Ep. 24: Reuse and Recycle

The women behind U Konserve and My Sister's Closet are doing their part to minimize waste, and protect the environment.

The Story Exchange By The Story Exchange

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The women behind U Konserve and My Sister’s Closet are doing their part to minimize waste, and protect the environment. Hear how these two successful companies are countering America’s “throw-away” culture, one with reusable food containers and the other with recycled designer apparel.

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Ep. 24: Reuse and Recycle Transcript

SUE: (as music plays lightly in the background) You’re listening to Good on the Ground...

VARIOUS VOICES: ...Good on the Ground...

COLLEEN: ...You’re listening to Good on the Ground from The Story Exchange.

LYNN: There are literally millions and billions of straws and coffee cups and plastic baggies going into landfills every single day.

COLLEEN: I’m Colleen DeBaise.

SUE: And I’m Sue Williams.

COLLEEN: Just one word: plastics.

SUE: Can you imagine a world without plastics?

COLLEEN: You know, I can’t, which is pretty amazing, when you consider plastic has really only been mass-produced since 1950.

SUE: Right. And yet now, plastic is in everything we use, everything we touch, it’s in so many of the clothes we wear.

COLLEEN: And of course, once discarded, it’s filling up our landfills, floating in our oceans and littering our streets, parks and beaches.

SUE: And -- we know now -- that when it breaks down plastic fibers contaminate our nation’s drinking water.

COLLEEN: Yep. It’s pretty scary.

SUE: But today --

COLLEEN: Today --

SUE: -- we’re featuring two female entrepreneurs who are doing their part to minimize waste and protect the environment. We produced videos of both that you can watch on our site, The Story Exchange.org. Today, we’re sharing snippets of those conversations.

COLLEEN: As you listen, you may be struck by the fact that these women are not scientists or even stereotypical environmentalists. They’re running successful companies that try to counter America's "throw away" culture.

LYNN: U Konserve is a company that designs, manufactures reusable waste-free food storage products.

ANN: My Sister’s Closet is recycled designer apparel.

SUE: This past year we’ve been featuring female entrepreneurs, like the two you’ll hear in this podcast, women who are trying to fix big social issues.

COLLEEN: Now, these women are fully aware that they alone can’t solve it all.

SUE: But as one of them told us: “When you see a problem, just because you can’t fix it doesn’t mean you can’t do something about it.”

COLLEEN: It’s a good reminder...

SUE: ...during a time when there are proposed cuts to social programs, and a sweeping rollback in environmental regulations...

COLLEEN: ...that one person...

SUE: ...just one...

COLLEEN: ...can make a difference.

*Musical Interlude*

COLLEEN: Our report begins in Scottsdale, Arizona...

LYNN: My name is Lynn Julian and my company is U Konserve.

COLLEEN: Some years ago, Lynn, whose background is in finance, was working at an investment firm...

LYNN: They did a little bit of hedge fund, a little bit of this, a little bit of that.

COLLEEN: ...when she first became a mom.

LYNN: I was at the height of my career. I was doing really, really quite well. But the second I took a look in Joey’s eyes I laughed and said, “I am so not going back to work.”

COLLEEN: Her daughter arrived a short while later.

LYNN: So we had Joey in 1999 and Rose in 2000.

COLLEEN: As the children grew, Lynn often chatted with her college friend Chance Claxton, who lived in Sausalito, California...

LYNN: We talked about, you know, “Wouldn’t it be fun and interesting to start a business together?”

COLLEEN: Chance was also a stay-at-home mom -- she had worked as a buyer at a national design store.

LYNN: Our backgrounds, very, very different backgrounds professionally, could complement each other.

COLLEEN: Fast forward a few years, and their kids started going off to school. That would provide inspiration.

LYNN: We thought, “Wow, you know, there’s just a lot of trash when you pack their lunch every day.” And just speaking for my children’s elementary school -- 800 students, at least two water bottles in the trash can every single solitary day, plastic baggies, yogurt containers, little cracker bags.

COLLEEN: There didn’t seem to be recycling programs at many schools.

LYNN: We were thinking to ourselves, “Where is this all going and what is, why is nobody doing anything about this?”

COLLEEN: Lynn and Chance decided they were the ones to do something about it. First, they did some research, which revealed some deeply disturbing facts...here's just a few: Americans discard more than 30 million tons of plastic a year. Some 50 percent of plastic in the U.S. is used just once then thrown away. And then, there are over 5 trillion pieces of plastic in our oceans, forming giant garbage patches and devastating the ecosystem.

LYNN: It’s just astounding, the numbers. If you look at our website there’s a huge number of statistics that will really just blow your socks off.

COLLEEN: They resolved to tackle the problem with all that school-lunch trash...

