The plastic red cup is a true icon of American culture. It’s there for the high school keg party, the college pizza study party, the awkward office holiday party and every milestone in between. And that’s reflected in the figures. The red solo cup – ubiquitous beer pong receptacle of choice – is part of a gargantuan industry of disposable plastics. Solo Cup, the almost-80 year old company that makes the cherished red cup was gobbled up by Dart Container in a $1 billion sale in 2012. The tableware industry alone is worth $5.5 billion.
It’s an industry two twenty-something social entrepreneurs in Greenpoint, Brooklyn are trying to shake up as demand for sustainable alternatives grows. The market for sustainable tableware is now worth around $700 million and growing, says Susty Party CEO Emily Doubilet.
The daughter of two National Geographic underwater photographers, Doubilet grew up swimming around stunning coral reefs and concerned about environmental destruction. She also loved performing and produced global warming themed burlesque shows and performed in a band in Brooklyn while working as a sustainability advisor. At a party one night she met Jessica Holsey, a Credit Suisse private equity Wall Streeter who’d studied economics at Harvard where she’d captained the basketball team. “It was awesome, I had the great dream job,” says Holsey. But she’d started thinking more about investing her time in a project that involved social as well as financial gains. “It’s funny – it took me two years working on Wall Street to even come across the term ‘social entrepreneur’,” she says.
“I wanted to be involved in the environmental movement as a person who loves parties and entertaining in Brooklyn,” says Doubilet. Noticing the amount of plastic waste that often accompanies a good shindig, Doubilet wanted to find a fun way to make her events match up with her ideals. “I started thinking, how can we have a really positive event or show without creating all this waste?” says Doubilet. “We’re environmentalists who love a good party.”
She’d “scoured the earth for compostable tableware,” but found there was no seamless way to order online. Holsey and Doubilet decided to join forces to launch a webstore and later their own branded products. The duo also partnered with U.S. factories who employ blind and visually impaired people.
“We wanted to create value locally,” says Doubilet. The National Industry For The Blind powered initiative employs 12 people to make Susty’s line of colorful compostable tableware in the USA, unlike lots of other compostable tableware, which is imported from overseas. Last year, Doubilet and Hosley, who were named in FORBES’ 2014 30 under 30 list, won a $40,ooo award for social impact from the Hitachi Foundation, allowing them to expand and continue to create jobs for the blind.
Susty was self-funded and bootstrapped for four years. Expenses were low at first as they were just running an online store, but after a nerve wracking meeting with Whole Foods in 2012 Susty got placed in stores at first regionally but then nationally last year. They began expanding their own designs and hunting down new materials. They’ve recently launched the world’s first biodegradable plastic tablecloth, says Doubilet. To keep up momentum and increase research and development into innovative materials like tapioca starch, Susty closed at $500,000 seed round led by Radicle Capital, an investor focused on early stage sustainable companies.
“We’ve launched a ton of new products,” says Holsey. Sales have jumped from $500,000 in 2012 to $1.2 million in 2013, she added. The deal with Whole Foods came about because the supermarket is running an initiative that supports millenial social entrepreneurs, says Doubilet. “The meeting with Whole Foods was the start of launching our own brand,” she says. “They’ve been a dream partner,” providing mentorship and guidance. So too have United Natural Foods, Inc. a national distributor of all things to do with organic food and packaging.
Another key advisor is Julie Bell, a Partner at San Francisco Equity Partners. Bell’s portfolio company, Method Products, which makes naturally-derived, biodegradable household cleaners, laundry detergents and soaps merged with Belgian firm Ecover to create a $200 million company in 2012. “She sees a lot of similarity,” says Doubilet. “It’s approaching a product that might seem boring or stale and thinking, let’s make this a really fun experience and good for environment and community as well.”
So far, so sunny but dangers lurk. Susty’s products are still much more expensive than their plastic equivalents. A box of their wooden cutlery is $8.99 for 50 vs Dixie’s $4.99 for 100 price point. Also, some of the products can only be broken down through industrial composting, an option only really accessible in a few cities like Portland, Seattle and San Francisco (although Doubilet thinks a change in legislation will make curbside composting pickup a reality in NYC soon too).It’s hard to know what would happen if one of the plastic giants started offering a viable compostable alternative themselves at a much lower premium. But Doubilet and Holsey remain upbeat, determined to party on. They’re gearing up to appear on Shark Tank on April 4th determined to bring Susty Party to the attention of millions of Americans in time for picnic season.
Source: Forbes Business