Sharon Rowe is an activist, author, and entrepreneur — she’s also the founder and CEO of Eco-Bags Products, the very first line of reusable shopping bags in the U.S. and an early addition to Good Companies.
We had the pleasure of speaking with Sharon recently and took the opportunity to discuss her new book, The Magic of Tiny Business, and what it was like to be a such an early pioneer of the zero waste and sustainability movements.
Good Companies: What inspired you to start Eco-Bags Products?
Sharon Rowe: It was 1989, and every time I went shopping I was disgusted by all the single-use plastic bags. Years earlier, when I was in Europe, I noticed that everyone brought their own bags to the store and I just thought, “Why doesn’t anybody do that here?”
I started looking for reusable bags but there really wasn’t anything in the marketplace. That was the initial spark of inspiration: I wanted to stop the insurmountable amount of waste that I was creating and that I saw on the streets of New York.
GC: This was way before that kind of reusable, sustainable thinking had gone more mainstream — what was the response like when you launched?
SR: We were creating a business for a market that didn’t exist, but for a need that I thought was compelling; there was a lot of going door-to-door at first. Our first big break came when we got a vendor’s permit to sell at this Earth Day Celebration. For whatever reason, we sold [the bags] hand over fist and sold out in four hours!
The major turning point came when my husband was at the local health food store in our neighborhood (this is pre-Whole Foods), and started talking to a guy unloading a truck about what we were doing. The guy says, “Interesting, let me bring it back to corporate.” As it turned out, corporate was Still Mills, the largest distributor of natural products in the country at the time.
All of a sudden we were working in the B2B wholesale market rather than selling to consumers; combine that with the growing NYC greenmarket movement and we had our path to success. It was one of those moments when we were right on the pulse.
GC: How did you incorporate your values into the business itself?
SR: From the very beginning we made a clean supply chain one of our core values. We didn’t want to solve a problem creating another one; I didn’t want the products to be made by anyone who wasn’t being fairly compensated for their work.
That matured as we grew — we actually had supply chain information on our hang tags for years, but at one point we thought about taking it off. In the 2000s, nobody really cared about fair wage or fair labor. It wasn’t even a conversation yet. Of course, it’s a huge conversation now.
GC: Can you tell us about your production process and materials?
SR: Around 1992, we moved our production to India. When we started, we used natural cotton, and then we switched to Certified Organic cotton around 2000 — we introduced it in the United States and took a lower margin on it because the U.S. [market] didn’t get it yet.
We wanted sustainability…we wanted it to be authentic. Now, we have a mix of conventional, recycled, and organic [materials]. It’s my personal goal to get more organic and recycled out there than virgin cotton. There are a lot of issues around cotton, but it’s 100% recyclable.
GC: You’ve mentioned several potential hurdles to your growth; what would you say has been your single biggest obstacle since you launched in 1989?
SR: I intentionally grew [Eco-Bags Products] according to the amount that I wanted to put into it every week and in alignment with my personal values: sustainability, responsible production, prioritizing my family over working 24/7. It meant occasionally saying “no” to growth because I wanted to keep it within my parameters, and just doing that was a challenge.
In terms of blocks to our growth, I’d say the number one thing was access to capital. We were self-funded. Venture capital wasn’t as much of a thing then; the easiest way to get funding was the bank, but in the 80s and 90s they wanted you to secure everything with your own assets.
Also, it’s challenging to be in a consumer goods category with something that’s durable. It’s not like somebody says “I want one of these!” and then the next day gets another one. I’ve had people who have had [these] bags for 20 years, but the thing is that obsolescence is built into the American business model, which is why we’re dealing with so much waste — if you build something that’s sturdy and lasts, there’s less interest in it, less funding, because it’s a much slower turn on the money.
GC: That’s an interesting point — has that mindset changed at all? Are investors today generally friendlier to more-than-profit companies than they were in the ‘90s?
SR: Not so much. I think in consumer goods, it’s still harder; “responsibly made” is still harder for investors. It may be easier to find partners, but not investors. I don’t really traffic in investors, though, so I don’t know.
I prefer the Spawning vs. Scaling model, which I also talk about in my new book, The Magic of Tiny Business. The idea is if you set a good example other people will want to start businesses like yours and the more the merrier. It makes for a better overall business environment and culture, rather than having massive businesses scale and dominate the market.
GC: Tell us more about your book — it was released this past May, correct?
SR: Yes! My main point in the book is that if you set out to do something intentionally, you can build a very profitable, right-sized business that will allow you to live a very rich life. You don’t have to sacrifice one for the other, but it requires that you understand what your values are and what you want.
