Life Without Plastic (our January 2012 green-biz interview)
Green America: What does your business do?
Jay Sinha : Life Without Plastic is a one-stop-shop for high-quality, safe and ethically sourced alternatives to plastic products for everyday life. Stainless steel, glass, wood, bamboo, organic cotton, wool, hemp, cellulose…these are some of the raw materials used to make our products. We are also an ever growing hub for information on plastics and plastic-free living. And our exclusive brand, Sanctus Mundo, is now recognized as a trusted source for non-plastic products.
We are helping provide people peace of mind in an online world where the choices are many, the background information often minimal, and greenwashing is rampant. But most of all, this business is us: Chantal and me and our team. The guiding principles of our business – health, environment, integrity, community – are principles we live by in our personal everyday lives.
Why should people try to live a life without plastic?
Jay: We are most concerned about the health and environmental effects of plastic. On the health side, many common plastics leach toxins that are harmful to life. Perhaps the most well known example these days is the hormone-mimicking chemical bisphenol-A (BPA) leaching out of polycarbonate plastic (commonly used in water bottles, baby bottles, and large blue water cooler bottles) and epoxy resins, which make up the lining of most food and beverage cans. Peer-reviewed scientific studies have linked BPA to numerous health problems including chromosomal and reproductive system abnormalities, impaired brain and neurological functions, cancer, cardiovascular system damage, adult-onset diabetes, early puberty, obesity and resistance to chemotherapy
On the environmental side, plastic pollution is now a global epidemic and waste management disaster with plastic debris clogging waterways, filling oceans, defacing beaches, and killing wildlife. Many plastics are not recyclable, and those resins that can be recycled can generally only be downcycled, and only once. The oceans provide some of the most disturbing, vivid examples of plastic pollution gone awry. Research done by the Algalita Marine Research Foundation and 5Gyres and other marine scientists is showing how alarming levels of plastic debris are being found in the five major oceanic gyres around the world. In the hundreds of miles spanning the core of the Central Pacific Gyre it is estimated that there are six pounds of plastic for every pound of surface plankton. This is especially disturbing given that plankton is at the base of the global food chain and a key contributor to the oceans being a carbon sink that moderates global warming.
What are your most popular products?
Jay: Our most popular products are our airtight containers, be they made of stainless steel or glass. They make such superb versatile replacements for plastic food storage and lunch containers that people just love them.
Do you have specific green sourcing requirements or internal business practices?
Jay: We require our suppliers to meet certain standards regarding environmental and labor practices, as laid out in our Ethical Sourcing Policy, a policy we solidified when going through the screening process to become a Green America approved business. In a nutshell, this means ensuring that the products being sourced are created in safe facilities by workers who are treated well and paid fair wages to work legal hours. It also implies that the supplier is respecting the environment during the production and manufacture of the products. We build trust-based relationships with our suppliers. Many we have met in person and have visited their facilities. We also try to source locally as much as possible, both to decrease the carbon footprint and support local craftspeople. Most of our bags are made within 500 miles of our head office.
To combat greenwashing, we are transparent about the country of origin and ingredients of each of our products, and we independently test most of our new products for certain toxins, such as lead or phthalates. If we are working with a supplier we trust and they have already done solid testing, we may rely on their own tests.
We work closely with our suppliers to minimize packaging. For example, when we received our first shipment of airtight stainless steel containers, to our surprise, each boxed container was shrink-wrapped in thin polyethylene plastic wrap. This is obviously a massive waste of plastic (and energy to create the plastic) and shrink wrap is not recyclable in most jurisdictions so the plastic waste goes straight to a landfill. For all later shipments we had them leave out the shrink wrap, so the container now comes in just the box.
When shipping orders, the products are packed tightly with minimal packaging and using recycled materials as much as possible. We reuse all boxes we receive, or recycle unusable ones. As well, the boxes are taped with paper tape as much as possible to make it easier to recycle the boxes. We also use cellulose tape to prevent the shipping label from smudging in the rain or snow. For glass and other fragile items we may use cornstarch peanuts or cellulose wadding in packing the order – both are compostable.
In our daily business operations, we have tons of green workplace practices in effect. Our office is in a green building with numerous green features ranging from superinsulation and highly efficient windows to VOC-free paints and finishes and efficient lighting and appliances. We use recycled paper (with vegetable-based inks for marketing materials); recycle cans, bottles, glass, paper; compost organic waste (and use the compost in our garden); and our Web host is run on renewable wind energy.
What have been some of the biggest challenges of maintaining high standards of social and environmental responsibility?
Jay: One of our biggest challenges has always been competition from non-transparent Web stores which provide very little information to their customers on what their products are made of or where they come from. Transparency is an important value to us. This competition just pushes us to be even more transparent and open about what we do and what we sell. We are by nature shy people, but the business is us, so it has forced us to come out of our shells and show people how the values of the business are our values too. We live in the same way we run our business. People understand this, and they can smell authenticity – or the opposite – a mile away. So many of our customers are repeat customers, and we think that is in part because we are creating trust relationships with our customers. We can only do that if we are transparent.
