Go for Zero founder, Ellie Degraeve was inspired to provide products that are safe for people and the planet after her daughter, Gracie developed rashes from mainstream skincare products as a newborn.

Determined to help her daughter, Degraeve dedicated time to research product labelling and was horrified to discover the amount of harsh ingredients in regular hygiene and household items.

A relentless focus on the customer

Degraeve grew up in a family-owned hotel on the coast of Belgium, doing small jobs like carrying suitcases and doing dishes. Not only did she learn a strong work ethic in living in a 24/7 business, she also learned the importance of strong customer service and care. Despite being a self-confessed ‘horrible student’, Degraeve completed two Masters, one in psychology and one in business coaching.

“My career in international retail strategy for one of Europe largest retailers – AholdDelhaize – took me around the world, and I loved it. When I became a mum, I was bathing my daughter (Gracie) and she would break out in rashes. At the time, I thought I was in the wrong and it was related to my diet,” Degraeve told Retailbiz.

“One time after I bathed her and she bursted out in a rash, I took to look at the products’ ingredients, which was my big ‘aha’ moment – about 10 years ago – it changed the way I looked at products and the way they were marketed and communicated.

“I was still working in retail at the time, but I started to become a mad researcher, investigating the products I was using; from my toothpaste to my shampoo, to cleaning products and skincare. I noticed ingredients like petroleum used in baby oil, which made no sense. I could not understand why there is no government regulation for this to protect the consumer? I did more research and made the decision to start making my own products, which was a massive learning curve.

“Growing up, I felt like I never fit into the system. When people said things like, ‘it’s the way we’ve always done it’, alarm bells would go off. My thinking was more often different to others questioning why things had to be done a certain way, so my dream was to advocate for honesty and drive change in retail. My goal is bigger than my store – I am always happy to share everything that we do because I truly want to be a force for good.

“We (my husband and I) live what we do every single day – reducing plastic waste and harmful chemicals but it’s difficult. When you’re shopping, there’s nothing but plastic – alternative options are very limited. I feel as though companies don’t have our best interest at heart, which is why I was frustrated and shocked after doing my research because I grew up in such a customer focused hotel environment. I guess I was a naïve at the time and just believed what people and brands were marketing,” she explained.

Fulfilling a passion for honesty and transparency

“After leaving my family, my career, and everything I knew, behind in Belgium to live in Australia in 2016, it took me a year to find out what I really wanted to do.

“I always knew I wanted to create a company, but it is a big step in a different language without your normal support around. I actually almost launched a different company but realised I wasn’t passionate about it, and knew I had to figure out what it was that I was truly passionate about. I wanted to build a completely transparent and honest company that I would love. I started with a small pop-up store to ensure the business would be viable for growth and not just a passion project, because I knew I wanted  to become the biggest and most transparent sustainable business in Australia.

“The pop-up was also an opportunity to find out why it was so hard for people to make the swap to more sustainable products. Four years on it is still confusing and difficult as a consumer to know the tangible benefits, because there is a lot of greenwashing out there.  But that is what we are here for!

“Beyond selling ethical and truly sustainable products, Go for Zero is also an educational platform. I only want people to buy products if they understand why it’s right for them and why they need it. I don’t just want to push promotions because we know that works in retail, but we’re not like other retailers. Transparency and honesty are at the core of the business, and they are values I am so passionate about,” Degraeve said.

Purchase barriers limit growth potential

“Go for Zero has seen fast growth since launching four years ago, so it shows that people are keen and willing to invest in sustainable products but there’s a lot of miscommunication in the market.

“There’s more interest and curiosity in sustainable products but cost-of-living pressures have forced people to be more conscious with their spending. That’s where we come in to educate people who are excited and keen to learn more about it because little changes can make a big difference.

“We need to be able to demonstrate the long-term value, particularly in an unfavourable economic climate. For example, maybe a product costs twice as much but it lasts three times as long and only contains pure ingredients and no harsh chemicals. The issue is that plastic is sold so incredibly cheap which makes more sustainable options appear too expensive, and I understand the struggle for customers.

“Even though more people are conscious about their environmental footprint, swapping to more sustainable products is inconvenient because they’re not available in major supermarkets or destinations that people frequent. They’re only accessible online so the big companies need to step up and do better. There’s so much greenwashing out there and bans on plastic bags are only happening because of government regulation. Companies need to go beyond following the rules and create their own path to becoming more sustainable,” Degraeve said.

What’s next?

“We want to make buying sustainable products more convenient so we’re working on a major partnership (I can’t share more details just yet!) to make it easier for customers to make the switch. We’ll also be expanding our range and looking for more collaborations that deliver a true value

“We want people to support small local business rather than large global corporations, so we only sell Australian and New Zealand brands and it’s what our customers want. We carefully consider how products are made and their end-of-life cycle because it’s not just about being recyclable; it is about stopping waste at its source. We want to make sure products aren’t ending up in landfill.

“I’m excited for the next year. It will be about looking at things differently, continuing to find ways to be a more innovative business, while increasing efficiencies. We’re expanding our warehouse in line with growth and a vision to be the first zero waste warehouse. We’re so close to that goal, which is exciting.

“Go for Zero was awarded B-Corp certification earlier this year and we’re one of just a few hundred in Australia. We’re also a carbon positive company, which means we give back more than we emit, which was another huge achievement,” Degraeve said.

Key partnerships

“When Go for Zero first started out, we were working with separate systems and couriers, and we knew there must be a better way. We started to look at companies like ShipStation and we chose them for their pricing at first, but then we realised how good their customer service was too; they’re always there to help. We started with ShipStation for their pricing but we’re staying with them for their customer service and system efficiency.

“Go for Zero partnered with i=change to donate $1 of every order to a charity of the customer’s choice to feed an Australian in crisis, plant trees or clean the ocean. It’s the most transparent way of donating money because customers can see how much we’ve donated to each charity in real-time. In the past four years, we donated 28,000 meals to Aussies in need, cleaned up 19,000 kg of plastic from our oceans and planted 12,000 trees. This makes me so proud because I could have never done this without our amazing community.

“We also partner with Shopify. I love their customer service and their platform allows our system to integrate with everything thanks to the plug-in functionality. We’re also launching with Mateship, which will help reduce emissions and save costs for the customer, which is a no brainer for me; why wouldn’t we do it?”