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The Empty Esky movement

Best friends Eleanor and Erin on putting bushfire-affected Aussie businesses back on the map (and how you can help).

Empty Esky is putting Aussie businesses back on the map

In January this year, Melbourne-based friends Eleanor Baillieu and Erin Boutros started the Empty Esky Instagram account, with the goal of helping rural and regional communities get back on their feet after the most devastating bushfire season on record.

The message was simple and powerful: Go on a road trip to a bushfire-affected town and fill your empty esky with local goodies.

It struck an immediate chord. Within the first 24 hours they had 8,000 followers, and it grew phenomenally from there as more and more Aussies took the pledge. They’ve since been recognised at Parliament for their incredible initiative, and have both quit their former jobs to focus on Empty Esky full-time. Empty Esky is entirely not-for-profit and runs with the support of a small team of volunteers.

Seeing the sisterly dynamic between Erin and Eleanor, it’s hard to believe the two have only known each other less than three years. They first met in early 2018 in Malawi, through Erin’s charity at the time, which had set up sewing schools to teach girls how to make reusable sanitary pads. After spending five weeks together in Africa, it was clear they both shared a passion for empowering vulnerable communities through business. And the seed was planted to work together again.

We chat to the Empty Esky founders about building a movement, not just a moment.

“We saw an opportunity to help change the way people think about travelling.
The idea that just two hours away, we’ve got incredible places to go.”

—Eleanor

How did the idea for Empty Esky come about?

Erin: I was watching the news and seeing people trying to donate tinned food and second-hand clothing to these fire-affected towns. I thought about how they would already be losing all that summer foot traffic. So I messaged El and said, “What can we do to get people to think about this differently?”

Eleanor: I’m a road trip person, I do them wherever I go. We saw an opportunity to help change the way people think about travelling. The idea that just two hours away, we’ve got incredible places to go.

Erin: We thought how good would it be to go and spend locally at a time when no one else is really visiting anymore? So we set up an Instagram account, thinking we might get a couple of hundred followers. And then it just blew up.

What’s the response been like in these bushfire-affected communities?

Erin: A lot of these businesses are owned by older people, who've never experienced social media before, or even have a website. So suddenly, when they're disconnected from their usual traffic, they're trying to find a way to get online. Empty Esky is a really powerful way to help them grow their own platform.

Eleanor: It’s given them an opportunity to be innovative and work together. They may never have thought that they could actually be part of that community. So it’s been exciting to see them grow in such a hard time.

Erin: The resilience they’ve shown has been incredible and really inspiring. They've been through so much yet, they always think that there's someone else more deserving. We’re like, “You’re who we’re here to help, let us do a post on you.” But they’ll say, “No, no, no. I know someone else who needs more help.”

“We would love people to plan holidays with the mindset of doing an Empty Esky trip, even if it's just once a year.
Choose a small town that has been affected, meet the local people there, and invest where you can to support local business.”

—Erin

How has COVID-19 affected Empty Esky?

Erin: In one sense, COVID-19’s created a lot of opportunities as no one's going to be traveling overseas for quite some time. And we're saying, well, if we're all here, at least use your holiday to invest back into a community that really needs it. We’ve also had to think long-term to look at what we’re actually trying to achieve, rather than just getting the small wins now. There’s been a real awakening throughout Australia about the importance of buying local and supporting small businesses.

Recently, a few businesses from Bright got together and created the Bright Boxes hamper, and contacted us. We helped them sell 147, which is over $23,000 going straight to Bright who are in lockdown right now. That's the only income they're receiving in this period. We’re empowering communities to come up with their own solutions, and we're just simply connecting people to them.

What are your tips for helping Aussies to think about and support bushfire-affected communities?

Erin: We would love people to plan holidays with the mindset of doing an Empty Esky trip, even if it's just once a year. Choose a small town that has been affected, meet the local people there, and invest where you can to support local business.

Eleanor: It might be a little bit out of the way, but the difference you'll make by stopping there and grabbing a vanilla slice and a coffee, is huge. It doesn't take massive, big gestures to make difference. It's just the little things.

Erin: And shout about what you’ve discovered on your trip! We encourage everyone who does an Empty Esky trip to share their journeys with their audience and use their influence for good.

What does an ultimate weekend away look like to you?

Eleanor: It has to include some sort of water activity. I am very much a beach person, so I love being near the water. Whether it's fishing or doing some underwater and wave photography, and then grabbing a coffee and a good meal at the local pub. And also finding jams. I love jams.

Erin: I think it's having a full day. I love hiking and doing a bit of exploring in the mountains and rainforests. I also love discovering wineries and seeing what’s locally grown. And then at the end of the day, having a beautiful dinner and going to bed in an amazing hotel or in a glamping setting. That to me is perfect.

Cotton On is proud to partner with Empty Esky to help bushfire-affected communities get back on their feet.