(This article first appeared in Ottawa Business Journal, http://www.obj.ca/Opinion/Bruce-Firestone-5444)
How does anyone, let alone two practicing lawyers, leave secure GOC (government of Canada) jobs for their own startup that is, at least initially, more crusade than enterprise? Jay Sinha, half of the founding crew of lifewithoutplastic.com—the other being his spouse, Chantal Plamondon—says, “A contributing factor to the creation of our business was a bad experience we had with toxic mold just before our son was born in 2003. We were living in an apartment that was moldy. When we discovered the problem, we moved immediately, but were both sick for the following year, which started us looking for ways to live more healthily, with fewer environmental toxins in everyday life. This included living with less plastic.”
Jay and Chantal
So Jay and Chantal while searching for more glass, canvas and metal substitutes for plastic noticed how difficult it was to buy just one of anything. There were lots of places a consumer could buy, say, 1,000 metal water bottles, but, at the time, not so many where you could purchase just one or two. So lifewithoutplastic.com was born in 2005 to source and sell earth-friendly alternatives in small quantities. It was goodbye to plastic and hello to rubber, silicone and glass for things like “fast flow silicone nipples on evenflo glass nursers” for babies.
Their business, now approaching seven figures in sales, is operated from their wood and glass, multi-level home in Wakefield, Quebec, about 25 minutes north of Ottawa. The lower level, with walkout condition and lots of light, is their world headquarters. This should be keeping owners of shopping malls and office complexes across North America up at night—proliferation of not only work-from-home but micro retail as well in residential areas. In fact, the city of Ottawa is currently undertaking a study with a view to legalizing micro retail, at least in inner city neighborhoods. This may have something to do with longterm trends towards greater vacancies in both office and retail sectors that are taking longer than ever to fill.
Jay and Chantal’s main market is the US (which represents 85% of sales, one quarter of which comes from California) where they sell not only directly to the consumer via their website, but they have a thriving wholesale business as well. They currently supply over 500 stores from their Ogdensburg NY warehouse.
“We had to create a platform for US sales—we learned to deal with duties, brokers, middlemen, distributors, retailers, and shipping. The US market is so diverse and difficult to penetrate because it’s really many different regions and sub-markets,” says Chantal. Ms Plamondon believes they have created a platform that other micro retailers in Canada and overseas, especially Europe, could benefit from to enter what is essentially an opaque US marketplace. Chantal sees at least part of their future growth coming from this platform.
The issue of plastic debris, including micro particles, infiltrating all of earth’s oceans has attracted increasing attention; many Hollywood and music stars have jumped aboard. Musician Jack Johnson, for example, runs All at Once; they ban plastic water bottles at concerts, and encourage attendees to use municipal water to refill their jugs as well as use reusable tote bags.
Jay speaks passionately about their support for 5gyres.org, whose mission is nothing less than to eliminate plastic pollution in the five swirling currents pushed by wind and rotation of the planet in earth’s major oceans. The largest concentration of non biodegradable debris appears to have collected in the great Pacific garbage patch so the next time you forget your canvas bag before you head out shopping, remember each plastic bag could end up in one of those five gyres, courtesy of you.
Before joining the GOC, Mr Sinha worked for a large Toronto-based corporate law firm and hated it. He recalls his last assignment this way, “We had one enormous company hire us to do background research to determine what their legal liability might be because they were shifting to entirely non recyclable packaging. It never occurred to our senior partner to raise the question with them—whether this was a good idea. Our only job was to skirt existing legislation and help them avoid bad PR.”
Jay, born and raised in Winnipeg with a law degree from McGill, and Chantal with her law degree also from McGill (where they met while working for competing student newspapers), thought they could do something more with their lives than greenwashing corporate Canada.
Next steps for them include opening a distribution center in the UK, which has, in percentage terms, an even bigger market for online purchases than the US. From there, they will sell more to European consumers and stores. Chantal understands the potential of the EU where not only are consumers highly aware of the dangers of plastic, they’re willing to pay for sustainability. “We expect better margins there than from our US business,” she adds.
Their enterprise is riding a wave of worldwide attention to this issue so, apart from their own activism, website and blog, lifewithoutplastic.com doesn’t do much marketing although Chantal plans to change that. She expects to do more facebook, instagram and google advertising to keep her three fulltime staff, bookkeeper, part-time graphic designer and tech guy busy, and the business growing.
But Jay qualifies the idea of more growth and building out a platform for others to use this way, “When we created this business, it was to achieve the goal of having more flexibility for our family and, hopefully, less stress as a result. More and more young people start businesses in order to improve their lifestyles; it is becoming a movement. What we have is a lifestyle business.”
Yes, a lifestyle and a mission.
Bruce M Firestone, PhD, Ottawa Senators founder, Century 21 Explorer Realty broker. Follow him on twitter @ProfBruce
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