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Ecco Living helps small businesses go green

Chris Sell is passionate about the environment. But after countless lectures and voracious reading about sustainable energy, the Northwestern University student found himself wondering how he could be involved with environmentalism now. He decided to “start a business with a social mission.”

Chris Sell is passionate about the environment. But after countless lectures and voracious reading about sustainable energy, the Northwestern University student found himself wondering how he could be involved with environmentalism now. He decided to “start a business with a social mission.”

Chris SellHe asked himself "Where would a large impact be, something tangible that I can conceive and actually operate?" The answer "was something simple, environmentally friendly supplies."

The outcome is Ecco Living a distributor for eco-friendly cleaning supplies, plates and cups, that can be bought for low prices in small quantities.

"I really just threw myself at it," he says, buying supplies, taking orders on his cell phone and delivering from the back of his car. In the process, he learned a lot. "People were apprehensive to switch in this economy because of the expense."

For Sell, the need was all around him. “I saw that the fraternities were very wasteful,” he says. "The thing I saw that just hit me in the head was styrofoam cups all over the place. At one house I was talking to, they ordered 2,000 styrofoam cups a week, despite having only 20 or 30 kids.”

He started looking for alternatives, and realized that styrofoam is cheap. "The big thing with every fraternity is that anything else is expensive. I heard the same story with small organizations everywhere."

"So I decided we had to make environmentalism wallet-friendly," he says, trying to find products that would make sense. But the replacement for styrofoam cups is corn cups. "Corn cups, rather than being $30 per thousand like styrofoam, are $90-100 [per thousand]. There is a huge disparity there when you’re buying in small quantities."

"We decided to find a solution," he says. He found a line of reusable dining supplies, called Preserve, made from 100% recycled plastic. "They’re also very cheap. If they get 10-20 uses out of them, they’re already breaking even compared with styrofoam purchasing."

Sell also wanted to meet the need for ecologically friendly cleaning supplies. His customers were buying some diluted product from a store. "I can find you super-concentrated, industrial, green-seal certified cleaners. And I can save you money that way."

Ecco Living’s first customers were fraternities and sororities, but Sell is making an effort to move off campus. Customers include Kipness Architecture and the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation, which occupies a new building that was awarded LEED Certification at the Platinum Level.

"Our niche is small organizations that don’t have a centralized purchasing system where they set out contracts and get discounted pricing." He continues, "it’s really difficult to switch over to environmental products because of the cost difference. They don’t have a purchasing system where they can buy in bulk."

How does it work? "We’ll buy in bulk for these organizations. We can get the prices down."

It can be hard to persuade Sell’s potential customers that he can save them money. "If I say, ‘I can save you money,’ they don’t believe me," he says. So he started the Ecco Match program.

"Businesses send us their invoice from ordinary products they currently buy, and we’ll try to match prices with environmental products," he explains. "We want to help them switch at no cost. We can’t do everything that way, but we can do something. If they send us the invoices, we can find other solutions."

The staff of Ecco Living is Sell, the "chief Ecco-ite," and six other students. Customers place orders online, by phone or through e-mail. Initially, "it was crazy. We had rented warehouse space and I was doing the delivery out of my car," he says. "It was interesting balancing education with deliveries."

Then they made arrangements for Tek Direct in Rogers Park to handle the distribution. "We have our products sent to this warehouse," Sell explains. "They  do our delivery."

Sell and the rest of the team collate and process the orders, collect the money and tell Tek Direct what to deliver and to whom. "I don’t have to throw the stuff in the back of my car after class any more."

The company was started with money Sell earned as a caddy. Now the business is self-supporting. "We have about $4,000 in inventory. If we sold that, we would be profitable." He adds, "the money I take in, goes out." And he’s not paying himself or the other employees. "They’re good friends."

Sell continues to try to expand the business and learn how to run it better. He is now sharing office space with seven other start-up teams through the Farley Entrepreurship Center at the Technology Innovation Center at 820 Davis St.

"Originally I thought it would be nice to have an address on Davis Street. But it’s not really the space that matters so much," he says. "I benefit from the advisory board and experience of other entreprenuers, who are much more experienced than I am. One of the guys is willing to advise me on the spring entrepreneurship competition. It’s incredibly helpful. Just being wrapped in that community has been beneficial to us."

What about competition? "Our reusables line does okay because competitors, such as Sysco, mostly deal with compostables," which are more expensive. "Our tissue products are 100% recycled content and the factory uses wind energy to manufacture it," he adds. "We try to get the most thoroughly environmental products," while trying to get the price down.

So what’s next? "We’d like to make this a real business that serves more customers and pays the rent," he says. But if not, he’ll just keep bringing in younger students to keep it going after he graduates. "The plan would be next year I’ll start transferring it over to them."

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