How do you make trash trashy and zero waste sexy? Lauren Singer certainly knows how.
Lessons about starting not one, but two zero waste businesses.
Kyle Calian: Describe your path to what you’re doing now.
Lauren Singer: It all started at NYU where I majored in environmental studies and realized that even though I really cared about the environment and I was protesting about the environment and learning about the environment, I still wasn’t doing enough. It took a big eye-opening experience with this girl who was using a lot of plastic and was also in my program. I realized that she had these values that she wanted to study, but she wasn’t actually living them. Then, I realized that I was exactly the same way.
It took that experience to really show me that caring about something deeply and actually living like you care about something deeply are two completely different things.
I had been protesting against the oil and gas industry — skipping school to go lobby in D.C., having protests and talking to everyone that I could about why everything was basically horrible in the world. At the same time, I was still using plastic every day. I was buying bad food. I was buying fast fashion. Even though I really cared about all these issues, I was actively subsidizing them with my everyday actions.
That’s why I started out with eliminating plastic from my life, because plastic is one of the biggest products of the oil and gas industry, which is the industry that I was trying to fight. I started by just doing things like getting a reusable water filter and water bottle and trying to find products and clothes that weren’t made from plastic. But I quickly found that it wasn’t really possible to find most of the things I was using without plastic packaging. That was especially true for beauty products. If you walk into a CVS, it’s basically impossible to find something that’s not packaged in plastic. I had never really explored natural beauty or DIY before that. I started Googling and found a bunch of DIY recipes for beauty products.
Through that search process, I found Bea Johnson’s blog Zero Waste Home. That’s when I learned about the zero-waste lifestyle. It was the most empowering thing to ever happen to me. I didn’t know that it was possible to do something so impactful in my own life. I thought the best way to live a sustainable lifestyle was to not use plastic. Realizing that there was so much more that I could be doing, and that I didn’t have to make trash at all, was the most eye-opening, empowering, motivating thing. I just decided in that moment that I was gonna go zero-waste.
I didn’t really talk about it, and I was still a senior in college. I would be in class using a mason jar and people would be like, “Why do you have a mason jar with coffee in it? What is that?” I would have to explain to them. My family started asking me about it, too. I realized that it was confusing for me to have to explain everything. I was doing it for myself and not for other people, so to explain my point of view in a way that wasn’t abrasive or proselytizing was difficult at first. No one ever taught me how to just live my values.
How did Trash is for Tossers begin?
I started Trash is for Tossers because I wanted to create a safe place for anyone who was interested in what I was doing: to learn about it in a way that was very neutral and safe. When you talk about sustainability, it’s really easy to get caught up in the politics.
I think a mistake that I made when I was in college was telling people, you have to live this way because you’re messing up the environment. Nobody wants to be told what to do and nobody wants to be told that the way that they’re living their life is wrong.
We all make the choices that we make because we think they’re right.
I learned through living this lifestyle that the best thing to do is just figure out what my values are, ask myself what makes me feel good and what has a good impact on the environment and actually just live that way. By living that way, being consistent and writing about what I was doing, I was having a much bigger impact than I would trying to convince people to live a certain way. They saw that I was feeling good and that I was healthy and that I was motivated. All of those things are exponentially more alluring than just trying to tell people what to do.
What inspired you to start Simply Co.?
When I graduated from college, I started working at the Department of Environ-mental Protection, as a sustainability manager in the engineering department, which is a job that I was completely not right for. I worked there for nine months. Every day I would say to myself, “I need to be doing something more creative. This isn’t right for me, but this is the best job in environmentalism there is.”
It was either working for a nonprofit or working for the government at that point. There really weren’t any other options. I experienced that especially when I was in college and needed to get internships. There just were no creative things happening in sustainability. There were three big companies and two private. There was nonprofit and government. That’s it.
People started emailing me saying, I really like these DIY products that you’re making. At the time I was DIY-ing basically everything that I was using. They were like, clearly you have no friends and no family and no social life, because you have time to do all of this. I was like, well that’s definitely not true, but how do I prove this? That’s also why I started doing videos to show just how quick it was. People were also asking, “I really like these products, but I don’t have time to make them myself. How can I buy something like this?”
I started researching the brands out there that were making somewhat sustainable products. In skin care, there really were a lot and are a lot of sustainable, amazingly made and packaged products. The same just isn’t true for cleaning products.
When I looked into the cleaning product industry more in depth, I learned that there are over 85,000 industrial chemicals in use in the United States. Most of them aren’t tested for safety before being released into the market. Then, on top of that, in the U.S., cleaning product manufacturers aren’t legally required to disclose ingredients on product packaging, so we have no idea what’s actually in them.
