In January 2022, Grōni Ecological Decorators became one of York Cycle Campaign’s corporate supporters. They promise to provide “a truly ecological painting & decorating service” part of which is a “pedal and paint” service currently being trialled in York. Intrigued, YCC member Pam asked co-founder Mat to give her a quote for repainting her sitting room. The results were excellent and Grōni’s dedication to sustainability in all aspects of its work was impressive. In conversation with Pam, Mat explains more about the concept, his motivation and his hopes for the future.
What gave you the inspiration and impetus to start the business?
I think the state of the planet really hit home when I was travelling for a year with my wife, and we realised that every country we went through was dirty and polluted in some way. Like out in the middle of nowhere in Mongolia there were plastic bags blowing through the desert, then farmers in the countryside burning plastic in their backyard in supposedly super-developed South Korea. And these small things just accumulated and when we got back just before the first lockdown I realised maybe it was time to start something on my own and something that’s green, but I wasn’t sure what. I wanted to combine working with my hands with a mental challenge. In the end, I settled on decorating with a green twist – not just greenwash it but something that represented real, in-depth change.
What experience did you have in decorating?
I’m from Slovakia and I came to the UK in 2014 and learnt about decorating by working with an experienced decorator in my brother-in-law’s house renovation business. So in terms of the trade, it was something I was already skilled in.
How did you come up with the name?
Grōni is an old Germanic word, the word green derives from it. But it’s had various meanings, so it’s also the process of turning green and the process of flourishing. So that’s what I wanted to achieve, to take a traditionally toxic trade and attempt to greenify it.
When did you start up?
I started the business in August 2020 with my friend Kevin. We built a website and started social media, approached friends and old clients from our days in conventional decorating, and then got recommendations. Once Google picked us up and people could actually find us on searches, it became obvious that there is a market even if it’s niche.
So what are the main differences between Grōni and a more conventional decorating company?
We use paints that are less harmful to the environment (and people too), but not just that. The coverings we use are compostable rather than single-use plastic, and we use ecological fillers. I’ve spent a long time reading around the materials available on the market. But some things aren’t available in a more sustainable form, or they’re extremely overpriced. So I was trying to find the best affordable alternatives.
Are there other companies offering the same kind of service?
As far as I know, there’s no other company with the same offering. There’s one in London but it’s not sustainable to the same degree, such as recycling, limiting waste, our paint-it-forward scheme.
What’s the paint-it-forward scheme?
It’s where the customer can donate paint left over from their job to other customers, and they themselves may benefit from free paint donated by previous customers. People tend to keep half-pots of paint but when they go to re-use it three years down the line, it’s not fit for purpose and is wasted. We provide customers with small pots of paint for touch-ups instead.
How did the “pedal and paint” service come about?
When I was reading round I realised transportation is a big part of pollution. I learned about cargo bikes and how they’re used in Europe, for example by a Parisian plumbing company. So despite my wife’s protests – she thought it “sounds too hippy” – I bought a cargo bike last October. It wasn’t a small investment, although we got it second hand from a courier company. I had it taken apart and resprayed and the branding put on it. That was June this year. And you, Pam, were our second customer!
You’re based in Leeds, surely you don’t cycle to jobs in York from there?
No, we have a storage facility at Clifton Moor where the cargo bike is kept. Then I cycle the last miles to a job. I’ve done over 500 miles on it inside York so far. I have to drive over in a van. Unfortunately it’s diesel, but I’m getting an electric van as soon as funds are available. Electric vans are great, but they don’t solve congestion issues, so I see cargo bikes as the future. We’re in the testing stage of our Pedal and Paint, so it will develop further – finding storage close to the A64 would be ideal, or employing decorators based in York already.
Was it easy to start using the cargo bike?
No. The bike weighs 30kg, the box 30kg and the tools, paints and so on another 30kg so it’s a total of 90kg. The box is 70cm wide and I was terrified cycling it at first, especially on some of the uneven surfaces. You notice that on a fully-laden cargo bike, when you might not on an ordinary bike. And I wasn’t very fit – that first day I turned up to yours there was something wrong with the power assist, and I was covered in sweat!
Have you had any other challenges with using the cargo bike?
It can be hard work. Because of the current storage location it adds an hour a day onto the journey time though getting through town is actually much faster on the bike compared to using the van. And the weather can turn a pleasure into a trial. But I’m keen to prove it’s doable. Some drivers get annoyed because I slow them down if there’s no cycle lane. And other tradespeople giggle at my bike. Their van is an essential to them, it’s like a mobile office. There’s very little consideration of the impact, especially in a compact city like York that gets super-busy. But that’s mainly the older generation. I’m hoping younger people being trained now might be more open to this.
Do you worry about cycling through the winter?
It’s October now, and I’ve realised I have to start wearing gloves because I’m not just sat in a van with the heater on. But I know that people in Denmark or the Netherlands or Germany still commute by bike in the winter. I just have to toughen up, it’s as simple as that. And I’ve an idea about creating a network of cargo-bike-friendly cafes or businesses who have a sticker on their window basically saying we’re part of a cycle trade scheme. They’ll offer you a discount and promise not to chuck you out into the rain if you’re drenched. And in return, we’ll create benefits for them too.
So, apart from it being a much more sustainable form of transport, has it any other advantages?
Oh yes. It’s a great marketing tool because people see me just riding around. And I’ve had some nice interactions at traffic lights. It’s made me more streamlined and tidier in how I work, because I have to think about what I carry with me rather than stick in three of everything.
And any benefits to you personally?
Yes, my legs are much stronger. After only two months on the bike I’d massively reduced the power assist settings I was using. It might be a manual job but it’s not cardio, you’re not going to burn off that BLT you’ve had for lunch.
Also from the mental health point of view. I get to a job in the morning awake and ready to crack on. York’s a beautiful city to cycle through at 8 in the morning. On nice days, the cycle back to the storage facility is a treat. It’s a bit of a decompress.
Do you think Grōni and companies like it are making a difference?
I’m not entirely sure about any of this, but I know that the old way of doing things just doesn’t make any sense anymore. And there’s this selfish aspect to it, even if it all went to hell and we realised all these green changes made no difference because we’re already too late. Because if I end up with my family waiting for the tidal wave or something, at least I’ll be able to say I tried to do something about it.
What’s your ideal future scenario?
I’ve got lots of ideas, it depends which we decide to go with! Ideally, I’d like to be operating a team of five decorators using cargo bikes. And I only have to cycle round checking on them. York already has a cargo bike courier and someone with a cleaning business has got in touch with me interested in using them. I think there will be a community of cargo bike businesses formed who will then be able to put a bit more pressure on whoever makes decisions about infrastructure by showing there is demand. It’s estimated that the size of the European cargo bike market grew by about 65% in 2021. The UK is a little bit behind. If the UK cities are serious about reaching the net zero targets, or even exceeding them, then this is a major contributing factor.