Welcome back to the Ecopotters series. This month, our Ecopotter is a little closer to home. Meet Emmanuel Devriendt, founder and CEO of Ecopots. Here is the story of how the brand has evolved from a tiny seed of an idea into the flourishing company you see today.
We know how important community is. Through the simple act of storytelling, we aim to create an online space where like-minded individuals can connect and inspire one another. There are a million ways to live more sustainably, and this is just our story.
Welcome Emmanuel! Thank you so much for being our Ecopotter this month. Where did the story of Ecopots all begin? How did the idea for the brand come about?
The story began back in our childhood - my brother Nicolaes and I, that is. I am convinced that the seeds of the business were put into our minds by our parents, and their parents. My maternal grandfather was a constructor of houses in his village. It was a small company, but they were famous for quality. He took us to see the foundations of the houses he was building, and said, “You can build it another way, but if you do it this way, the houses will last forever.” He taught us that the walls must be thick - that stuck with me because when I was searching for my first house, I was measuring the wall thickness! He also taught us the importance of taking your time; it was the exact opposite of what we saw happening around us. Everything was about speed, consuming and wasting. “Don’t compare yourself to others,” he would say, “do your own thing and others will follow. If something is of great quality, it will speak for itself.”
“Don’t compare yourself to others,” he would say, “do your own thing and others will follow."
On the other hand, my father’s side of the family from Holland, were big art lovers. When we were children, we were taken along to galleries and museums. We grew to understand the value of aesthetics and beauty - whether it is a painting, a statue, or an antique - we learned that beautiful pieces are timeless.
Good quality and timeless beauty - if you mix these two together - you have the company. It is in our DNA. Later came the ecological aspect, and these were the seeds that became the 3 pillars of Ecopots.
How did these 3 seeds grow into the Ecopots we know and love today?
Regarding the actual creation of the company - how it happened was very simple. I had my first job in a company that distributed chemicals for plant protection - not very ecological I know! There was a new CEO who realised that we needed to update the product and do something differently. We changed from bulk selling to specialist advice selling, and we acquired knowledge in order to teach farmers the responsible quantity of fertiliser to use on their crop. My boss was my mentor in terms of his approach to ecological visioning - it is not about being completely holy - we still need plant protection on the fields, and crops on the land, otherwise people will have no food. But we started to give advice on how to do things in a better way, by only using what was necessary and by being smart about it.
The gardening and retail division for consumer use grew quickly, and I was absorbed in that division. The seasonal nature of what we did however meant we needed to expand with other products. We already had a strong customer network supporting us, so we wanted to build on this.
When coming up with ideas of what else we could offer the public, I came up with the idea of home decor. I don’t personally understand decoration that has no function; we wanted our products to have a purpose. Plants need a pot - so that’s what we decided on.
I took responsibility of sourcing. Realistically, it was go with either Europe, or Asia. I took my first trip to the South East back in 2003, and what I saw really shocked me. I saw child labour, people working surrounded by chemical fumes, or too close to the fires where they bake the pots. When I went there, I was a young man. I witnessed the people that were doing business in this commodity market, managing factories or trading - it was really awful. The quality of the products, the circumstances in which they were being made, the salespeople - it was just disgusting!
It was an underdeveloped market with a lot of opportunists, companies going bankrupt, then popping up again etc. We had a great idea of creating quality pots with a nice aesthetic timeless design - made from ecological materials if possible - but we just couldn’t execute it there with the current system! We wanted people to understand that you don’t have to buy the crap. If you buy crap, it has probably been made in crap conditions. On the other hand, Europe has fantastically managed factories, but they’re producing a lot of throwaway plastics. We needed a solution.
Aside from the terrible conditions, a great positive of Asia is the handcraft; the people can make amazing things, they really are artists! We decided on Vietnam, but appointed European management of the factory to ensure our employees would have good working conditions. The first version of the brand was just called POTS. The red ‘O’ in our logo is to represent our intensity and passion. The ‘O’ also looks like the fine rim of a pot from the top; our first slogan was ‘finest in quality’. At that time, we weren’t really focusing on the ecological side of things, we just wanted to make something that would last forever. If you don’t need to throw something away, it already is eco-friendly in a sense. Initially, the first pots were made from polyester - not the most ecological, but super strong in terms of quality.
When we started, the price of our product was very high - it took 3 days and 7 people to finish off one pot - can you imagine! We sold to countries such as Switzerland, Sweden, Norway, Dubai etc. However, we didn’t really want to be too high-end. One of the reasons that we wanted our product to be more affordable is because I know what it is like to struggle. We had a middle-class family that broke down. At a young age, my parents divorced; this was a huge drama in our small catholic village. I saw my mother struggle financially. I remember seeing her hiding invoices that she couldn’t pay. When our family broke down, we lost a lot - we didn’t have a car anymore and we had to sell a lot of our lovely furniture and antiques. We think design should be affordable, and not just for the upper-class; we hope we can reach more people all over the world with our product and our vision that way. And that’s how and when Ecopots was born.
