(This article first appeared in
Ottawa Business Journal,https://www.obj.ca/Opinion/Bruce-Firestone-5444)
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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
business,” she adds.
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
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.”
a lifestyle and a mission.
M Firestone, PhD, Ottawa Senators founder, Century 21 Explorer Realty broker.
Follow him on twitter @ProfBruce
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