In their pursuit of ‘greener’ pastures, the women behind the sustainably inclined ECHOstore are pioneering the way toward an enlightened and conscientious consumerism

The popular “High School Musical” has a song—“We’re all in this together”—that may sound like a simplistic formula for addressing the complex issues of climate change and sustainability. But if any area is ripe for sharing and collaboration among organizations, it’s green innovation.

In the country where the two major challenges facing our generation come in the form of global warming and abject poverty, the call to shift toward sustainability is stronger than ever. With that in mind, pioneering the green movement in the country is the Environment & Community Hope Organization Store (ECHOstore)—the first concept store of its kind that provides consumers with everything they need to start a sustainable lifestyle, from organic bath and body products to non-toxic household cleaning items, baby products and locally sourced food ingredients. “It’s on the premise that people say the home is more polluted than the outside because of all the chemicals we use at home,” says Chit Juan, who co-owns the business with Reena Francisco and Jeannie Javelosa. “What we’re trying to do is promote a healthier lifestyle by introducing environment-friendly products and biodegradable items.”

“I think what ECHOstore and our trio is trying to achieve is that we want to make the word ‘sustainable’ reachable,” says Francisco. “People think that it’s such a big word, but it’s as easy as being conscious of the product you buy, what you’re eating and digesting, what you’re selling to people, etc. Sustainability is living while making others live. It’s just really about being conscious that for every act you do, there is a consequence—whether good or bad.”

Good Things Come in Threes

To reduce ECHOstore into a business that’s just selling organic products for a decent profit, however, would be a travesty to the three women behind it. All have reached high levels of success in their chosen fields—Francisco in retail merchandise; Javelosa in fine arts and creative strategy; and Juan is an entrepreneur who has started a number of big businesses. “Actually what we’re doing now are the same things, but in a different level,” says Francisco, “because now we’re using what we know to help communities and NGOs.”

“The point of shift that triggered our coming together was that we’ve come at a point in our lives wherein we wanted to contribute something different,” shares Javelosa. “Chit and Reena have always started new concepts and I’ve always looked at new directions.

We didn’t even plan this—we were just having dinner when the idea came to us. Brainstorming was done over dessert, by coffee we had a full concept, and we just ran with it.”

ECHOstore’s claim to fame lies in its three binding principles—nurturing and sustaining 1) the Self through a holistic and organic lifestyle that integrates body-mind-spirit wellness; 2) the Community through conscious consumerism, promoting fair trade and poverty alleviation programs; and 3) the Planet through eco-friendly purchases. “Everything is guided by those three principles,” says Javelosa. “We’re three women, with three basic philosophies, and we like the idea of having three sectors of society come together—the private sector, corporate/local government agencies, and the smaller community groups.”

Where Function Follows Form

When you step into ECHOstore, you’ll discover “A Thousand Stories,” the line of fair trade products displayed on the shelves that hail from different communities and NGOs in the Philippines.

“We’ve tried all the items in the store and know where they’re coming from,” shares Juan, who’s also treasurer of the Peace and Equity Foundation, a non-profit organization that work toward eradicating poverty.

“Every product has a story—we sell products na ginawa ng katutubo, ng mga lalake sa Bilibid, ng (made by indigenous peoples, by maximum security inmates, by the) Mangyan. And even Gawad Kalinga and Carewell, a cancer foundation, sell their products in our store. In a way, when people go to our store, they also get a glimpse of the lives of different communities.”

The ECHOstore trio’s role is really design intervention. Most of the items have had shelf time in numerous trade fairs across the country as the different communities created their goods with export in mind. “Everybody’s idea is to export—to scale up to export,” says Francisco. “They think that’s the only way to do business. What they don’t know is that to go there, you also need to put in design. You have to be open and to research. Just because you have a traditional way of creating and designing your products doesn’t mean that people will accept it. That’s not the case anymore.”

“Rather than go export, which is just about cost, a lot of the aspect we let them see through our ECHOteach program is that there’s another market—a specialized market that they might want to niche towards,” adds Javelosa.

“Product development was really the direction, the key, because to cater to the specialty market, you need time to think of something different, with higher value added. So we went around and we helped communities on how to package—and now we’re seeing so many beautiful products.”

Guilt-free Retail Therapy ECHOstore is probably the country’s first effort to train and inform people of new ways of purchasing.

Javelosa likes calling it “Conscious Consumerism”—not just buying influenced by the latest trend, but because there is something more that people can help with the purchases they’ve made.

“We’re not even going against traditional consumerism,” says Francisco.

“We just want people to know that there is an alternative choice that’s readily available. I don’t even think we’re an ‘alternative’ store anymore. We’re mainstream—I mean, ECHOstore is already in the middle of a mall so it cannot really be called alternative now.”

Customers coming to ECHOstore are socially conscious, concludes Juan.

“There’s an enlightened consumer insight now. Our customers do not buy our products merely because of pity (toward the communities)—they buy it because they need it and they like it, and lastly, because it feels good to have bought it. You help yourself and you are helping others upgrade their means of living—now that’s sustainable.”

ECHOstore is located at G/F Serendra Piazza, McKinley Parkway Fort Bonifacio Global City, Taguig Tel: 901-3485; G/F Podium, Ortigas Center, Mandaluyong; ECHO Village Store 69 Esteban Abada St., Loyola Heights, Quezon City; ECHOstore is also found in Marriott Hotel Cebu and Shangri-La Mactan.

Published in Manila Bulletin’s Business Agenda Section. June 21, 2010.