When you ring Pocheco, a company that makes 2 billion envelopes a year in their factory close to Lille in France, the holding message describes Pocheco as “the first ecolonomic factory in the world”. If you ordered a copy of ’21 Stories of Transition’ from us, you will have received it in a Pocheco envelope. They are also one of the stars of the film ‘Demain‘ (see clip below). When I spoke to Emmanuel Druon and Liz Dinsdale at Pocheco, first thing I wanted to know was, what is an ecolonomic factory?
Emmanuel: We started 20 years ago with the idea that it’s not fair that to have a job we need to destroy our environment. It’s just not possible to continue to live like that. So we refused that and said there must be another way to do things, but without destroying the environment or society, or the relationship between people. We prefer co-operation to competition.
We felt, why do we have to wear a special suit when we enter the factory every morning? Who are we? Why are we acting all day? Could it be possible to work and be ourselves? So we tried to find solutions to that.
We make paper envelopes. And we were told that this is killing the forest. It’s a very strong feeling when you go to work every morning with a feeling that in exchange for a salary, you’re going to destroy forests. The responsibility is just unbearable, awful! It drives you direct to burnout. It’s just not possible to work like that.
So we found a forest where every time we cut a tree, we plant four to replace them. We said, “okay, it’s good for the forest, it’s interesting, but what are we doing in our factory, on our own premises?” And we changed everything within 20 years. We changed the type of inks we were using. They were based on chemicals, alcohol … not good. Not good for us, not good for the environment. We changed that in 1999 to water-based inks with only natural pigments. We tried with every move we made to change things in order to respect the environment and also health, and also society in the large scale. None of our acts could be said as destroying anything. So we entered into circularity.
And ‘ecolonomy’ means what we discovered within 20 years. It is more economical to work ecologically. It has saved the company from bankruptcy, because if we had not changed our way of doing things, bankruptcy was probably happening. We had to fight for our jobs, but not at any price.
There is no hierarchy here. My colleagues need nobody to say to tell them every morning what to do. They perfectly know what they have to do. They are professionals, they are adults. We have customers and they need us for certain kinds of products. They of course demand quality, price and everything. We provide quality, price, but we don’t need anybody to tell us what to do every morning.
Liz: We have a really flat management structure. 12 people work in what we call the ‘Piloting Committee’. Below those 12 people you have the rest of the team. Decisions are made very easily. Everybody knows what they’re doing. Because of our quality management system, everybody writes their own procedure. Each person knows exactly what their job is and what they’ve got to do. We don’t need lots of layers of hierarchy.
Emmanuel: I studied literature. Who is waiting for me to tell him how to deal with this envelope machinery, seriously? [speaks French]
Liz [translating]: Emmanuel considers that his job is to bring peoples’ talents forward and help them and give them the means to do their job, but not to tell them how to do their job, because his background is marketing and literature. He doesn’t consider that he can tell people how to use their envelope making machines, which are these huge machines which are about 10 metres long, that produce about 1000 envelopes a minute. They’re huge machines that run very quickly, quite dangerous. Emmanuel considers that the people who work on the machines know what they have to do. They don’t need him giving orders.
You mentioned the business had been close to bankruptcy. Many people, faced with that, would become more conservative, whereas you set off on a radically different path…
Emmanuel: A journalist in Canada told me about that, that when you have nothing left to lose, it’s the moment to rebuild everything your own way. It’s exactly what we’ve done. It’s a very strong feeling to realise that the conventional system does bring us to bankruptcy, so if we don’t change the rules, we’re going to die. Or not to die, but just to get into bankruptcy. I don’t want to be too dramatic!
I have the very strong feeling that there is a parallel between this small situation we had to fight for 20 years ago, and the general situation. If we’re happy with what’s happening in the world now, let’s not change anything. But if we consider that the situation is now demanding a reaction, let’s change everything.
For the 21st century, we could just discover that our creativity can change everything. Ours is a very small scale, I know that, but we made that decision and it’s the reason why we are now ready to speak about it and you can visit Pocheco when you like, because we are still here. Because we changed everything. Nobody was killed!
To take that spirit that you talked about and to scale that spirit up more widely into society, what does that take, do you think?
Emmanuel: Education, and examples. And probably acting like a 12 year old child. When you had no time to become a jerk, because you’re still yourself, naturally. You’re watching the stars in the sky and you have the strong feeling of astronomy. You’d like to discover planets and you’re dreaming. And you’re completely fully authorised to dream.
Life is a dream. When you go into the environment you have the strong feeling seeing trees and animals, and you don’t want to kill animals, you don’t want to destroy nature. You just have the feeling that life is nice, and why not? Then you study, you understand that capitalism is the only solution, accumulation, making money, and you become a fantastic jerk, and you’re not happy. So let’s continue like that. I mean it’s global suicide. So, no.
