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The Disruptive Micro Business – How tiny business can have real positive impact

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“Follow your mission, not your passion” – was a saying from one of my favorite design professors. I believe the next generation of designers and entrepreneurs has the responsibility to question what they make and focus on solutions that contribute real positive health, environmental, or cultural change – and that this change isn’t reserved just for large companies.

I am two things: (1) Not very good at sitting still, and (2) an environmentally focused designer. The combination of these two traits led me to start a small design company called Green Upward in the year following my graduation from undergrad. I started off trying to live a more sustainable and zero waste lifestyle myself. The facts that kept bouncing around in my head were: “It is now believed that there are 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic debris in the ocean. Shoppers worldwide are using approximately 500 billion single-use plastic bags per year. This translates to about a million bags every minute across the globe, or 150 bags a year for every person on earth. Over 100,000 marine creatures a year die from plastic entanglement and these are the ones found. (1)”

I began to bring my own grocery tote bags, mason jars, and other containers with me to avoid my main source of plastic = grocery bags. I was standing in a Whole Foods, trying to collect bulk nuts, when a mason jar slipped out of my hand and shattered on the floor sending nut bits and glass shards everywhere. It was a Sunday afternoon grocery rush, and the Whole Foods members were not amused with my disruptive hippie-kid antics. I went online to look for a better solution and didn’t find any durable, good-looking products.”Furthermore, I learned I wasn’t the only person struggling with braking mason jars in grocery stores. I realized it was time to put my design background to work.

I spent many months working on a prototype. My budget was next to zero, so I began by making bag prototypes with paper and other materials I found around my house to get a feel for the size and capability. Then I used scrap fabric and kept working to refine the design. I was adamant about limiting my materials and not using plastic in any form – even plastic thread. This quickly ruled out traditional closing mechanisms like clasps and zippers (even metal zippers are woven into plastic thread fabric). Finally, I worked with a seamstress to put together the complete pattern and prototype. I shipped this prototype to my manufacturer to copy and begin the production line. I spent countless hours researching materials and factories, looking for high-quality goods and services that would match my cradle to cradle design philosophy. I was able to fulfill both, and now the bags can be cut up and composted at the end of their life and returned to the earth. Finally, I launched Green Upward’s Market & Storage bags – produce and bulk food bags that sustainably collect, carry and store your food. Bags that also keep your food fresher for longer with their structured, breathable design. I launched a successful Kickstarter last August and now have been selling the bags through my online store and slowly building up the business.

With one simple design and a couple hundred bags sold, 300,000+ plastic bags have been saved from landfills and oceans – that’s real impact. I love the initiatives I see in companies like Patagonia, REI, and Eileen Fisher – but you don’t have to do a million in business to make a real positive change. Scale of course matters, but there are other ways to amplify your impact without compromising your business.

When you’ve created something with real impact – tell the story from your heart, and start talking about it early. Consumers are oversaturated with flashy ads that now dominate Facebook pages and other social media sites. Don’t create an ad, create a short story that highlights the features of what makes your idea great and what positive impacts it has on your consumer’s life and the world. Begin talking about the “why,” before you have all the details of the “what” nailed down. A long launch time can be your company’s best friend if used properly.

Create a relationship with the community you design for. Good companies solve problems, great companies redefine them.  This means going back to the source of the issue and really speaking with individuals about their needs and pain-points. Find out which community of people you want to help. This could be young moms, eco-friendly folks, or stylish older men. Point is – you need to find the community of people you are serving and figure out how you can really help them.  This community will guide your solutions and be the first buyers of your product or service.

You also need your own community to support you, whether that is friends, parents, neighbors, or more. Entrepreneurship is hard and you will need people to give you advice, proofread your materials, help you ship or whatever else comes your way. Also, consider looking into your local business resources. I recently signed up for free mentoring in Virginia from SCORE and received some great advice that way.  

Finally, consider joining or forming a coalition with other companies that share elements of your supply chain or materials. Recently, I noticed a trend in sustainability-focused companies: as they work towards more circular business models and circular product life-cycles they create more partnerships with companies that complement their products are services. For example, Febreze, the air freshener company, now partners with TerraCycle, a recycling company, to help their users properly recycle some of their products. I’ve also seen coalitions between companies within the same industry band together to increase their buying and negotiation power. You need to be big to change the industry but you don’t need to be big alone.

As I continue to push Green Upward forward in the coming year I will continue to strengthen my community relationships as well as look to expand them in my industry. Every day I see more and more individuals looking to make positive environmental changes through business and design and that thrills me. I hope as a collective we revolutionize the way people choose and buy their goods and services, for our benefit, and for the benefit of generations to come.

(1) Source: Oceancrusaders.org

Hello, I’m Gabriella, I am a multi-media designer from Washington D.C. and I believe that design is powerful. I’m a designer and researcher at Fjord D.C. where I study and craft experiences to improve federal and public services. I also founded and run a micro design company and platform called Green Upward which is dedicated to rethinking what sustainability is in our daily lives.

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