An Ahh-Haa Moment: Our April Green Biz Interview with Clean Conscience
For Corie and Jerry Thornton, being green is a holistic pursuit. With their reusable bags designed to help you avoid disposables when you go shopping, they’ve also created a business that uses recycled materials for its made-in-the-USA manufacturing.
“We are very confident that green is here to stay,” says Corie. “Americans can do a lot domestically to help us move towards a sustainable society and economy. Our philosophy is that we should do our part in keeping the US green first. If we are strong at home, we will have the strength, resources and capability to help others either by setting an example or sharing in the fruit of our efforts.”
Green America: What does your business do and what are your most popular products?
Jerry Thornton: Aah haa! is the parent company of Clean Conscience products, located in San Rafael, California. Our business is about greening-up America, both environmentally and economically. We fabricate and sell eco-friendly reusable bags for retail and wholesale. We are focused on using repurposed materials, mainly recycled post-consumer PETE plastic bottles and recycled cotton canvas.
The “I’m Made in America” canvas bag has been a popular item, as well as our Lunch Bags and Suburban Shopping Bags. For business customers, we sell at lot of custom logo printed bags for trade shows and promotions.
What makes Clean Conscience a sustainable, green business?
Jerry: Clean Conscience Goods is about un-wasting, recycling, and repurposing waste to help clean and green our earth, not just in lifestyle ways, but also in bringing awareness to green economics. Our goal is to inform, promote consciousness, and find ways that will help create a cleaner, greener and more productive America. We do this in three ways:
1. To clean, we are un-wasting: by conserving our resources and promoting the benefits of recycling waste.
2. To green, we are re-purposing: by using recycled post-consumer plastic bottle trash that’s been converted into beautiful fabrics that we use for our bags.
3. To support, we are hiring America! Our products are made domestically using local resources that help green our jobs and economy.
What motivated you to start Clean Conscience?
Jerry: We are a husband and wife “home-grown” company. We are both retired from our professions (architect and management consultant). Around the early 2000s we heard about the plastic island floating in the Pacific Ocean and the massive amount of plastic trash that ends up littered around parks and our oceans. It was also at a time when recycling facilities were not quite established in our communities, so plastic trash accumulated and ended up in our landfills.
We observed the flight of our industries to overseas companies and it was impossible to find “Made in the USA” products when we shopped. Despite the booming global economy, US companies were shutting down and jobs were being lost. We also started having grandkids at that time, and naturally we started to foresee the kind of future these children will have. We stopped, thought, and bothered to ask the question: What is in store for the future of our grandchildren if the environment is polluted and jobs are scarce in the US?
With Corie’s business brain and my design background, we started designing ways to raise consciousness to what was happening. How can we bring this awareness to help keep the earth and America clean and green – both environmentally and economically? We thought of sending flyers, printing posters, and so on. At the same time, the issue of plastic bags was also escalating in the community. That became our aah haa moment, and our company, Aah Haa! was born. We decided to give it a shot and launched a reusable canvas bag with the “I’m Made in America” slogan that we gave to our friends and family. Some people thought we were crazy because they felt no one would care where things were made nor about the issue of plastic bag pollution. We obviously believed differently.
We decided to pursue this and to take it a step further by making reusable bags that are not only made in America, but also made from recycled materials. We looked for our sources in the US. Sadly, there were only very limited sources because most mills had shut down or moved their facilities overseas. It was a struggle, but we were able to find a fabric source, sewing factories, label makers, and webbing makers, mostly fighting to survive, but happy to help us make our vision a reality. With a lot of effort, we were able to source enough to make simple reusable bags.
When you look around at all the products we use, eat, play or medicate with, they are all wrapped in plastic. Lots of plastic! We believe in avoiding the use of plastic, but sometimes it is not an easy choice, as in food packaging and health/sanitation reasons. But certainly, plastic shopping bags are something we can definitely do away with. We also believe that as a consuming generation, we should learn ways to keep our planet clean and sustainable by conserving the use of natural resources and by repurposing waste so that it doesn’t end up in our waste stream.
If you look at our bags, you will note a number that represents the estimated number of recycled plastic bottles used and repurposed instead of going into our waste stream. One of our slogans is “We help offset your landfill footprint, so you can have a clean conscience.”
What have been some of the biggest challenges of maintaining high standards of social and environmental responsibility?
Corie: When we launched, we were aware that our products were priced higher than imported products. It was a difficult entry point, but we believed in our mission and our customers applauded the vision. Then the wave of reusable bag companies also came in droves and competition was very stiff particularly with our made-in-USA pricing.
Somewhere mid-way through this process, we also learned that our main fabric supplier was shutting down. It was heartbreaking from a fundamental point of view. This was an American family-owned, century-old fabric mill that was once a thriving manufacturer in the USA and they had to close their doors.
We were told by many to go overseas to produce. This was not a choice for us. We decided that we are going to stick to the values of our brand: to repurpose waste using recycled materials and keep production here in the USA. While this may not be most profitable business decision, we want to stay committed to our vision and mission.
What has been your proudest moment as a green business owner?
Jerry: When the phone rings and a customer says “I want your bags because your bags have a ‘soul’ and you are good for America”. Also, when we started this concept in 2006, “Made in USA” was hardly spoken. Nowadays, from reusable bags to toys, everyone wants to see a “Made in America” product. You can actually find “Made in USA” products in stores now. We believe that our “I’m Made In America” bags from 2006 contributed to this awareness in some form. This is the reason we are still around and we are very proud of this. There was also a great story to tell when we were in a trade show. A Japanese buyer saw our “I’m Made In America” canvas bags that we were giving away as promo, and he begged to buy all of them to take to Japan. He said “Made in America” is very much loved over there. That was a very pleasant and rewarding return-on-investment.
What advice would you give to other green entrepreneurs just starting out?
Corie: Going into business is serious business. It takes a committed vision and a planned execution. Be prepared to fight the battle with the competition, economy, trends, and technology. Go into business knowing your ultimate desired goal, and understand your limitations and risk tolerance. Have a trusted and knowledgeable guide to help you create a strategy and be your sounding board along the way. Lastly, believe in your vision and stick to your values and mission.
What is the next green step you’re working on right now?
Our goal is not to be a mega-large company. Because of dwindling US companies, our domestic sourcing is limited. We will continue to help our local factories stay open for business by just doing what we do – spreading the awareness and selling products made in the USA. When one of our bags sells, it supports our fabric mills, our web maker, our label maker, our sewing jobbers, and our printers. The more we sell, the more we help support our economy, keep our jobs, and help provide a sustainable future for our grandchildren.
What green product(s) can you not live without?