I met Pocheco as a company for the first time in my life when I was 11 years old and it was at a very strong moment for me in my life. My father was very depressed and he was at that moment coming out of his depression, and it was a long depression. For the first time in my life – for a long time in my life it had not happened – we were together walking around the place.
I still now – it’s 40 years ago – I can tell you the feeling I had that day. That place, this building, the smell of everything on site, inside, the people I met. Everything, I have it inside. When I came back 30 years after, after a long period of working elsewhere, and I found this situation, I just had to remember, “What was my feeling when I was 11?” and to follow that, to propose new solutions, a new way of doing things.
What we’ve realised with Liz and colleagues since that time is something very close to what was my dream when I was 11. So let’s not become capitalists. Let’s not fall into accumulation and things like that. Let’s just be ourselves. I mean, why are we cheating as adults?
And we need to reimagine our relationship to money, both as Transitioners and as business people like yourselves?
Emmanuel: Here the problem was, and is, still at the moment, that 13% of the population has no job. We need to work. My colleagues need to work. So we want to do that and we want to do that in a certain way. In a way that we respect and that you understand is slightly different. What I mean, and that’s my answer to the second part of your question, is that [speaks French].
Liz [translating]: Money isn’t the end, it’s the means to an end.
Emmanuel: You put money in its place. The ratio between our highest and lowest salaries is 1:4. The money made through the work we do is reinvested in the company all the time, which means modernisation, reducing the impact on the environment, reducing the difficult nature of the work, the dangerousness of the work, making a profit in productivity.
We need it to stay in the competition, because no customer is asking us for green things. They just want a good price. So we have to do everything with that constraint, that is, at the end we have to get a better price. But we are too poor to buy low quality raw materials. We buy what is expensive because we need the best if we want to make the best. It’s a piece of advice I would share: stop watching things by their price. Look not at the financial price, look at the environmental price. Look at the societal price.
When you ask what are the consequences of our acts, you realise that you’re not going to grow, and that’s okay. Who gives a shit about growing? We don’t need to grow. We need to live, which is absolutely different. Only a few men on earth are motivated by the idea of becoming masters of the world. They’re crazy, okay. Empires, Bill Gates, and things like that, no thank you. When you have that in mind, I’m sorry, it’s not technical, it’s not a recipe I’m giving you, it’s just a state of mind.
Just get enough money honestly to contribute to your own local community survival, for what you need, really, to live. But not to accumulate. Not to give to shareholders and so on.
How would you evaluate the impact you’ve had on the place where you started the factory?
Emmanuel: Very, very small. We were 95 and now we are 122. But we were 95 in a very bad shape. We are 122 with a big smile. I believe that if many people visit us, they can just get involved into the same way of doing things. They can reproduce, they can propose, they can be creative. It’s what’s happening at the moment. We receive more than 500 people on site every week. It’s not the new Disneyworld they’re visiting, it’s a factory where we’re producing envelopes, but in a different way. What I hope is that they will be inspired.
We have a strong belief that we can create connections. The system we’ve built within 20 years is nothing more than an alternative. It’s very reachable. It’s not being done by rich people. Ecolonomy is a poor people solution. If you’re rich, it’s easier.
You mention that you studied literature and you communicate what you do like poetry. It feels to me you have a very beautiful use of words … does business need more poets?
Emmanuel: My favourite word in your magnificent language is one I found in Shakespeare, it’s ‘pomegranate’. I wanted you to know that. So pomegranate is my answer. We need to stay tuned to the world and our dreams.
I’m sorry, but money, cars, accumulation, has never ever occurred to me as a dream. But yes, when I watch the bees … while I’m talking to you, I can watch the bees. This morning there was a mess around one beehive and it was because two queens decided to split. It’s a sad, sad story, and so you had 40,000 bees going away, and we found them somewhere else in a tree, and this is the meaning of life.
If we have to work, we’d better stay close to that reality. Because it’s the only one that gives you a reason to wake up in the morning, I believe. I mean, when people are children, they don’t dream to make envelopes. I’m the only one in that case. And I tried to invite them in my dream, while doing something strange, getting life inside of our everyday work. I realise while saying that that maybe a few dangerous people could say the same. Be very careful.
Wonderful, thank you, thank you. So how do you say pomegranate in French then?
Emmanuel: It’s ‘la noire de grenade’.
Oh that’s not quite so nice then is it?
Emmanuel: No, pomegranate really is…
It’s a very good word.
Emmanuel: It’s very nice…
[Here is the full audio of our conversation]
Emmanuel is author of ECOloNOMY: Doing Business and Manufacturing Differently, published by Triarchy Press.
As well as the conversation above, we also talked to him and Elizabeth about the film ‘Demain’, in which they star, and the impact it has had on them and on France more widely. You can read that interview on the page of our petition to try and bring ‘Demain’ to the UK. You’ll find it here.