That couldn’t be more evident in the beauty industry. In the EU, they ban over a thousand chemicals for beauty products. In the U.S., I think the number right now is 11. Cleaning products are just as impactful in our everyday lives, if not more. We clean the surfaces that we eat off of with cleaning products. We clean the clothing that we wear all day and our sheets and our towels with laundry detergent. We are very intimate with these products that are potentially laden with toxic chemicals, and that’s just not OK.
I started thinking about the cleaning products that I was making, and one of them was laundry detergent. I had been making a three-ingredient, organic vegan laundry detergent for two years at that point. I knew that it worked. It was effective. It was cost effective. It was really simple to make. I realized there was an opportunity for me to start making it myself. I was going to launch on Etsy at first and I was like no, I need to go bigger with this.
I was really unhappy at my job. At the same time I was like, OK let’s see if I can find a way to make this work. I launched a video on Kickstarter and literally two days before I quit my job, booked a flight to Seattle. I was gonna do a road trip down the southern west coast of the United States. I was just like, “Fuck it. If this doesn’t work, then it doesn’t work. If it does, then I guess I have a company.” I was really worried that I wouldn’t make my goal of $10,000. It turned out that I made my goal in under 48 hours. By the end of the 30 days, I raised over $42,000 to start Simply, and now here we are. I have a company.
How long did it take to get Simply Co. started?
I still feel like I’m getting Simply Co. started. I had never started a business before when I started the Simply Co. When I launched my Kickstarter, I anticipated having the product in a box, but I didn’t know the first thing about sourcing packaging at all. I ended up doing a jar because of the refillable aspect. It took me about a year between finishing the Kickstarter and actually getting product to the backers, because I just had to figure out how to make it all. I was expecting to maybe make 100 jars of it, or 100 boxes, and it would take me two weeks.
Then, I realized that I had over 800 pre-orders and that was over 2,000 boxes of detergent. I was living in Brooklyn in a tiny apartment, and I was hand-making all of this product. It was just insane. I would sit on my floor, covered in white powder, and cry. I don’t know how someone didn’t call the DEA on me.
Were you doing it alone?
I had my friends, my family. There were interns that I found. My mom. My poor mother came and hand-ground soap for me. I was baking the baking soda in Pyrex dish batches that could only fill about two jars of detergent. It was insane. In retrospect, it was really amazing, but also not how you should run a business.
I was really lucky. I was on a research trip in the Atlantic Gyre with Five Gyres and Jack Johnson and some other others like Céline Cousteau and her family. There was another company there that basically was like, “We love what you’re doing. We help companies scale. Can we find you a manufacturer and a fulfillment center?” At that point, I was about ready to quit. I was like, I cannot hand-grind soap for one more second, or I will actually quit.
We partnered and they helped me find a manufacturer and a fulfillment center that aligned with my values and that uses sustainable materials and renewable energy. They helped me scale the company, so now it’s a fully automated process. I have the jars and we offer bulk. Now, the next step is for me to offer boxes, so people can actually compost the entire package. It reduces shipping weight, breakage risk and ultimately helps me grow the business.
What steps did you take to get the business to be zero-waste?
With a simple product like mine, there are really only a few points of input. There’s who I order the jars from, who I order the raw materials from, where I have it manufactured and how I have it brought to my fulfillment center. We use the same boxes from the glass jar manufacturer and have them printed and made in the same facility. They get shipped to our manufacturer who uses the same jars and the same boxes to fill everything. Those are sealed using paper tape in the same boxes and brought to our fulfillment center by truck, because it’s so close. Then, they’re shipped out in the same package. If they have to repackage it, it’s with paper packaging and paper tape. Everything is completely recyclable and biodegradable. That being said, there are probably people who won’t recycle it, but from my end everything that I do is as sustainable as possible.
We also offer bulk in large containers that we send to stores. They can use a return label that we provide and ship it back to us. We’re also looking into an option that’s fully biodegradable and not returnable, so we can actually decrease shipping emissions. It’s another option that I’m weighing the impact of.
The biggest forms of trash that I find from consumer product companies are plastic, and that’s inherently what I try to avoid at all costs for the Simply Co.
I think it’s just working with your manufacturers to do things like have paper tape and paper packaging. Opening the Package Free Shop, 90 percent of the brands we’re working with sent us all of their product with paper tape and paper packaging. What we’re trying to do is show them what the other options are and provide a resource on our website where brands can go to get their paper filler and their paper tape. It’s a really easy step that they can take. Another way is to partner with brands that will take back thin plastics. For Simply Co, it’s actually really easy because we’re buying raw ingredients that you could very simply get in bulk.
