Could you start a sustainable small business with long term results without the power of social media or the internet? Nearly 30 years ago Sharon Rowe the founder of ECOBAGS® did just that!
That’s quite an accomplishment for any business, especially a small to mid-size one. There aren’t many small businesses that have started before mainstream internet that are still going strong today.
With single-use plastic bag bans going into effect globally, now including the state of New York; durable shopping bags like Sharon Rowe’s ECOBAGS® have gained momentous popularity in an attempt to greatly reduce landfill and waterway waste. In addition to the tremendous amount of oil used to produce plastic bags annually, it has become a growing concern worldwide.
What’s even more fascinating about the longevity of ECOBAGS® is that Sharon was able to expand her business in a market that didn’t even really exist yet; sustainable living products. Sharon has said that running a business is not about making a killing but a very good living. You need to think of it like running a marathon, not a sprint.Running a business is not about making a killing but a very good living. You need to think of it like running a marathon, not a sprint.
Tell us a bit about your family life and educational background and how it evolved with running your business
I grew up in a very middle-class family in central Connecticut. My dad owned an Army and Navy Store in the 1970s (pre-Gap) when jeans were just becoming popular and my mom didn’t work until I left home. I’m one of three sisters. We’re 4 years apart from each other and I’m the oldest. Interestingly, we are all entrepreneurs now! I was the first in my family to go to college. I went to Clark University in Worcester Ma and studied liberal arts and acting. I did a semester program with the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center, too. I have been married now for 32 years to my “first” husband who is a musician and teacher and we have two children who are in their late twenties.
My background is in acting. I always wanted to be on stage and reach a national audience. I moved to DC after college to work with Arena Stage/Living Stage as a techie and then to NYC to be an actor. I worked on and off, in the theatre (off-off broadway though with climate change it’s closer to off-broadway) and a few TV appearances for years, as well as doing money gigs (I worked at 60 Minutes for about two years) before I got married and had my first child, Julian. That’s when I figured out I needed something to fill my soul and my pocketbook. My acting career wasn’t doing either.
The idea to do my business was born of my own frustrations with single-use plastic bags. It was my first entrepreneurial venture but I figured why not! I was an actor, trained in improvisation so I was comfortable failing and being rejected. I started with about $1000.00.
What were some of your biggest hurdles and obstacles you ran into in the beginning? How did you overcome them? If you had any business fails what did you learn from it?
I had lots of business fails and I could write endlessly about them. Oh wait, I did write about them. (link to book below) How did I overcome my obstacles? I had no choice. I had to make a living to pay bills. We were living hand to mouth at that point. I didn’t have a backup plan so I kept moving forward. My business concept for reusable bags was almost two decades ahead of its time. I not only had to introduce a product, but I had to convert an audience to the concept. I took one step at a time.I didn’t have a backup plan so I kept moving forward. My business concept for reusable bags was almost two decades ahead of its time. I not only had to introduce a product, but I had to convert an audience to the concept. I took one step at a time.
How did Eco-Bags Products ultimately come to fruition and what was your ultimate drive and inspiration behind it?
I started my business and brand in 1989. In 1990 I did an Earth Day event on 6th avenue and we sold out of bags in 4 hours. I knew I was onto something. Within a few weeks, NY Post ran an article about us and we had orders flowing. Right after that we literally bumped into a distributor making a delivery to a natural products store in our neighborhood and they were interested in selling our products nationwide. It was still a slow burn but it got us going. Then, in 2008 we were featured on Oprah, written up in Time Magazine and I was listed as an Eco-Hero in Glamour Mag. Our sales blew up and we scaled. Still, the concept was still very, very niche.
Why is offering a durable product important to you?
Having a durable, quality product is what we’ve always stood for. We want ECOBAGS® to last for years…for decades. We only make products responsibly. It’s a business model that works well for us. Single-use or disposable products create unnecessary waste.
Where can we find ECOBAGS®?
We sell ECOBAGS® through thousands of retailers, in all verticals from natural products to gourmet, to zero waste, grocery, gift, etc. You can also purchase our products via our website as well as Amazon. (link below)
How has running your business evolved over the years with all the changes you’ve seen?
I’ve gone from a one-person show to a many-person business. The goal is to grow in a comfortable way that allows for expansion without too much stress. We look at scaling our systems to support the growth.
Do you find it any less challenging to educate the public these days as opposed to 20 years ago? Have you found consumers more or less aware of the importance of green living?
Zero Waste, low waste, and green lifestyle choices seem to come in waves. I’ve seen a lot of waves come and go. I think there’s a lot of momentum now. In the beginning, there were the hardliners willing to commit even if it meant making some sort of major changes in their behavior.
Now, so many brands are making it easier for people to reduce the waste they create. What’s important to note is that this is not just a lifestyle trend, it’s a lifestyle that’s going to significantly change the relationship between people and products.
What was the determining factor in becoming a Bcorp and its overall importance to your mission?
We had Bcorp values at our core before BCorp came into existence. When we first started, our mission was (and is) to tread lightly on the earth by only providing responsibly made and sourced goods. We haven’t veered from that in 30 years. Producing responsibly is just now registering with people. We’ve been requiring it since 1989.
Would you do anything differently at the beginning of your business if you knew then what you knew now? If you could go back in time what would you tell Sharon Rowe before she started?
My advice would be to “be even more patient.” There were times I wanted to give up because reusable bags and a zero-waste lifestyle just wasn’t catching on at that time.
If you have a big idea, it may take a long time (or not) for it to take root. You never know when or if it will, but if you enjoy the ride, it’ll all work out.If you have a big idea, it may take a long time (or not) for it to take root. You never know when or if it will, but if you enjoy the ride, it’ll all work out.
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If there was one thing that you want to be remembered for what would it be? What legacy do you wish to leave for your children and the world?
I’d like to be remembered as someone who sparked some really big conversations…someone who put a product in their hands to spark even bigger conversations “beyond the bag.”
I think of our brand ECOBAGS®, as the inspiration for conversations on renewable vs. non- renewable resources, conservation, as well as responsible and sustainable production.
I think a socially responsible business is a good agent for change. Eco-Bags Products was in Ireland and Modbury, UK when the first plastic bag laws were enacted. We’ve sold over eight million bags, replacing hundreds of millions of single-use bags and I have to believe that our motto, “cleaning up the planet one bag at a time,” is having an impact on them and shifting their awareness.
What advice do you have for parents who have a great idea for a product or service but aren’t quite sure where to begin?
Start. Do one thing every day that moves the idea forward. Ask friends and neighbors what they think of your idea. Use the web and research. I started pre-internet. Ask yourself how big do you want the business to be? How much of a return are you looking for? What kind of impact do you want to make? Is anyone doing what you’re doing…should you go it alone or work together?
Thank you so much Sharon for sharing your inspiring story and educating us on the importance of caring for our resources and living a greener life!
Make sure you check out Sharon’s book The Magic of Tiny Business: You Don’t Have to Go Big to Make a Great Living