French businessman Hugues-Arnaud Mayer highlights the challenges and opportunities for eco-innovation from a grass roots viewpoint as a self-made eco-entrepreneur now advising others.
Ten years ago Hugues-Arnaud Mayer launched a business to turn plastic bottles into fibres for quilts. At the same time, he has led a second life as an eco-entrepreneur in biotechnology, producing natural insecticides from plants and flowers. Mayer also wears a third hat. He is president of the new innovation committee at French business confederation MEDEF, as well as president of its Auvergne branch.
What drove you to start making eco-products?
When we started ten years ago it was a way of life, a way of thinking. I wanted to recycle plastic bottles into fibres for quilts. During the first year we didn’t say anything about where the fibres came from, for commercial reasons, but now we say it. Now it helps us to sell them.
I have another business in biotech. We have launched a lot of anti-dust mite, anti-bacterial and anti-insect products. The chemicals in insecticides are not particularly expensive but they require a lot of marketing and offer good profits. We launched an eco-product based on essential oils from plants, without marketing, to keep the costs down. We sell mainly to speciality stores and government bodies.
What is the main barrier to eco-innovation?
Price. Some parts of the market very much like a ‘green solution’ – but people are not so keen to pay for it. So the first thing to look at is an eco solution comparable in price to a ‘non-green’ solution...Where my production costs are high, I don’t put so much into marketing – resulting in better prices.
In some market segments, such as the big hypermarkets and supermarkets, the difference between the prices of eco- and non-eco products is too big. It’s not very easy to obtain a market share there. You have to choose the right product or the right territory before launching.
The big retail chains often want to have a better margin on eco-products. It is a real problem. They think the consumer can pay. To avoid that, I sometimes put a small budget, say 2-5% of the total price, inside my price to help the product establish itself while helping the retailer obtain a good margin.
What can Europe do to help?
It is very important to be sure that everybody is using the same rules. What is required at European level is real certification, with legislation to protect or oblige people to respect what they say.
For example a few days ago I saw ‘95% organic’ on the packaging of a product. Fine, why not? But when I read further, it consisted of 5% chemicals and 95% water! There must be new rules at European level over what is ‘eco’. In the long run, the only way to keep prices in check is through competition. And for this we need to have good European rules to enable us to produce green products.
I think the second point is not to ‘push’ but to ‘pull’. Public policies could help pull eco-products into the market when they are at a critical phase. Green public procurement is the best way to test an eco-product.
What is the role of national governments?
We need real leaders, not political leaders but eco leaders. We need people to show us how it’s done – such as environmentalist Nicolas Hulot in France. It is also very important what we show to kids. I am a sponsor of the Nicolas Hulot project for teaching biodiversity in schools in Brittany. Children come and learn to be eco citizens – 100 kids over 50 weeks! These youngsters are an incredible support to eco policies. I think it could be a good to encourage such a programme of eco schools or eco camps. Afterwards, the young can teach their parents.
Do you face strong competition from abroad?
Outside Europe is a real problem, especially China. China is opportunistic and will want to take the European market share and produce eco-everything. That’s why it’s really important to reinforce standards and controls, because sometimes these third countries don’t do what they promise.
We are now focusing in Europe, where we want to become strong. We sell well in Belgium, France, Germany and the Netherlands, as well as starting in Spain. We began in the north and headed south as people in the north were a bit more interested in eco products. I sold my first product not in Paris but in Helsinki!
But in France we have been helped a lot by the Grenelle environment laws. Now all the shops have a real offering in eco products. It is part of the political programme – and it’s fashionable. Ten years ago, people were surprised I didn’t have a long beard. They thought eco products were only for special people.
I agree with Mr.Mayer's point of view: it would be very good for eco-conscience an EU effort to create norms that defines clearly all brands "eco", "green" etc, based on a system that could be able to study who is using this labels, and how.