Most of the plastic ever produced still exists in some form. Some is recycled but the majority accumulates in landfills or ends up in our oceans. Dee-Ann Prather was so horrified when she made that discovery she literally decided to “threaten” her business.
At the time, her Down Under native Australian oils were being packed in High-density polyethylene (HDPE) plastic flasks which could only be “downcycled” into lesser grade plastics. If she switched to aluminium, it could be melted down, retain its high purity and remain in use. It would also be a lot more expensive but despite that, Dee-Ann and husband Phil made the switch.
“The sole reason we did that was the sustainability aspect,” said Dee-Ann.
The couple were already selling their oils at a premium price, with 90% of their product going overseas and 90% to North America. The cost of the new packaging had to be added to that.
“We were concerned about the negative ramifications of increasing the price. But we rolled out good communications explaining the reasons behind the move and didn’t lose anyone.”
Taking risks to save the planet
It’s not the first time, Down Under Enterprises has taken these environmental leaps of faith.
“When we set up our tea tree farm, Buhlambar, we spent more money than if we hadn’t been so focussed on doing the right thing environmentally,” said Dee-Ann.
“But it’s who we are and we have faith our customers appreciate that as we’ve kept so many of them for 15 plus years.
“They know who we are in terms of ethics, morals and what we’re trying to achieve. We are what it says on the label: traceable, sustainable botanicals.
“I don’t know if it leads to better profitability, but I am confident it leads to long-term relationships and that gives us a very solid business foundation and a de-risking of our business going forward.”
Dee-Ann is pleased to see the likes of AgriFutures Australia encouraging other rural businesses to also spruik their strong sustainability credentials on the international stage.
“It’s the way the whole world is moving. If we don’t follow along and instead do dirty farming and throw waste into waterways that will catch up on us. Sustainability hasn’t yet risen to the point where it’s become a severe impediment to doing business but it’s getting there.”
Big corporates demanding Sustainable Development Goals
The importance Dee-Ann places on the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is particularly pointed as, although a sixth-generation farmer, she began her career working in investment banking and management consulting.
She returned to her roots after her parents revealed they were having a tough time selling their tea tree oil. Dee-Ann and Phil were living in America at the time and offered to help find a market there.
That was 20 years ago and the couple loved the business so much that in 2016, they bought their own farm on Australia’s Northern Rivers in NSW. It’s now the most advanced of its kind in the country growing tea tree oil and various Australian natives that produce essential oils.
By the time they made the land purchase, the couple had already become aware of the increased interest in sustainability practises, farming methods and carbon footprints by multi-nationals who also expected documentation to prove those credentials.
However, it wasn’t until the subject of SDGs became a major point of discussion at the Sustainable Cosmetics summit in New York in 2019 that Dee-Ann realised this could provide a framework through which she could showcase what they were doing.
It also confirmed that it could be very good for business. Cosmetics giant, Estee Lauder, for instance, recently achieved net zero emissions. This now means suppliers who can show they are carbon neutral or carbon negative receive preference when it comes to being part of their supply chain.
“When Phil and I bought our own farm we were already very cognisant of what was important to customers. It was the core of what we wanted to do anyway but it was comforting to know that it was also what was being demanded and that we could measure, monitor and report in a way that was needed,” said Dee-Ann.
The couple began investigating the best way of providing proof of their results.
The SDGs include 17 goals, not all of which are relevant for Australia which already has strong legislation around workplace health and safety, for instance.
However, they identified 11 goals that were relevant and important to them as a company and employed independent corporate sustainability rating company Eco Vadis to audit their achievements.
“Eco Vadis look at your sustainability footprint – soil, water, land use, electricity, legal aspects, employee protections, … It’s a lot of paperwork making sure you have the right procedures and policies but we know a lot of our customers are looking for that third party certification and now we can provide them with it,” said Dee-Ann.
In their first year, the business was just one point off a sustainability silver award although Phil was frustrated that the success on their farm wasn’t included. The legal entity for which they were getting certified wasn’t the same so all their hard work on farm sustainability issues such as irrigation, water use, drainage and electricity were ignored.
“This year we’ve got smarter so we’ll blow right past silver and go for gold!” said Phil.
Why Australia is well placed to capitalise on SDGs
Phil points out that Australia, generally, is well placed naturally to offer sustainability to international companies as demonstrated by Eco Vadis’ member company scores for Australia compared to the rest of the world.
A recent AgriFutures Australia report on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals also demonstrates why rural businesses need to get on board. Many rural industries felt frustrated that they were barred from Fair Trade certification because we were already so good at preventing the evils of commercialisation such as child or slave labour.
SDGs, however, is a much more attainable way of opening international trade doors. But not only is it good for business, it’s good for the planet.
“We’ve got to work together to improve this planet and the SDGs give us the framework to all move in the right direction,” said Phil.
Highlights of Down Under’s completed sustainability projects include:
- 100 % renewable energy in offices and on farms
- New eucalyptus tree habitat established as koala corridor on farms
- Rainwater harvesting and irrigation recycling on farms
- Development of organic compost as fertilizer on farm.
- No animal testing of products
- 100 % of product packaging recyclable or reusable.
- Gender equality – more than 50 % of staff are female.
- ISO 14001:2015 Environmental Management System Certification to demonstrate commitment to environmental awareness and consciousness.