Lynn Julian and Chance Claxton co-founded U Konserve to reduce plastic use and help keep it out of the oceans.
Editor’s Note: This is part of our Good on the Ground series, profiling entrepreneurial women who are addressing social issues in innovative and inspiring ways.
Inspiration to start a business can come from an unusual place. About 10 years ago, Lynn Julian and her college friend Chance Claxton got their motivation while preparing their children’s school meals.
“There’s just a lot of trash when you pack their lunch every day,” says Julian, of Scottsdale, Ariz. “Plastic baggies, yogurt containers, little cracker bags.” Both were struck by the huge quantities of waste, especially at schools without cafeterias, where children often bring disposable water bottles. They thought: “Where is this all going, and why is nobody doing anything about this?”
Julian and Claxton, both stay-at-home moms with professional backgrounds, decided they were the ones to do something about it. First, they did some research, which revealed some deeply disturbing facts: 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. There are over 5 trillion pieces of plastic in the ocean, forming giant garbage patches of pollution and devastating the ecosystem.
They began designing a prototype for a “waste-free lunch kit” — two stainless-steel food containers, a stainless-steel beverage bottle, a food wrap for sandwiches or snacks, and a cloth napkin, all in a recycled cotton sack. At the time, consumers were just learning about BPA — an industrial chemical used in plastic containers that can seep into food and beverages. Parents, in particular, wanted options other than plastic.
“It was very important for us to create something that people were seeking and that was going to solve all those problems for everybody,” Julian says. “We had to hustle because we knew we wanted to capitalize on what was going on in the news.”
Julian and Claxton, who had met while studying abroad in Spain, brought starkly different but complementary skills to their startup, which they initially dubbed Kids Konserve. Julian had worked in finance for a number of investment firms — she describes herself as “tough as nails” — while Claxton had worked as a buyer at Design Within Reach, the national home-decor store. “She got a lot of her design knowledge there,” as well as experience with sourcing, manufacturing and product development, Julian says, “which for obvious reasons really couples nicely with what I do.”
By August 2008, they had placed a bulk-manufacturing order for the lunch kit — which they priced at $40 each — and were ready to sell it. Julian had used a connection to meet with an editor at Cookie magazine, a now-shuttered Condé Nast publication for parents, and Kids Konserve was featured in a back-to-school article about waste-free lunches.
“I’ll never forget it… 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?'” recalls Julian, who estimates that she and Claxton initially contributed about $100,000 of their own funds to the startup. “And I remember sitting there and seeing the orders start coming.”
Consumer interest was strong, but what really surprised Julian and Claxton was the interest from wholesale buyers. “We had never thought about selling to stores who were then in turn going to sell to their customers, and we thought, ‘This is a whole new ball game,'” Julian says. “But it was very exciting.”
The following season, the two attended Natural Products Expo West, a big trade show in Anaheim, Calif., where they met buyers from Whole Foods and other eco-conscious retailers. With purchase orders in hand, they decided to change their business model, primarily selling wholesale rather than directly to consumers (although their retail site still contributes 10 percent of sales).
They began adding more products, including divided food containers, insulated coffee cups and ice packs. About 5 years ago, they changed the company’s name to U Konserve, to reflect consumer interest from teenagers and adults. U Konserve products are now sold in 1,000 stores, and internationally in Europe and Australia. (They declined to disclose annual revenue.)
Today, Julian and Claxton are proud of the impact that their small, 6-employee company has had on the environment. For instance, for the past 4 years, they’ve been selling stainless steel straws. Julian estimates that their product has kept 74 million plastic straws out of the waste stream.
In 2015, U Konserve became a B Corporation, a designation that means the company meets rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability and transparency. (Etsy, Patagonia and Warby Parker are examples of well-known B Corps.)
Next up for U Konserve: Expansion. “We are in the process of seeking either funding from an institution or an angel investor or a strategic partner,” Julian says. “We have the opportunity to grow to another level, which simply cannot be done with limited resources.”
Julian says she’s personally happy that she and Claxton have been able to achieve their goal of building a successful eco-friendly company while raising kids. The two worked from their homes for 5 years — Julian in Scottsdale and Claxton in Sausalito, Calif. — until the company (and the kids) grew enough that outside offices made sense.
“Both of us had a strong passion for creating a business that has a positive effect on the environment, and [we] wanted to make the Earth better for our kids,” she says. It’s “quite fulfilling.”
Posted: July 18, 2017