What has been your proudest moment as a green business owner?
Jay: The positive feedback we receive from our wonderful customers makes us feel that all the ups and downs, the hardships, the craziness of starting and running one’s own business has been worth it. Whether it is talking to someone at a trade show and seeing the light go on about the problems with plastic, or a testimonial we receive in an e-mail. Here is one of our favorite comments, one that make us feel warm all over… “A sincere THANK YOU for making this healthy lifestyle so easy! I have never met you, but let me say it brings an ease and a relief to know you have someone you can trust who is willing to put all their efforts, time and knowledge and dedication to help you give a better and safer life to your family and help our planet. I have found with you that there is no need to read in between the lines with the products and description, as I have found on many, many Web sites. It’s disappointing and exhausting to research what they have left out or some misleading wording. I have found with you that you truly only sell non-toxic products without plastic. I very much appreciate the thorough details with your products, and the knowledge you are passing on to make an intelligent decision. I know more about the products than the other Web sites.”
I’d also like to take a moment to recognize our fine team and to share the great pride we take in our wonderful employees – people who share our values and way of life. One of our original employees is our graphic designer, Alise Marlane Bowler, who is also a talented musician. She has had many roles in the company over the years, and has settled nicely into the graphic design niche, and even started her own little graphic design company, Graphidome.
What’s the most hopeful sign you have seen recently from the green economy?
Jay: We are extremely inspired and invigorated by the rise of organized activism to deal with the plastics issue from various angles. Whether it is municipalities implementing bans on plastic bags or schools creating litterless lunch programs, awareness is growing and people and organizations are taking action to challenge the status quo. This is increasingly leading to exciting partnerships between businesses, NGOs, governments and communities. We are so thrilled to be an active member of the dynamic, well-organized Los Angeles-based Plastic Pollution Coalition (PPC), which has pulled together so many individuals, organizations and businesses from all over the world to work to raise awareness about and decrease plastic pollution. We would encourage anyone reading this to take the REFUSE Pledge on the PPC Web site to refuse single-use and disposable plastics – two of the greatest contributors to plastic pollution.
What advice would you give to other green entrepreneurs just starting out?
Jay: Some of the key lessons we have learned the hard way – and are still learning! Focus. Don’t try to do too many things at the same time. One of our heros and gurus, Paul Hawken, said in his book Growing A Business, “Don’t start two businesses. One idea is sufficient, and bringing it to fruition is hard enough.” Of course, we hadn’t read Paul’s sage words when we started out, so we started three businesses – retail online, wholesale, and a retail brick and mortar boutique. Oops. Then the plastics issue began to explode in Canada when the Canadian government decided to ban bisphenol-A in baby bottles, and we were immediately overwhelmed.
Which leads to a second piece of advice we have to offer: establish your basic operational systems well and thoroughly from the beginning. We grew fast and our systems couldn’t handle the growth. We had a couple of years there of both Chantal and me being rather burned out much of the time.
Another key lesson. Completely understand anything before you delegate it. We rely on technology to run our business – it’s part of our core. Chantal built our first Web site, but the second one we contracted out, and we are still having issues with it because there are some elements we don’t fully know how to change. We’ll never do that again. To control and maximize the use of the technology, one needs to understand it.
What is your next green step for your business?
Jay: We love searching for new products, and for our product niche – alternatives to plastic for everyday life – the sky is the limit. So we have tons of ideas for new exciting products. We are also excited about adding new content to our Web site, now that there is so much new information about plastics out there. And new partnerships are both fun and and vitally important for building awareness. For example, we have worked with 5Gyres in the past as a sponsor of one of their plastic trawls through the South Pacific Ocean gyre, and are looking forward to a new joint project in the near future.
Have you made any important connections through being a part of Green America?
Jay: In the fall of 2009, we attended the Green Business Conference and Green Festival in San Francisco. These were fantastic. Another inspiring partner – and friend and fellow activist – we work with is Beth Terry, who writes the influential, beautifully written, superbly researched, authentic and funny blog, My Plastic-free Life. After over a year of e-mail communication, Beth and I arranged to meet up in person for the first time at the Festival. We had a blast spending an afternoon checking out the show and scrutinizing non-plastic items that caught our eye. At the Conference and Festival I also had the pleasure and privilege of meeting and getting to know Madeleine Shaw and Suzanne Siemens, the funky and passionate founders of Lunapads, and worthy recipients of the Green America Shining Light People’s Choice Award. They too, are a constant inspiration to us.
What green product (besides your own!) can you not live without?
Jay: A couple of green products we can’t live without: The smooth and mellow Wakefield Blend from our friend Anne’s organic, Fair Trade Beanfair Coffee. Also, Luna and Larry’s Organic Coconut Bliss luscious ice cream.