we proceed. We have grown slowly and consistently.”

Mick and Anna do not manufacture, distribute or advertise their products themselves.

The couple decide what products they want to make, then research and develop them in conjunction with any one of the four to five offshore manufacturers they work with.

“I just make sure we have enough product to sell,” says Mick.

“I want to choose and create products that don’t exist in the right form.”

New Zealand cannot compete with manufacturers of low-tech products in India or China, says Mick.

“I’ve outsourced as much as is possible to outsource. That gives me time and my time is invaluable to me . . . because I’m old,” he laughs.

The Go Bamboo brand has created itself. Branding arises from a good service or what works well, says Mick.

“We’ve never advertised but we have had massive advocacy. It’s the idea behind our product that people like. People have to buy into what you do.”

The success of Go Bamboo has also enabled Mick and Anna to support missions in Nepal and the South Pacific islands.

“Live your life the way you want the world to be. It’s the same with business and how you want the business world to be.”

In 2012 Go Bamboo was voted by the Ministry for the Environment as the country’s waste minimisation champion.

“We design waste out of the product from the beginning. We helped establish the zero waste category,” says Mick.

He and Anna are both physiotherapists, which takes up about 40 hours cumulatively a week. This gives them both time to do other things.

“If I’m busy I’ve got it wrong,” says Mick.

“I try really hard to ensure I’m not too busy. I like to work at a pace that is so moderate I can work constantly.”

Go Bamboo was an experiment to see if he and Anna could create a product, says Mick. And then it was about running a business the way they wanted to do it.

“It has been an awesome experiment.”

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