Kinship in Michigan: Ecobuns Baby + Co.

Five years ago, Marissa Berghorst went from brain injury specialist to retail store co-owner. Now, along with her mother, Vicki Hughes, she’s a community creator. Ecobuns Baby + Co. is paving paths for sustainability in parenting, and in business, while keeping Holland, Mich., a beautiful place for future generations.

Tell us about the history of Ecobuns.

I am one of the co-owners of the store along with my mom, Vicki. Ecobuns was already an existing business when we purchased it in 2014. We were both in the middle of these big life changes: Vicki was selling a previous business and I was in the middle of my divorce, so we were both like, “what are we going to do with the rest of our lives?” I asked my mom what she was going to do with the money from selling her previous business and she said she was going to go to school to be a medical transcriptionist. I said, “Mom, that’s a great idea, you should totally do that. Or we can go into business together.” And we decided to purchase Ecobuns! The name is from when the previous owner almost exclusively sold cloth diapers; we eventually rebranded to Ecobuns Baby + Co. and added on the full product line that we have today.

How do you curate that product line?

A lot of our product recommendations come from our local customers. Our business model surrounds building a community here. When we look at new products to bring in, we listen to suggestions from our local community members. We value local products and look for production as close to Michigan as we can get while staying sustainable. We look at the safety and quality of products as well. We don’t bring anything into the store that we wouldn’t feel comfortable using on our own family members. That’s a big deal for us! We’re not going to recommend something that we don’t absolutely stand behind.

We also look at the business practices of the companies that we support, to make sure they align with our values. For example, we have a product line that employs people with disabilities and we place a lot of value in the resourcefulness of that.

Are your customers at the beginning of their eco-journey or established in the lifestyle when they find you?

Safe parenting is like a gateway drug into a more natural lifestyle. When you’re responsible for another person, you realize how what you use on yourself matters. We see a lot of new customers coming in for cloth diapers for various reasons. Some are looking for environmental options: they’re appalled that here in the US we go through hundreds of disposable diapers every second. A lot of times, they’re looking at the chemicals in disposable diapers, like dioxin, which is one of the most-known cancer-causing chemicals.

Customers also come in for the cost savings of cloth diapers, which are about $2,000 per child, and then they see all the other benefits. As we start talking about one thing, it transfers into other areas of life. We have a good split of customers who are already living a sustainable lifestyle at home and customers who haven’t even used the word “sustainability” before.

Tell us more about the mission-driven parts of your business.

We are part of a really great local organization called Local First of West Michigan. It’s one of the largest chapters in the United States and has helped do a lot of the research behind the shop local initiatives and studies. Local First has a lot of initiatives to help companies become B Corporations. It’s really cool that they have helped a lot of companies take the Quick Impact Assessment which looks at where the business’s values are, how the employees are treated, how it interacts with the community, how profitable the business is, and more. In taking that assessment we learned there were some areas that we could set higher, measurable goals to do good. We thought it was just common sense.

We’re very passionate about community, and also the environment. We just won our second LocalMotion award from Local First, so that’s something we’re really happy about. We’ve also set up the culture at our store to allow for the success of our employees. Like most new moms, who are otherwise often punished by employers when their kids get sick, it can be hard to take time off for school events and find flexible employment. Of course, we open up employment to everyone, it just happens to be that most of the time mothers and grandmothers are drawn to us. It’s so cool to watch our employees develop professionally and personally.

What is the dynamic between in-person sales and online sales?

We see a lot of our business in-store and I attribute that to the community aspect. We’re still working on how to translate that community feeling to the online world. We live in such a world of disconnect sometimes, that, here at the store, we do a lot to connect people together. We have support groups, storytime, moms’ night out – there are a lot of ways to meet your new best friend here. Being a new mom can be lonely so finding new people to connect with is a big deal. Sometimes we’re the first stop people make on their way home from the hospital.

What other areas of life do you find fun and motivational?

My kids are fun! They’re five and seven and they have their own name tags at the store since they spend a lot of time here. My daughter was six months old when we bought the business, and she still comes to meetings with me to collect business cards. She’ll lay them out, months later, and pick one up to easily recall which one gave her a sucker or sent her a letter.

When I was a new mom (my son will be eight this spring), I didn’t have this kind of community. My generation was the first to start to rely on the Internet for advice instead of our parents and grandparents. It’s just not the same as meeting someone in person or going to the park with someone or having someone else hold your baby when you’re tired. That’s really why we started Ecobuns. Obviously, the retail side has to be sustainable in order to offer events and other services, but our passion lies in strengthening the parent-child relationship in the community. It’s such a personal passion of mine to sustain our community. I love it here so much and I want the world that my kids grow up in to be a good world. And I know that I can speak for Vicki, because they’re her grandchildren, that she feels the same way.

What is it like to work with your family?

I also live with my mom, which was going to be temporary but after the housing crisis, I decided to stay around a bit longer, and here we are! We work opposite shifts at the store so we don’t see each other all the time, but we love it and it’s so nice when it comes to the kids. The kids love having that time with Grandpa and Grandma. Like any business partnership or family relationship, it has its challenges, but we’ve made a commitment, and I let her know if I need my mom or my business partner at times. The biggest thing that I struggle with at the store is whether to call her “Vicki” or “Mom.”

As you observe a generational crossover, do you find people are drawn more to tradition or trend?

From about 2010 to 2015, there was a big surge of having the newest, coolest thing. I’ve seen a shift over the past few years of people coming back to more practicality, which is where our main focus has been. Now we’re starting to see trendy companies changing their items as people put more value on high quality and sustainable items. Families can justify paying more for something they know is going to last longer.

We hear so much in our store about well-meaning family members buying presents for their kids at a lower price or quality, with parents wishing they’d spent a few more dollars to get longer-lasting brands and cut down on waste. And when it comes to minimalism: we have a lot of customers who direct their families to Ecobuns around birthdays and holidays because they trust that the items they’ll receive won’t just clutter up their houses and be unpurposeful.

What does the future look like for Ecobuns Baby + Co.?

As we celebrate our first five years, looking forward, we want to be sustainable for the next five years and offer resources to our community. It’s my proudest moment, that we’re five years out and still growing. We have the best employees and the best customers; I attribute it to them.