LYNN: So we thought, “What do you do about that?” Well, you use reusable containers.

COLLEEN: Lynn and Chance began designing a prototype for a “waste-free lunch kit.”

LYNN: And our first product was a cotton sack with two stainless steel containers, one napkin, one beverage bottle and a food cozy that you can put a sandwich, or a bagel, or a wrap in and use it as a place mat.

COLLEEN: The kits were colorful, with fun designs. There wasn’t anything quite like it on the market.

LYNN: Anything that was of a sustainable nature or green was just ugly. It was all beige, and canvas, and was not very fun to use.

COLLEEN: Around that time, consumers were just learning about BPA, the industrial chemical used in plastics...here’s a 2008 report from CNN:

CNN REPORT: From baby bottles, to sippy cups, to food-can liners, to water bottles hydrating the youngest athletes, consumers have been exposed to a root chemical called Bisphenol A or BPA.

COLLEEN: Stores began pulling plastic products off the shelves.

LYNN: Nobody wanted to use plastic containers that were leaching these horrible toxins.

COLLEEN: Like any good entrepreneur...

LYNN: We thought, “We need to capitalize on this. We need to hurry. If we’re going to do this we need to do it now.”

COLLEEN: They designed their reusable lunch kits using BPA-free materials.

LYNN: It was very important for us to create something that people were seeking that was going to solve all those problems for everybody.

COLLEEN: They placed a bulk-manufacturing order for the lunch kit -- which they priced at $40 each -- and were ready to sell it.

LYNN: We were working nonstop around the clock, really pushing ourselves because we knew that back to school season -- July, August, September -- would be a really important time for us to really launch our website.

COLLEEN: They got a lucky break...

LYNN: One of the really popular magazines at the time was called Cookie magazine and it was sort of a Martha Stewart-esque magazine.

COLLEEN: Lynn used a connection to get an interview.

LYNN: And sure enough, we were featured in a back to school “How to Pack a Waste-Free Lunch” article in the magazine that came out right at back to school.

COLLEEN: Which was when they were launching their e-commerce site. They had a warehouse on standby, ready to ship orders.

LYNN: I’ll never forget it, August of 2008, when we first went live on our website, watching and thinking, “What if nobody ever buys these products? Can you imagine everything we just went through?”

COLLEEN: They had 25 orders in that first afternoon...not bad, considering they hadn't done any marketing.

LYNN: It was like, “Wow. We have a business.” To have an idea and actually see it come to fruition is really exciting and really kind of a cool thing.

*Musical Interlude*

COLLEEN: We’ve been looking at Lynn Julian, who started U Konserve with her college friend Chance Claxton. The company’s food-storage products are now sold in 1,000 stores, and internationally in Europe and Australia.

SUE: The company was actually called Kids Konserve, originally.

COLLEEN: Right, they were targeting kids from first to sixth grade.

LYNN: It quickly grew into something else because we got an onslaught of questions and requests from high school students, and teenagers, and adults saying, “I love your products but I need it a little bit bigger and I would like it in a few more color selections, and I, actually, could you not say ‘kids?’”

SUE: They changed the name to U Konserve about five years ago.

COLLEEN: And they also changed the business model.

SUE: Because much to their surprise...

COLLEEN: ...they began getting a lot of interest from wholesale buyers.

LYNN: We had never even thought about wholesale. We had never thought about selling to stores who were then in turn going to sell to their customers -- Container Store, Whole Foods, Fresh Thyme, Ace Hardware, Amazon.

COLLEEN: Not to mention a number of small kitchen-supply stores.

LYNN: A very small percentage of our revenues ironically are out from our website, only about 10%.

SOT: We went out of stock yesterday.
-Okay, I saw that. That’s off the site.
-But yeah. But then we also got the air shipment of the insulated food jars.
-Oh good! Okay, good.

COLLEEN: So all this might make it sound easy to start an eco-friendly consumer product company...but Lynn says it’s not for the faint of heart.

SUE: She’s right. They traveled to Asia to inspect factories, and they invested a lot of time, energy and their personal savings into starting the company...about $100,000.

COLLEEN: Plus, they’ve definitely encountered some setbacks along the way.

LYNN: There were a couple doozies.

SUE: Including the time another company threatened legal action over a catchphrase that Lynn and Chance used on every single product.

LYNN: We didn’t know that somebody else owned the trademark. They wanted a lot of money and they were potentially threatening to go against us personally for our equity in our homes.

COLLEEN: Fortunately Lynn had that background working on Wall Street.

LYNN: I was tough as nails and I could get through the hardest of board meetings or the hardest of presentations and I thought, “You know what? You messed with the wrong person.” I hired my own attorney and actually did a little research into their background and their business, and when they learned what I learned, they never bothered me again.