What has been your biggest surprise so far?
I’ve been surprised by a lot of things. Not as much surprised as I am proud that I was able to start a company having no experience whatsoever. Starting a company that hasn’t failed. I think, to me, that was never an option, but it’s pretty crazy. Now, I’ve started my second company with 500- fold more ease, and it just shows me that really anyone could start a company if they have the right intentions. I think I really believe that business is the way to change the world. I’m surprised that there aren’t more companies that are more sustainable, because it really is pretty easy to get your consumer product company to that place.
What are some trends you’re seeing in the world of sustainability?
If I can help it, zero-waste will become more prevalent. But maybe not a trend — maybe more of, like, a longstanding practice. I’m hoping to make it more convenient for people to live a zero-waste and sustainable lifestyle through the Package Free Shop and through Simply Co., … to just make those everyday choices a lot more intuitive and simple for people. Because right now, it’s pretty hard to get everything you need in one place. It’s sometimes really hard for people to find places that offer bulk products. I think the more mainstream zero waste becomes, the more open other businesses will be to integrating it into their own current practices. Then, it’ll just be a snowball effect.
I also believe urban agriculture and sustainable energy in cities is something that will become more trendy. It’s really hard right now to find solar solutions for small apartments. I really hope that changes. I would love to have an apartment that’s run completely on solar power. I would love to have freedom from gas that’s pre-wired. I would love to have a moment where I could just turn off the gas and use a solar powered burner in my apartment. Those are all things that I will work on after I open the store. I hope it becomes more trendy to do DIY-implemented sustainability on your own home. It just isn’t convenient in New York City right now and that needs to change.
Who are some of your biggest influences?
My biggest influence is anyone who looks at the world, sees a problem and doesn’t just talk about it, but actually decides to try to do something about it. To make it better, to change it or to solve it. People like you and people like Daniel Silverstein, who’s my partner who takes discarded clothing scraps and uses them to make beautiful new clothing and textiles.
Even Bea, who saw the world of trash and didn’t try to change the world. She just changed herself. But through changing herself, she’s changing the world. It doesn’t have to be a famous person, just anyone that doesn’t believe the world has to be as it is. Those are the people that make me want to push through whatever is happening in my life and do the best that I can do.
What are some of your favorite companies outside of the Simply Co.?
Zero Waste Daniel. My favorite companies are the companies that I’ll be having in Package Free Shop. They’re really the companies that do exactly what I just said. They’re the companies that saw problems in the world, or in the space that they’re working in, weren’t happy with the state of their category and started a business to solve it. We’ll have a huge range of brands in Package Free Shop, from Zero Waste Daniel and Thinx to MeowMeowTweet and Lunette Cup. All of these companies are doing little things in their categories, but (if the brands take off) will have a large scale personal and environmental impact. I’m really excited about that.
In the same vein, what are some favorite things you always bring with you?
My Ecoffee cup. I used to use mason jars for coffee. I really like them because you can seal them and put them in your bag, but this cup I got as a gift from my friend Tom Griffiths who’s a sustainable chef in the UK. I’m just obsessed with it. It wasn’t possible to get them in the U.S. until I opened my store and placed a huge bulk order. They’re made of bamboo, the base is totally biodegradable and the top is silicon. Silicon you can actually burn, and it turns into biodegradable ash, just like the Lunette cup. I love it, and I think it’s chic and a lot sexier than a typical reusable cup.
I always have my reusable bag. I don’t like purses, and I’ll usually have a reusable bag in my reusable bag.
Exactly, bagception, amazing. Then, it depends on what my day is, but I’ll usually have reusable silverware and a reusable napkin. I keep a small stainless steel container full of baking soda in my bag all the time, which I use for deodorant or as toothpaste. I keep a Brush With Bamboo toothbrush in my drawer at work, so I can brush my teeth with that, or use it to not smell bad. With those, you can do whatever you need to do.
Finally, how can people get a jar of Simply Co.?
So many ways! You can buy Simply Co. at thesimplyco.com, but my first suggestion would be to find a local retailer and support them. You can do that by going to our website and looking at the store locator. My favorite are stores that offer the Simply Co. in bulk, so that you can bring your own container and fill it up. We will also be offering the Simply Co. online or through Package Free Shop.
This is an interview featured in the sold out first issue of The Regeneration Magazine. You can preview it here or download it from our website here.
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