Entrepreneurship is alive in the organic fiber sector

Sharon Rowe grew up in a successful retail family business but instead chose the path of an actor, with its usual ups and downs. Then in 1989, new obligations descended in the form of having a baby. She toyed with an idea that excited her that would contribute to a cleaner environment – the reusable shopping bags she saw in France. Accustomed to rejection as an actor, she thought why not take the risk and introduce them to U.S. consumers. 

After suddenly quitting a side job that was supplementing the family budget, Rowe dove in and founded

Eco-Bags Products with the slogan “Cleaning Up the Planet One Bag at a Time.” At New York City’s second annual Earth Day, she set up a display and pitched her first ECOBAGS® product, a string bag imported from Germany. They sold out within hours.

She set to work creating demand for ECOBAGS®. Looking back nearly 30 years later, Rowe says, “I introduced the concept and very consistently and persistently created the market for reusable shopping bags in the natural products market by hitting trade shows and resellers.” 

What she calls the tipping point occurred after her products showed on the QVS channel and then on Oprah’s first Earth Day Show in 2007. She couldn’t keep ECOBAGS® in stock, and sales jumped from $700,000 to over $2 million. 

Top-selling book

Several years ago, Rowe decided to share her story by doing another first – writing a book. Launched in May, The Magic of Tiny Business has maintained a top-selling slot on Amazon and Kindle.

She calls her business tiny because she kept a narrow focus and did not scale up when pushed to offer what she called ‘cheap cheap bags.’ 

 “That would be brand-breaking. We stayed in our niche to keep consistent and to stay in the tiny business approach,” says Rowe.

The Magic of Tiny Business takes readers step-by-step through the process of creating a successful, profitable green business starting from scratch--all while making sure to protect the core values she identified, such as a flexible schedule and work-free vacations, in all business decisions.

She also applies the 80:20 rule–that 80 percent of results are produced from 20% of efforts – to many aspects of her business. “For every 80% of results gives you 20% permission to trip, fail or reboot,” says Rowe. “Combining the 80-20 rule with perfection isn’t a good strategy. Go for good enough, and let go when things aren’t working.”

Rowe also emphasizes scheduling well-being appointments, such as swimming daily at a local pool, into her calendar’s business appointments. “That way, you’ll keep them. It’s your business to keep yourself well,” she explains. 

Know Your Finances

Embracing the financial aspects is paramount to Rowe’s success.

“Know your numbers and understand your risk tolerance,” Rowe emphasizes, having learned the hard way when the recession hit not long after the Oprah show created high demand. She did not react until it was too late, calling it her biggest mistake. Demand slowed, competitors jumped in, including cheap knock-offs and major promotional companies who recognized a new product line. The new office went away, she renegotiated terms with suppliers and partners, and she hired an experienced CEO to help navigate the mess while she reduced her pay. 

Going Organic

Rowe’s company joined the Organic Trade Association in September 1999, and in 2000 began offering organic options. “We shaved the margin to be competitive. Although demand was minimal and people didn’t get it, we knew it was the right direction to go,” says Rowe. Today, organic comprises 35 to 40% of ECOBAGS® products as demand stays strong in Europe and continues to grow in the U.S.

Welcoming Competition

Of the many tips Rowe gives in her book, co-opetition--working together with competitors--is one that earns considerable response. “We do what we do, watch what competitors do and steer business towards them if we can’t help the customer. The whole point is to grow the market.”

One of the early competitors on the scene for Rowe was econscious, launched in 2006, whose founders emerged from the field of promotional goods under 1970s GMPC LLC umbrella. Founder Gary Mandel and three others sought to create apparel and accessories made exclusively from sustainable fibers for promotional and private label goods.

Director Kriya Stevens says the founders wanted to make high quality goods that would stand the test of time and contribute to the health of the planet--truly useful, long-lasting, beautiful wearables.

Two Patagonia expats shepherded econscious’ early years: Dale Dendensohn, who helped lead Patagonia’s conversion to organic cotton in the 1990s, and Stefan Bergill, who headed up Patagonia’s Beneficial T’s Division.

“I went from the most technical products to the least technical part of the line. That was the last time I said it’s just a t-shirt. I realized that it’s not that simple to make a good quality t-shirt and get it delivered on time,” says Bergill.

The company has been an Organic Trade Association member since September 2006. In 2015, a national distributor picked up econscious products, enabling shipments nationwide from five warehouses for very fast delivery.

Meanwhile, tote manufacturer Enviro-Tote Inc., which has been a member of the Organic Trade Association since June 1999, began operating in the historic Manchester, NH, historic mill yards in the 1990s, and early on saw the advantages of American-made products with its family business.

Over the years, it has kept all cutting, printing and stitching departments under its New Hampshire roof. Using an easy-to-understand system on its website, the company offers customized tote options including 100% Organic, Recycled Cotton and its exclusive BottleBag® material made from 100% recycled PET, with a 50 minimum. 

“Not only are all bags produced in New Hampshire, USA, but almost all standard materials are woven in the U.S.,” says Enviro-Tote’s President Nancy Sampo.

Founded in 2006, Onno T-Shirt Company was a later addition to the tote bag market, and recently discontinued totes to focus on t-shirts. 

“Since we’re small, and have tight control over every aspect of our company, we’re able to make changes easily in order to create the best experience for our customers,” says Emily Wright, Director of Marketing Operations.

The company first joined the Organic Trade Association in June 2010. In addition to Pima and organic cotton, Onno differentiates by offering organically grown bamboo and hemp. The company will be launching a more eco-friendly Bamboo t-shirt this fall. 

Wright says a big challenge is cutting through the noise.

“There is a lot of ‘eco-washing,’ that is to say, labeling products as eco-friendly when they aren’t really. We go to great lengths to ensure that at every step, we’re as gentle on the environment as it’s possible to be,” she says.

Rowe’s legacy

Rowe’s new book helps share her legacy not only for organic fiber companies, but for other would-be entrepreneurs who want to start a business while safeguarding their values. In addition, her vision of reusable fiber bags is still paying off. With more U.S. municipalities rejecting the use of single-use plastic bags at retail operations, demand for recyclable bags totes, including those made with organic fiber, is bound to increase. 

Meanwhile, a common theme expressed by her and other organic fiber companies is competition can be a good thing.

Vik Giri, founder of Organic Trade Association member Gallant International, explains it this way. “In business, the more competition the better. When more are making organic products and more people are using organic, the demand will grow.” 

He, for one, considers Rowe a pioneer and an inspiration. //

Linda Richards is a freelance writer who writes regularly for the Organic Report.