SUE: We should also mention they don’t use that catchphrase anymore.

COLLEEN: No, they don’t.

SUE: As a company, they’ve also had the occasional manufacturing hiccup, such as lids that crack.

LYNN: You can’t really fine tune and finesse the exact design until you’ve used it and had it out on the market for a while.

COLLEEN: But they’ve grown between 17% and 25% each year, and added more products, including divided food containers, insulated coffee cups and ice packs.

SUE: And they’re currently looking to expand.

LYNN: We are in the process of seeking either funding from an institution or an angel investor or a strategic partner so that we can take advantage of getting this business to the next level.

*Musical Interlude*

COLLEEN: Today, Lynn and Chance are proud of the impact that their small company -- which now has six employees -- has had on the environment.

LYNN: I like to look at it not that we’re selling thousands or tens of thousands of containers, or sporks, or ice packs, or beverage bottles every year, but how many thousands and millions of pounds of trash we’re saving from going into landfills.

COLLEEN: For instance, for the past four years, U Konserve has been selling stainless steel drinking straws.

SUE: Lynn estimates that their product has kept 74 million plastic straws out of the waste stream.

COLLEEN: She’s proud that her kids have watched her create this company.

SOT: I’ll see you later at home.
-Yeah.
-Okay.
-See you.
-I love you.

LYNN: They saw me work really hard at something, and never give up, and create something that is doing something good for the earth which is going to be theirs and their children’s. That is really, really exciting.

*Musical Interlude*

COLLEEN: The 1967 film “The Graduate” has a great line that we alluded to earlier...

SUE: ...where the young and disillusioned character played by Dustin Hoffman gets some career advice from a family friend:

-I just want to say one word to you. Just one word.
-Yes, sir.
-Are you listening?
-Yes, I am.
-Plastics.
-Exactly how do you mean?
-There’s a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?
-Yes I will.

COLLEEN: Oh, he was spot on.

SUE: A little too spot on.

COLLEEN: The scientific journal Science Advances recently took a look at what it called the “extraordinary” production of plastic -- which has far surpassed most other man-made materials.

SUE: Since the 1950s, we’ve generated 6.3 billion metric tons of plastic waste. We call much of it “single use” or “disposable,” but it’s anything but that.

COLLEEN: Yeah, much of it is dumped into landfills or the environment.

SUE: And because plastic is so indestructible...

COLLEEN: ...it will be there for decades to come.

SUE: There is an uninhabited island in the South Pacific called Henderson Island that is literally covered with plastic trash -- water bottles, fishing nets, cigarette lighters.

COLLEEN: The images are shocking to see -- listeners can Google it, Henderson Island.

SUE: And when we think plastics, we often think water bottles.

COLLEEN: Those are definitely plastic.

SUE: But plastic is also in much of the clothing we wear...

COLLEEN: ...synthetic fibers, like polyester and nylon...

SUE: ...which are forms of non-biodegradable plastic.

COLLEEN: So this gets us to Ann Siner, who is an entrepreneur we profiled in Phoenix.

ANN: The amount of cheap clothing that ends up in landfills is a catastrophic problem.

SUE: Now, Ann wasn’t setting out to solve a pressing environmental problem when she co-founded My Sister’s Closet way back in 1991. It’s now a multimillion-dollar retail business with 15 locations.

ANN: The idea just came to me when I was on a business trip. I had time to kill. I had never been secondhand shopping. I was in San Antonio, and there was a nice store. I went in and it was all second hand. I came out with a pile of clothes.

SOT: That’s really pretty. Did you try it on? Let me see how it looks.

ANN: And when I got back to Phoenix, my younger sister Jenny had just graduated from college. I said, “Jenny, we need to see what’s here and think about opening our own consignment store.”

SUE: Ann is a business school graduate. She got her start in the mid-1980s as director of marketing at PetSmart, which was then just a Phoenix startup.

ANN: I got in on the ground floor and learned a lot about business from PetSmart.

SUE: Including something called the “category-killer concept.”

ANN: They’re a big box, they’re based on convenience, everything under one roof, open seven days a week.

SUE: She and sister Jenny took that same idea, and applied it to My Sister’s Closet.

ANN: We’re open seven days a week. You don’t need an appointment to bring us your clothing. We have people there that will quickly go through your items, let you know what we can sell, what we don’t think we can sell.

SOT: The necklaces are great.
-Oh, thank you so much!

ANN: We open an account for you.

SOT: ...we also got another one with...

ANN: Everything is itemized on your account. As soon as it sells, it posts to your account and you can literally come in ten minutes after it sells and collect your money in terms of store credit or cash.