Where are the pots made now?
Ecopots are made in China. For this - then – new brand we were looking for a pot which could be machine made but which would have a handmade finish. China proved ideal for this. Our Chinese factory is managed to high European standards, as we believe in correct treatment and a proper wage for people. The majority of our factory employees are women that are 45 years old or older. In total we have around 250 workers, and they make double the salary of their husbands! They are proud of their work, and they have good lives. It is special to see the authenticity, and how hard these women work sitting at a rotating table doing it all by hand. We are so proud of that division.
So, the environmental aspect came a little later on in the brand’s journey?
Yes. We are not Green Peace - we are just people that believe in durability and quality products. By 2010, we were looking to find a material that was more consumer-friendly and better for the environment. Plastic is a great material in many ways, as it retains water, it’s light, it doesn’t break etc. That was the start of us properly researching recycled plastics. We still wanted a high-quality product, and the recycled plastics market was not quite there yet. We had universities helping us here in Belgium. After 3 years, we were nearly ready to give up! The University of Antwerp were the ones that eventually helped us to build the right formula. By 2014, we had it!
Even when we had found the right formula with the recycled plastics, a lot of the trade market held the belief that the products would be poor quality - so we still had to fight our corner. And then, suddenly everybody jumped on the recycled plastics idea…
"today’s trends are tomorrow’s waste."
What are some ways in which sustainability is incorporated into your everyday life personally?
The answer to this question is quite simple - I don’t buy crap, whether it is food, clothes or consumer products. I am not sensitive to trends and what’s ‘hot’ at the moment. If you want to live a more sustainable life, use your common sense; start with buying stuff that you won’t throw away after a short while. That’s also why you don’t find funky colours or patterns in our Ecopots collection; today’s trends are tomorrow’s waste.
Your brother Nicolaes is an architect and applies the design principles that guide architecture when designing your pots and planters. Why do you think this is an important element of your brand?
The way Nicolaes designs - he really takes his time, and he’s never on time! If something is not 100% right, he isn’t happy with it. He is a perfectionist. He sees things that others don’t see, and he communicates via his design. I have a little bit of ADHD, I am very overactive and I want to get things done quickly. But I am balanced out by my brother, who is really slow in his approach.
Good design calms the mind. I have some flower pots that I really like - I can look at my favourite, and it just makes me feel calm. Design has a function in the mind, as well as a functional use. There are such subtleties to design - by changing the shape of a line ever so slightly, people will either like it or they won’t.
Why are the pots named after cities?
When Nicolaes designs a pot, he takes inspiration and thinks about the feeling you get from looking at a particular city’s architecture. In our first catalogue, we had photography of recognisable architecture from each city, and the image of the pot alongside it - they should match in terms of the feel you get from the design.
Who else is behind the Ecopots brand?
There is a third person in our team who is very important. I have ideas and am able to make them happen, but I wasn’t doing the final stage of quality control, and I was missing details. My brother and I, we were stuck just the two of us.
So, my wife Delphine joined in 2013, and that made a huge difference! My wife is great at checking the final details. She is very creative herself - she created the saucer on wheels, for example. She didn’t study art or design, she studied bookkeeping - but she’s designing and creating products now, which is amazing. She works well with my brother, and we are a good team of three!
However, the three of us couldn’t do it all without the amazing team we have here in Europe. Twenty people, ranging from sales to operations and from marketing to administration, make the Ecopots family we are today.
Family is everything, and I believe durability should also be present in your relations. We have partners worldwide, and in every country, we only work with family businesses. The massive companies boasting that they sell billions of dollars’ worth of this and that, I refuse to sell with them. They’re just not on the same page as us. We have never been greedy with business - if we aren’t feeling it, we don’t work with people.
Do you have any advice for business owners, especially those that would like to become more sustainable, but aren’t sure where to begin?
Listen to your team. The older generation of business people know that they have to do something, but they are often afraid of the cost. You don’t need to pay high-end environmental consultants 200 euros an hour to tell you how to run your business - listen to your team and take on small suggestions, step-by-step. Start to sort out your waste. Use your common sense, it’s not that complex. Business owners my age and older, we don’t know everything. My advice is to hire young people, hire different races, disabled people - variety brings the solutions!
For start-ups - have belief that you can do it. That’s it. I like to inspire the younger generations. Everything is possible. I think younger business owners inherently know what they need to do to be a good company. At 18 years old, I had the chance to talk with a big businessman here in Belgium. He was over 2m tall, and I was pretty small and shy! I looked up at him and asked him what characteristics you needed to become a successful businessman. He said to me: “Heart, balls, and brains!” Good advice, right?!
When I was younger, in my mind, I was not a businessman; I believed the idea that businessmen had to be dishonest tricksters that were always taking from others, and that wasn’t my character - I thought I was too soft. But I have found out that this idea is false. Having emotions and empathy can work in business. We just do our thing and try to find the people that like us.
Many thanks to Emmanuel! We hope this month’s inspirational Ecopotter has given you a better insight into the Ecopots story, and our mission as a company.