Starting a green business is tough enough… now imagine being a successful small producer of a product line and shifting to a environmentally-friendly model. Going back to the beginning on finding suppliers and manufacturers. Letting wholesale and retail customers know that you’re now selling a different kind of product. It’s a challenge many small-er businesses may not choose to take on… unless they’re really committed to doing business in a different way.
In 2006, Tom Larsen and Debbie Williams decided they were committed to running a more sustainable business, and began the transformation of their company Shoreline, which made bags “in the same manner as every other supplier in the world,” into Greensmart, which makes bags, laptop sleeves, wine totes, and even water koozies, from recycled plastic bottles and/or their proprietary Neogreene material (a replacement for traditional rubber foam). It took 2 1/2 years to make the transition, and as they note on the “Who We Are” page of their website, they’re still very much in learning mode… even as they make and sell high-quality, durable, and stylish green products.
As with other sustainablog Approved companies, I got in touch and sent them some questions. Tom, who serves as the company’s president, was kind enough to give me some very thorough and thoughtful answers.
Our interview with Tom Larsen of Greensmart
Jeff McIntire-Strasburg: On the “Who We Are” page of your website, you discuss alignment of values and practices, particularly social values and environmental values. How did business value play into your choice to shift towards green products and manufacturing practices? Or, what was the business case for making this switch?
Tom Larsen: At continuous points, I would hope for every business, we conduct an internal check against something akin to best practices and macro market/consumer indicators, which we conduct every few years. At that time our business model, marketing effort, direction and a host of other elements are reviewed and if necessary reevaluated against these practices or market considerations.
Our business had been held to socially responsible practices since the point that we entered into offshore production and the college marketplace, which coincided around 2000. When the business was started in 1995, the best practices for fabrics to make bags did not really contain anything that was eco-friendly. The concept of social responsibility was in its earliest stages as child labor and other socially objectionable practices were front and center at that time.
As we did our reevaluation in 2006, we revisited the materials side of our business to look specifically at what might be out there that would be more eco-friendly than our existing materials. Through this process, we discovered rPET polyester and learned all that was being done in this relatively new material science.
Between Debbie’s personal commitments about recycling and composting, and my background in resource conservation, this material was perfect for us to use as a foundation to create an entirely new brand, the mission of which was to make great bags out of eco-friendly materials using a socially responsible (and eco-conscious) supply chain. Our vision was to be Patagonia specific to bags. We set an 18 month timeframe to completely shift our materials to this new rPET polyester material. The business case was simple, once we’ve learned that a better alternative exists, how can we continue to use other than rPET polyester now that we know it exists? You can’t put the genie back in the bottle.
The business case was that GreenSmart would become exclusively focused on eco-friendly materials in our bag-making. We felt, and still do, it offers GreenSmart a unique position in the market as a brand fully committed as a company in comparison to brands that may have a smattering of individual products made from eco-friendly materials or perhaps none at all.
JM-S: Your products are made primarily from recycled plastic bottles. Why this material instead of other “green” choices you could have made (whether other recycled materials, or greener natural materials like organic cotton or hemp)?
TL: There are two answers to this question. Most would agree that synthetic fabrics are more durable, stronger or lighter than their natural material counterparts. As such, most bags in the mainstream are made with synthetics, polyester or nylon in some form or another. Knowing the consumer’s acceptance of a “green” material that most closely matched their existing expectation was much the same as selling a hybrid vehicle vs. a battery powered car, in that they one uses fuel the consumer understands and has easy access to and the thresholds to operation are almost zero. The fact that rPET is a prominent element in carpets and clothing and had proven itself to be a consumer indifferent alternative was a key business aspect to making the switch.
Through this research, we also learned considerably more about how fabrics come to exist, what they go through process-wise and became aware of information the average consumer does not know. In a post at my blog GreenSmart Notebook in April 2009, I wrote about how significantly lower the carbon footprint is for rPET polyester than just about any fabric alternative. It is 6 times lower than standard cotton, 4 times lower than virgin polyester, and half as much as either wool or organic cotton. The more we learned the more that rPET polyester became the fabric of choice for our launch of our new brand.
We discovered Neogreene in response to “isn’t there something better to use than neoprene for making laptop sleeves?” Neogreene has an entirely separate material science story, and has more to do with reconsidering chemistry and a reduction of resource consumption. By reconsidering the chemistry, we can provide a certified toxin free material to compete with neoprene. We were grateful to the American Dermatological Society to coincidentally name neoprene the Allergen of the Year at the same time that we introduced our toxin free Neogreene in 2009.
We’ve since included in our laptop sleeves, a fuzzy microfiber like interior made from rPET polyester. We continue to work toward improving and reduction of resource consumption as we develop new products. The 2011 products will be further along this path, but, this is our responsibility and succeeds most, in our minds, when the consumer thinks they have exactly what they have always purchased.
JM-S: On your FAQ, you’re very straightforward about manufacturing your products in China, and why this is necessary. You’re certainly not the only producer of green products using offshore manufacturing – what would have to change, politically and economically, for companies like yours to be able to produce your product closer to home?
TL: The “cut and sew” aspect of bag making as well as the fabric production and yarn spinning production have all pretty much evacuated the U.S.. There is a history lesson in there about the American textile industry that dates back to the turn of the 19th century and the invention of the cotton gin, but that’s a little deep. Taiwan is the world’s largest producer of polyester yarn and textiles.