SUE: We visited My Sister’s Closet -- at least, one of their locations -- when we were in Phoenix. It doesn’t look like a traditional thrift shop. It’s in a very upmarket, small shopping center. The store itself is huge. The sisters really understand store display and hooking buyers in. The expensive designer goods -- bags, jewellery, shoes, dresses -- are right there as you come in so you get kind of excited, like, “What bargain will I find here?”

SOT: It’s a treasure hunt. Maggie London, $14.

ANN: The company sales last year were $25 million and it was kind of nice because it was our 25th year and we were making $25 million. It’s all something used, you know, from a $10 T-shirt to a $100 couch. That’s a lot of units.

*Musical Interlude*

COLLEEN: When we spoke to Ann, she used the word “recycle” a lot.

SUE: Yeah. Ann is increasingly proud of how she’s kept millions of pounds of clothing and goods from going into to landfills.

COLLEEN: And some of her success has a lot to do with consumers’ evolving views.

SUE: We asked her specifically about whether there’s still a “stigma” about wearing secondhand clothes.

ANN: I think it’s pretty much over. When we first started and my sister and I were out in public and we would see someone that we recognized from the store and we’d say, “Hi, how are you?” The person would literally put their head down and look like they didn’t know us.

SUE: Fast forward a few years...

ANN: And now when we meet someone and they say, “Well, what do you do?” and we say, “Well, we own My Sister’s Closet,” 99 times out of 100 they say, “I love that store. In fact, look what I bought from there.” It’s a whole new world right now in terms of bragging rights for what you saved, for what you recycled.

SUE: Now, of course, not every used item sells at My Sister’s Closet. So in 2014, Ann developed a solution for that.

ANN: At the end of 60 days if an item hasn’t sold and it’s, it’s not a high-ticket item, it is donated to our 15th store, My Sister’s Charity thrift store.

SUE: That location is a 3,000 square-foot store -- sort of a classic thrift store -- in Chandler, Arizona. Items are heavily discounted, such as $2 shirts or $5 shoes.

ANN: So when we think about the recycling process, you’ve cleaned out your closet, it goes to My Sister’s Closet, it didn’t sell there, it goes to our thrift store, items that don’t sell at our thrift store still have a life. They’re sold by the pound to recyclers. So it’s, the recycling process just sort of never ends.

*Musical Interlude*

COLLEEN: Earlier in this podcast, we talked about how these entrepreneurs are tackling big problems.

SUE: They are. They’re trying to make a dent, even if it’s a very small dent.

COLLEEN: If you start researching the issues -- like this one with discarded clothing, for example -- it’s almost overwhelming.

SUE: It is -- there’s a lot of concern about “fast fashion” -- which is basically the mass manufacture of cheap clothing, much of it polyester.

COLLEEN: In recent decades, fashion retailers have increased the turnaround of fashion trends. There are no “seasons” any more. Which in turn, of course, encourages customers to buy more.

SUE: Some of this “fast fashion” is so cheap that you can’t really reuse it, at least not as clothing.

COLLEEN: So it’s turned into rags...

SUE: ...but most of it eventually makes its way to a landfill.

COLLEEN: Yes.

SUE: At My Sister’s Closet, Ann tries to do even more. For instance, the company’s thrift store that we mentioned donates its proceeds to charity.

ANN: And I’m really proud to say in the first full year of business a little 3,000 square foot store netted $136,000 for local charities like the Humane Society, like Fresh Start Women’s Resource Center, the Nature Conservancy. I’m very proud of what we did.

SUE: To reduce single-use waste, the company prohibits employees from using disposable water bottles, and is getting rid of plastic bags in all of its locations.

COLLEEN: And when it comes to secondhand, Ann practices what she preaches.

SUE: She certainly does...

ANN: I am my own best shopper. I would say 80% of my closet is from My Sister’s Closet. It’s hard to pass up a good deal.

*Musical Interlude*

SUE: Our thanks to Lynn Julian of U Konserve and Ann Siner of My Sister’s Closet for sharing their stories.

COLLEEN: Proof that one person can make a difference.

SUE: Join us next time to hear more stories about innovative and inspirational women doing the things you’d never dream of. Or...maybe you would.

COLLEEN: If there’s a female social entrepreneur you'd like to see featured on “Good on the Ground,” send us an email to info@thestoryexchange.org. If you liked this podcast, please share on social media or post a review on iTunes. It helps other people find the show. And visit our website at TheStoryExchange.org, where you’ll find news, videos and tips for women entrepreneurs. Interview recorded by Sam Shinn. Sound editing provided by Christina Kelly. Executive producers are Sue Williams and Victoria Wang.

Posted: November 20, 2017

The Story ExchangeEp. 24: Reuse and Recycle