Ecosurety turns 20 years: Interview with founder Steve Clark

Today, 27 March 2023, marks the 20th anniversary of Ecosurety. On this special occasion, we have asked its founder, Steve Clark, to take a trip down memory lane and share with us his story of setting up the business, what was driving him at the time and what he wishes for Ecosurety for the future.

What was your vision when you set up Ecosurety 20 years ago?

I’d studied Environmental Engineering at Cardiff University and at the time had been helping to create local markets for recyclable materials for a not-for-profit organisation. We’re talking about a time when cardboard boxes were being flat packed into skips rather than baled, and glass bottles often would be landfilled because of the transport costs to get them to a site for recycling.

As I looked at the system with an engineering mindset, I wanted to improve it, so my first effort in business was to help identify better markets for waste materials.

By working with recyclate in this way I became more familiar with the PRN system for packaging materials as it could help make the numbers stack up when thinking about a new or innovative end market for recycling. I then became involved in securing PRNs for a handful of clients that I’d generated at the time, because I knew who was creating them and how the markets worked. This led on to helping these obligated clients meet their data submissions, packaging audits, improvements to reduce waste and so on. I realised that my clients still retained their own legal obligations, however, as I was only acting as a consultant, and this was a barrier to helping more companies do better. So on 27th March 2003, I incorporated a new business called Budget Pack (now Ecosurety), to give a wider choice in the market for compliance.

We had some crazy years in the very beginning. The PRN system was fraught with difficult dealings and everything was done in paper format… so paying for PRNs was a delicate negotiation with an in-person exchange of money and certificates. Thank goodness we’ve got the traceability now from the digital world to allow everything to be transacted and secured with the right safeguards and protections for all parties. Yes there’s still more that can be improved, there always is… but the system has come a long way in that time as a result of a lot of people’s efforts. 

With Ecosurety celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, what key factors played a role in the organisation becoming the first B Corp in the waste and resources sector?

Well, we were running to the principles of a B Corp well before we applied. Ecosurety has always looked to make an impact in social and environmental terms. I guess that comes from our origin as a bootstrapped startup. We simply didn’t have any money at the beginning to compete financially in attracting the best talent, so we had to really look at what else we could offer in terms of meeting the team’s needs and inspiring them to join and stay with us.

We quickly got a deep understanding of the significance of values and vision when it comes to leadership and started to align our behaviours more consciously with the things we thought were important about people. I remembered working for an inexperienced manager and how confusing and upsetting things could be. So being really clear with people, knowing what a good job looks like, letting others have responsibility for their work and express their individual styles creatively was all baked into our DNA from an early stage. Since then we know a lot more and have a very professional team that’s trained and self-governing in always seeking out ways to work better, so the social side is in good shape.

The environmental bit was easy… because we care about the environment so much.

We want to work with recyclers that do more than the general average and achieve better recycling rates than their competitors. We want to fund and promote new technology that can make a difference to the way we capture and save resources. We launched the £1m Ecosurety Exploration Fund to explore and support projects in this way… and gave away our own profit to achieve this value over 3 years. So to me, it felt like the B Corp movement was very much in our lane from the very beginning.

                                                                                Steve Clark, Ecosurety Founder

If Ecosurety was a car, which car would it be and why?

Lots of people would have different opinions here. But I would say a 1932 Vintage Lanchester. It’s where I started as a kid, helping my dad fix old cars and learning that rusty bits of metal that most people see as junk, can be cleaned up, re-welded and assembled in a way to make beautiful vintage sports cars.

Actually, this is probably why I went into waste and recycling, because I knew by then that the difference between a waste and a resource is purely your imagination, creativity and effort.

Obviously, I’d make a few modifications to such an old car… I’d put an electric motor in, or maybe a modular hydrogen cell to power it. I’d also lightweight it and add some good seat belts… but keep the traditional essence of the vehicle. A bit like in business, we know that we represent good solid values, but we are fascinated by innovation and being bold and experimenting to always find a better solution in the way we push forwards.

What is your most cherished memory from setting up the business?

Probably the very early days were the most memorable… because they were so painful. I literally was broke, with no money to do anything. In my first year, I remember earning £250 from a year’s worth of 10-hour days and so many setbacks. I’d travel around industrial estates in an old Morris Minor looking at waste in people’s skips and trying to think if I could do something better with it and asking to speak with companies about a better way.

I’d often get dismissed straight away or asked if I was on work experience as I was only in my early 20s. A lot of people took advantage of my naivety. I worked for six weeks full time once to get a cardboard baler into a company and all I got back was a letter of thanks for my analysis and recommendations. Another time I remember having to stay in a hotel in Essex for an early client and couldn’t afford to eat because I’d spent all my money on hiring a car to get there. So I boiled some eggs in the kettle and heated up some bread on the iron to keep me going.

It’s funny to look back on, but it was this pain that sharpened my skills in the commercial, contractual and people side of business, which no doubt has been a big part of our culture and success ever since. There are so many amazing wins and hugely rewarding successes since then. But I think seeing other people grow and develop is probably one of the most enjoyable things about the business now, well that and knowing we are making a huge difference along the way. 

What motivates you now?

Leadership development, psychology, how different people can grow and expand their capability, the uniqueness and diversity between people… all of this has become a fascination and almost like a hobby for me to study. I’m also a dad to two young boys, so seeing them grow and just being there through the challenges they face in life is probably my biggest joy and motivation now. It’s way harder than business and frequently pushes me to the limit!

This year’s theme for B Corp month is ‘Go beyond’, what advice would you give to budding entrepreneurs who want to launch a B Corp?

Become a sustainable business first, before seeking to make a sustainable impact. 

What are you currently reading?

‘The body keeps the score’ by Bessel van der Kolk. It is about how trauma and psychological events are held and show up in our different behaviours. It reminds me to see the real person as a result of the things that have happened before. It helps me feel more compassionate and open-minded, less judgemental and more considerate of others. And that kindness is so often the thing that makes the difference between being isolated and lonely or living an enjoyable life as a meaningful member of society.

What is your wish for Ecosurety for the next 20 years?

Well, making a huge impact. Sticking true to its values, championing and leading a more resourceful future, influencing the biggest brands to do better through intelligent and strategically significant decisions on their material choices, supply chains setups and end customer relationships.

To be a genuine force for good that inspires action and accelerates social and environmental improvements. And equally, a place of fun, of laughter, belonging, purpose and fulfilment for all who work in and with the business.

Written by Mma-tshepo Grobler Published 27/03/2023 Topics Ecosurety
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