An Interview with Andy Keller, founder of ChicoBag

AndyKeller

Where did you get the inspiration for ChicoBag’s mission?

I was selling enterprise software and making good money, but didn’t feel like I was making a difference in the world. One day, my hand was forced — my company was being bought. So to stay with the company, I would have to move to San Francisco, a few hours away. I was considering a couple of different opportunities, but neither stood out as being much different from what I was doing before. I already wanted to do something more meaningful.

During this time, I needed to clear my mind. So, I tore up my yard doing yard work one day and ended up at the landfill with a bunch of trash. It was windy and trash including plastic bags was blowing around, out of the landfill into adjacent farmland. It just hit me, I was disgusted.

Up to that point, I did what I was taught to do — recycle and don’t litter. Kids are taught that  you’re doing your part if you do those things, but in fact that was all part of a very orchestrated PR campaign. Pretty much everyone thought that was all they needed to do as a solution to trash.

But in reality, those bags in landfill were properly disposed of, but getting out into the wild despite proper disposal. Up until then, I used plastic bags, but I realized that I needed to stop using them.  I started asked myself why people don’t use reusable bags.

At that point reusable bags were canvas and bulky. I knew I would end up shopping and leave that type of bag at home or in the car. If I could just have one in my pocket like a wallet or keys, I wouldn’t have to remember a bag. I realized that if I could make something that compact that you could carry around with you, I could solve my own problem with trash and my unemployment problem too.

I noticed plastic bags on the side of the road and they started sticking out to me. I bought a sewing machine and started that day making prototypes. I recognized that I had found an idea that resonated and got a visceral emotional reaction.

How did you get from there to where you are today?

Step by step. It’s like I’m walking down a dark path and I have a flashlight. All you can see is about 5 feet in front of you. As you take those steps, the path illuminates.I’ve learned a lot in the process and the business developed organically. All the innovation that we have had and products that we have launched have come primarily from customer feedback.

Our basic shopping bag has the same silhouette as plastic bag. But customers told us that they want to carry them on their shoulder. So, we came up with bag made to fit on your shoulder. Later, customers said that they like to a bag that allows them to be hands free so they could more easily carry their  a phone and coffee. So, we designed a bag called Sling, which is a cross-body bag.

We design and sell reusable replacements to the most common single-use items: things like bags, water bottles, coffee cups and take-out containers. We found that one deterrent to people using reusable water bottles is that they don’t want to carry a bottle around all day and worry about forgetting it somewhere.  To solve this problem, we designed a bottle sling to make carrying a reusable bottle easier.  We acquired a brand called To-Go Wear to allow people to have a waste-free lunch. We don’t have our own straw solution, Simply Straws sells reusable straws to that go with our utensil set and fits into the sleeve.

What have you found most surprising since founding ChicoBag?

The amount of single-use plastics that are being used every year. Just in U.S., we use more than 100 billion plastic bags every year. If you tied them together to make a chain, they would go around the work 760 times. That is staggering — that number is every year just in the U.S.. Think about the rest of the world: most of the world doesn’t have the waste management in place that we do.

What really surprised me when I went on research expeditions is that plastic is ending up in the ocean. Gets into rivers, runs downhill and eventually into the ocean. Once in the ocean, plastic goes to the middle of the ocean, and goes into a gyre. You would think there would be nothing out there in the vast oceanic wilderness, but the plastic is there, in the guts of animals. The problem is that the plastic absorbs other petro-chemicals. As it stays out there, it gets more toxic over time. The plastic bio-accumulates up the food chain as bigger fish eat the smaller fish who eat the plastic. It’s all connected. What we’re doing to the planet, we’re doing to ourselves. Every piece of plastic ever created is still here.

What have you found most challenging since founding ChicoBag?

Coming up against people invested in current status quo — people making money off of our disposable world. The plastic bag industry came after me and sued me for irreparably harming their business.

As a kid, you’re told to recycle and don’t be a litter bug. The campaign came from a PR agency. Keep America Beautiful is actually a front group funded by makers of single use products and was created to combat the folks who were looking at litter issues. The goal of the campaign was to shift blame from producers to consumers. Other initiatives have been successful, like the bottle deposit in Michigan, but that has only happened in five states because of Keep America Beautiful. In California, we have a plastic bag ban. Laws that require retailers to charge for plastic bags has been the most effective approach. That has reduced plastic bag use tremendously — around 90%. It works better than giving a discount for bringing a reusable bag.

Also, when stores aren’t giving away free bags, that creates a question at register. Cashiers have to ask if people want to purchase a bag, which makes people pause and think about it. Also, I would guess that probably 50% of purchases could easily be carried out without a bag. The idea is changing the question from “paper or plastic?” to “do you want a bag?”.

What have you been most touched by since founding ChicoBag?

I love getting emails and letters from people from all over the country about trying to kick the single-use habit. In many cases, until they bought a ChicoBag, they couldn’t do it. That was exactly my intention. I have also found that teachers like helping with our fundraising program because it helps them meet their curriculum requirements for science and math.  We provide a  lesson plan from 5 Gyres Institute.

What lessons learned would you like to share about starting a purpose-driven organization?

Start with the end in mind. You have a vision and it may seem impossible. My goal was to help humanity bag the single use habit. That is a lofty goal. That seemed impossible, but 12 years later, we have made really great progress towards that goal. We’re living in an era when 50% of the world has done something about plastic bags. That’s huge. And it continues. People now identify plastic bags as unnecessary waste.

We created a mascot called the Bag Monster. He’s been very effective with getting the word out. It also makes people ask, “What about my coffee cup?” and question other single use items, so it helps boost overall awareness of the waste problem paired with the fact that this plastic does not go away.

Dream big and take the first step. The path will illuminate. The people you need will show up.

Tell me about the process of becoming a B corporation.

B corps are different from traditional businesses. Traditional businesses are all about profit, that’s the only goal.

B corps are different in that they’re interested in providing a benefit to society beyond profit. You have to codify that into the business DNA. You report on it annually. There’s two parts to it. Other than having a benefit to society, the second part is the transparency around being certified. There are around 2,200 B corps now. It has become a fast growing movement. Business is a very powerful force in the world and B corps choose to be a force for good.

What words of wisdom do you have for others on how they can make a difference?

Be aware. Know that we’re not perfect. People get caught up into thinking that if can’t do it 100%, you shouldn’t do it at all. Do what you can. Be aware of your consumption. Even with paper, remember that trees are being cut down to produce that bag. Any little bit helps.

Are there any organizations that have been especially helpful to ChicoBag?

When we started, I utilized a small biz development center in my town. They gave free advice and resources and were very helpful, especially in the beginning. We also used training programs through a community college to help the businesses grow.

Because we are mission-driven, we have strong ties to non-profits who have similar missions to ours. We all help each other. We have partnered with organizations that are focused on oceanic health and a healthy planet.

What’s next for ChicoBag?

A large part of our business is custom products. Our goal is to produce a reasonably priced durable quality product. Bags that cost 99 cents are hard to wash and don’t hold up. There’s a good value to our bags when you look at the cost per use. We want to focus more on our fundraising program. It makes alot of sense for organizations because having a kid sell candy or wrapping paper just isn’t aligned with what we’re teaching.

As promotional items, our bags are great because they’re not  throwing in the trash. The bags will last a long time and will tell their story.

Last there’s the Takeout Tote, which is designed to help people kick the single use habit. The Takeout Tote is waterproof and has taped seams. The takeout containers fit into a bag. Some companies have given them as company gifts.

AndyKeller.image

Andy as the Bag Monster.

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