EnviroGroup: Sustainability With Pedigree
When it comes to sustainability, EnviroGroup boasts an impeccable pedigree. Owner Mick Harris ran the non-profit Alternative Techonology Association (ATA) for fifteen years and was founding editor of ReNew magazine. He continues to act as a technical consultant to the ATA. After a stint as merchandising manager with the Wilderness Society, Mick sold assets, mortgaged his house and established EnviroGroup.
EnviroGroup began modestly as a mail order business run from Mick’s home. In 2004 the first retail shop was established in Thornbury, a northern suburb of Melbourne. It has since been joined by a further shop on Melbourne’s southern fringe at Frankston.
The initial range comprised environmentally-friendly household products and gadgets, including disposable nappies, dishwashing liquid and refillable whiteboard markers, but Mick had bigger plans. Solar power, a technology with which Mick has a long history, joined the product range about six years ago. It now represents well over half of the group’s sales, with solar hot water making up much of the rest. The retail shop product range hasn’t been neglected; it just hasn’t enjoyed the growth rate of the energy generation products.
Although residential solar power systems make up the majority of installations, EnviroGroup has taken on larger, commercial projects. Examples are the 19 kW system installed on the Western Hospital, Footscray, and a 71.4 kW system for Monash University.
“Some of the best scope for solar power is medium sized systems on commercial and government buildings. They have large roofs, and in many cases all the power generated can be used on site,” says Mick. “We’ll have to wait and see if a carbon price or general increases in electricity prices provides enough incentive to really give this sector a boost.”
With his background working for non-profit organisations, it’s clear that Mick’s motivations are more than just financial. He expresses a real desire to make a significant contribution to the greening of the economy, and has assembled a team with similar motivations. About 30 people, including part-timers, are currently employed by EnviroGroup.
Mick is a prime example of putting his money where his mouth is, and he continues to back the business with his own funds. EnviroGroup is now profitable, but it requires close attention to cash flow and costs to keep it that way.
A lack of balance
The high reliance of the business on solar power has its drawbacks. “Solar power continues to have its ups and downs. Partly it’s seasonal, but changes in government incentives have a big impact on demand for the product,” says Mick.
The boom and bust nature of the industry brought about by changing government policy has also seen opportunistic, low price operators move into the industry. “With unfamiliar products like solar power it is more difficult to sell the benefits of quality systems,” says Mick. “Our view is that we aren’t doing the right thing by either our customers or the environment by selling inferior products.”
This philosophy doesn’t just apply to solar power and hot water systems. The products on the EnviroShop shelves are all carefully vetted for both quality and environmental sustainability.
Solar power will remain a major part of the business, but to help even out the bumps EnviroGroup is working to increase the contribution to revenue from other products. Energy-efficient lighting is one area showing great promise. The carbon tax should also help boost demand for sustainability assessments and energy audits, another growing part of the business. “There is just so much that can be done to save energy and money,” Mick concludes, and one thing is evident. Even with more than thirty years of promoting sustainability under his belt, Mick’s appetite for the cause shows no signs of waning.