The company Eco-Bags Products produces ECOBAGS®, the original reusable bag.
Eco-Bags Products is a woman-owned business. They pioneered many of the practices we associate today with social enterprises and, in the process, transformed how consumers think about plastic bags.
As an actress in New York City in the 1980’s, Sharon Rowe did not find it hard to land work. But she did find it difficult to both make a living and make a difference. There was plenty of work that did not pay well enough to make a living. And there was work that paid well, doing commercials for products that she did not support.
To make ends meet, Sharon had to take a “job-job,” the kind of work you do all day so that you can pursue your passion at night. However, once Sharon married Blake and had a child, her sense of conflict between purpose and commerce began to intensify.
Around the same time, Sharon was bothered by seeing plastic bags everywhere – blowing down the sidewalk, caught in trees, and washing down the gutters. She remembered a few years earlier, when she visited Europe, she had seen an elegant solution: the reusable string bag. The bag looked like a small, net for carrying groceries. Sharon wondered if she could find a way to acquire a few string bags to use in New York.
The solution presented itself at a dinner party where some friends told her that they were going to visit France. Sharon asked them to bring some string bags back. The friends agreed. Sharon started using the bags to solve her own problem.
People began to ask Sharon about her reusable bags. Eventually, Sharon told me, “I got enough looks, glances, and questions that in my naiveté, I thought ‘Oh, this is a business!’” She went home and talked to Blake about the idea. That conversation was the beginning of their company Eco-Bags Products and their ECOBAGS®.
Sharon and Blake had very little money, which is not unusual for an actress and her musician husband. But they knew that reusable bags were an innovative idea.
To find suppliers for her new business, Sharon began writing letters to the Consulates of European countries. Keep in mind that this was 1989 before the internet or email existed. Sharon remembers, “Germany responded first. France wouldn’t respond. Italy responded a year-and-a-half, almost two years later.”
Sharon began importing reusable bags from Germany in small batches. She had sales skills. She grew up working in her father’s Army-Navy store, and at the time she was an account executive for her day job. She would knock on doors at the small gift and miscellaneous retail stores in New York asking the store owners to carry the bags. It was slow-going.
In 1990, in anticipation of the Earth Day celebration, Sharon ordered a few thousand ECOBAGS® Brand Classic String Bags. On Earth Day, she set-up a booth on Sixth Avenue. She sold her entire inventory in four hours. “We made a huge amount of cash that day,” Sharon remembers. “That’s when we looked at each other and said ‘Hmm, we’re on to something.’”
Around this same time, Blake was at their local natural foods cooperative when he spotted a truck for a distributor. Blake approached the distributor and asked him if he would be interested in distributing Eco-Bags Products. The distributor said yes, and suddenly Eco-Bags had a distributor. Sharon also attended a natural foods expo, introducing the concept of reusable bags. Their product was picked up by several customers, many of whom are still customers today.
The company grew carefully and slowly. To manage cash flow, Sharon had a stack of credit cards with zero percent interest. She maintained a spreadsheet that reminded her when to contact the companies to extend their introductory rates or when it was time to transfer balances. Despite this creative credit scheme, Sharon still found a way to donate a portion of their profits to organizations such as the Sierra Club. The practice of giving continues today, though the stacks of credit cards have long-since been replaced with a line of credit.
Sharon’s company, Eco-Bags Products, has been a pioneer in social business. From the beginning, Eco-Bags was a holistically environmentally and socially progressive company. Sharon commented “We didn’t have to reconstruct or deconstruct to fit into that social responsibility piece. We had it from the beginning.” Their ECOBAGS are responsibly made with a clean supply chain. They practice fair wages and fair labor. They were one of the first certified Benefit Corporations. They have several times been declared a “Best for the World” company.
Because their products last for decades, they see themselves not as a company that provides consumables, but as a durable goods company. This presents unique challenges. “What I offer is not something that you purchase, consume and have to get again. I’m not toothpaste.”
2008 was a tipping point for Eco-Bags Products, Inc. Their products were featured on Oprah. They saw a massive uptick in demand. Sharon says that at the time, “You would go into a store and a few people would have their bags with them. Now, you see more people with their bags than not. It’s become the norm.” In a recent survey, 51% of people say that they either bring their own bags to the store, or they intend to do so.
It has not always been smooth sailing. In 2010, Eco-Bags was slapped down by the recession. “It’s a roller coaster ride,” she says. “You have to follow guidelines and guardrails. I like to work with the three-legged stool analogy. One for you, one for me and one for the reserve.”
Social Entrepreneurship Quotes from Sharon Rowe
“I couldn’t commit myself to things I didn’t feel were right.”
“I started using them in the neighborhood, just to solve my own problem.”
“It’s a consumer product, but it’s a messaging consumer product.”
“We came up with an environmentally-focused, do no harm, approach to business.”
“I always took a percentage out of anything earned and put it in reserve.”
“We had an AOL store, a Yahoo store – we’ve been through the entire growth of the internet.”
“We created a business and by example have nourished other businesses and movements.”
“Go with your gut, but use the community that’s out there to figure out which model best fits your idea.”
“Don’t be shy. Copy.”
“Be very conservative with your cash flow.”
“I like to work with the three-legged stool analogy. One for you, one for me and one for the reserve.”
Social Entrepreneurship Resources:
- Eco-Bags Products: http://www.ecobags.com
- Eco-Bags Products on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/ECOBAGSdotcom
- Eco-Bags Products on Twitter: https://twitter.com/ecobags
- Eco-Bags Products on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/ecobags_us/
- Eco-Bags Products on Pinterest: https://www.pinterest.com/ecobags