GC: What was your inspiration to write it?
SR: I had people telling me “Look, you’ve got a successful business, and you sparked an international movement, you created a market.” They saw a message that wasn’t just about a bag, but a behavior. The behavior leads to you an awareness, and the awareness grows, and now look at what’s out there! The focus on the oceans, plastic, litter, reusable products — the concern levels have gone way up, the activism has gone up, the participation has gone up, and that’s pretty cool.
That’s why I wrote the book: to demonstrate that business can be a currency for ideas, and you don’t have to wreck your life to do it. You can build a business consciously, mindfully, and intentionally. That’s the “tiny business” thing; you just have to be scrappy and resourceful.
GC: We’d go so far as to say the existence of Good Companies is proof positive of exactly that point! In terms of what’s out there, which companies are particularly exciting to you?
SR: I love ECOlunchbox and I know Sandra, the founder, pretty well; she’s doing for food packaging what we did with bags. I love Klean Kanteen, and I think S’well is pretty cool; they’ve made it a lifestyle product, which actually forced us to look at ourselves and say “okay, we’re not just reusable bags — we’re an eco-lifestyle accessory.” Eileen Fisher is doing a great job, they’re looking to really clean up their supply chain, and are working with the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) and visiting partners overseas and to make sure everything is right.
GC: You’ve been named by B Corp as “Best for the World.” How do you feel about the work they’re doing?
SR: I think B Corp is really important. I know that they’re talking about how to expand their brand so that people recognize it the way they do USDA certification; how to turn it into a household name, a seal of approval kind of thing. It’s a real challenge. It’s so competitive out there, and logos and certifications tend to lose their importance when there are too many. How do you pick one to trust?
B Corp understands the value of the niche brands and the niche markets and adheres to the missions and the standards of those companies because they understand that they’re tapping into not only aspirational values but a larger market. A lot of that market is part of that millennial movement because those kids are basically my kids, and that’s what they’ve grown up with and expect. They’re working really hard to make their money, so why throw it out the window on wasted electricity and single-use products?
GC: B Corp famously requires its member companies to register as a public benefit corporation when they go public, or retroactively register upon joining if they’re already public. There were reports that Etsy backed off of that commitment when a new CEO took the helm last year — do you think B Corp’s PBC requirement is viable in the long-run?
SR: Absolutely. For us, we’re actually a certified B Corp, not a registered B Corp, because we’re an S Corp and I own 100% of the shares. In the larger framework, though, I know that Unilever has taken on a number of brands and wants to stay with [B Corp], and that Danone has just become a member this year. Natura is a global company and a B Corp, and they’re doing well with it. As long as you can prove that it has a market value, then yes, it’s viable.
I do think it takes retraining the market. The perception is that more sustainable goods cost more, but as the demand for sustainable and durable goods grows, the pace of the market will change. Slowly but surely we’re infiltrating the market — look at where Patagonia is now versus even 5 or 10 years ago — but nothing is going to fully change until finance changes. So if the market value can be proven, that’s where it’s at.
GC: What piece of advice would you give yourself now, if you could go back to 1989?
SR: The advice I’d give myself is actually in my book, which is: Stay on the path of what you believe in and what you want and how you want your life to be, because you want to grow this thing, whatever it is, with your health. Also, keep your eye on profit, because without profit you cannot proceed.
I did a lot of things in isolation, so I’d also tell people to find your community. It’s right out of Seth Godin’s playbook: find your tribe. In your tribe, you build relationships, and in order to build a business, you need those relationships to foster and build other businesses and create an ecosystem.
It’s not about being the best all the time, it’s about creating a healthy, balanced environment. You’ve got to understand that 20% of the time, everything goes to shit no matter what you do.
GC: Amen! Before we wrap up, do you have anything else to share?
SR: So much of what goes on in B Corp, Social Venture Network, Investors Circle, and other groups I’m a part of feels like an echo chamber; there’s not an influx new of people. For the economy to do real, good work we need to stop talking to ourselves and talk to everyone else, too.
There are a lot of people out there who would be really interested to know that you can pick a viable path doing this, that you can be an entrepreneur without burning out, but it’s not what they’ve been taught. It’s not what I was taught! I was not from the environmental movement, I was not involved in business for good, I wasn’t part of any social movements. However, I did go to Clark University, and our motto was Challenge Convention, and that’s what I’ve tried to do.
You can grow things in a healthier, more conscious way and impact the market even if you’re not huge. To quote Seth Godin again, “tiny is mighty.” That’s the culture shift that needs to happen, and I see it in all the micro-businesses that are opening up, as people start to realize that doing good really can be good for business.