American Apparel offers a unique and stunning example of a company that is insistent on domestic production and the effort that now requires. They employ 5000 people in downtown L.A., but, to do so, they have a fully vertically integrated business model. Its business model is involved almost from the field to the consumer. From production of textiles, knitting, dyeing, cut and sew, etc. all the way through to the consumer in its own retail stores, American Apparel* employees are doing the work. Maybe this is done as a business model decision, but, I suspect that it was done because they couldn’t find the facilities to do the work. It reflects the extremes that any brand must go through today to achieve domestic supply.
Our company began as a domestically produced brand. We made product in small cut and sew fabricators in California, Florida and eventually in the heart of this country’s cut and sew world, near Lowell, MA (that American textile history story again) and we were the last brand in each of these facilities as they closed for lack of work. Our volumes alone could not sustain an entire company. The move to another country was not a choice for us; it was survival.
What would have to change in the U.S. is a return of the entire supply chain support system. It’s not a small proposition. It would take many years to replace the expertise and experience we have given up for lack of living wages. The apparel industry, of which the bag making industry is an offshoot, does not have any inertia in the U.S.. I hold little expectation that the U.S. will regain its position in this area.
However, American companies like Gore (Gortex) and others with global operations still dominate the R&D of fabrics and textiles providing all sorts of technical advancements. These companies all have facilities in many countries, because clothing is global.
JM-S: How have you integrated green business practices into other elements of Greensmart (day-to-day operations, marketing, transportation, etc… )?
TL: To achieve this, we needed to instill in the folks we work with a desire to be “frugal” in a good way. Here’s a small but important example. Take something totally simple like the plastic window envelope that goes on a shipping carton that says on the outside “packing list enclosed.” These all plastic envelopes with an adhesive back are a very inexpensive commodity that are used for most shipments to contain the sheet of paper that tells the recipient what is in the box. Every shipment typically gets a 4″ x 5″ plastic window envelope. At 20 shipments per day, that’s 5000 envelopes per year.
We looked at those and said, “Do we really need to have 5000 pieces of trash sent to our customers every year?” So, we replaced those internally with a self-inking rubber stamp that can stamp the carton with that statement “packing list inside.” We put the sheet of paper inside the carton instead of outside the carton in this clear plastic envelope. It was not hard to conceive. We just hadn’t thought of it. We had to learn and teach new practices to folks (small though they seem) and there was risk that recipients would not find the packing list or object to the new location relative to their other suppliers. It turns out no one cared where the packing list is as long as there is a notice and it is there. The result is we save thousands of plastic envelopes, maybe a couple of hundred of dollars and the removed backing paper, all for the investment of a rubber stamp, saving a trash can or two worth of waste a year from ours and our customer’s world.
Believe me, I don’t think we’re going to change the world with a rubber stamp, but, asking ourselves continuously “Why do we do it this way?” or “Is there some other way to do it?” drives our enthusiasm. The packing list envelope change was an experiment in human and business behavior modification. And with almost every single change, we save money or create less waste, so virtually all of our “greenness” results in a better performing company, economically.
JM-S: Some in the environmental community argue that green products do little more than promote consumption. How do you respond to such arguments, and how do you work to reconcile the seemingly competing demands of sustainability and consumption?
TL: This is always an interesting question. Not to knock the folks who might think this may be true, but, it is an idealistic perspective to think that consumer purchases can be stopped by simply not producing products. In our case, as far back as humans have needed to carry stuff around, they’ve been making baskets or bags or something to do it. For the most part, I would like to think GreenSmart is making things people find useful in their lives, not products that are used once or twice and discarded.
To be more specific, we operate on a principal that we have come to call “displacement theory.” Displacement theory to us is the knowledge that every time a consumer makes a choice to GreenSmart, they make a choice that is not to a non-eco-conscious competitor. Our goal is to out-compete the virgin material guys. GreenSmart does not improve the planet if all that happens is we sell a bag instead of another brand’s eco-friendly version anymore than the planet wins any more or less when a consumer buys a hybrid car from between two hybrid cars. Our Displacement theory is to create manufacturing capacity, from the existing infrastructure, to take retail space, from the existing retail environment and create great products that out compete the existing virgin material products. In that way GreenSmart replaces virgin materials with eco-friendly materials providing a definable benefit to the planet.
If we’re using a limitless material (at present that’s how the plastic bottle supply looks) or we’re significantly reducing resource usage in manufacturing, making a product that has as long a life span as is possible, we are doing the planet a favor by lightening its load, just a little. If at some point in the future, new materials are available, new processes or practices come to exist or be identified, we’ll embrace them. We are very clear that our business is not resource neutral. We’re also very clear that at some point in the far, far distant future, maybe bags aren’t necessary. In the meantime, every time someone buys a GreenSmart bag, demand for a competitor’s non-green alternative is reduced by one. That’s one less bag being made at some factory and one more bag being made at ours. From our perspective, and we’d like to think most people’s, that’s a good thing.
It’s not an end-game solution. Walking is the end game solution to eco-friendly transportation, but, very, very few are willing to conduct their lives exclusively walking everywhere. GreenSmart is creating the path to consciousness about what can be better and what else might be possible.
I’m so grateful to Tom for the time and thought he put into these answers… no doubts here that this is a company that’s put a ton of thinking and planning into doing business more sustainably. We’re in the process of getting Greensmart products into the Green Choices product comparison engine, so check out the current listings for recycled backpacks, laptop backpacks, and laptop sleeves… with more to come!
Images courtesy of Greensmart
*Link to page in the Green Choices product comparison engine.