By Sharon McLoone
Monday, April 26, 2010; 35
A couple of moms were sitting around a kitchen table musing about what to include in a gift basket that would be auctioned off at their kids' preschool bazaar when they heard a startling statistic -- more than 20 million plastic sandwich bags go into U.S. landfills daily.
That bit of data prompted them to put together a "trash free" lunch basket with items like stainless steel water bottles and biodegradable cutlery -- but they couldn't find anything to replace the much-loved, ubiquitous plastic sandwich bag.
Their search became the inspiration for what would become 3greenmoms, a small Potomac company that now has six employees.
"We wanted to find something that's appealing to kids," said 3greenmoms co-founder Cris Bourelly.
Bourelly had been a corporate lawyer for 10 years, but she said that when her third child was born, she found her demanding schedule unsustainable and took a hiatus from working in an office. Her son was in preschool with the youngest daughter of Kirsten Quigley, another co-founder. Quigley had been a consultant for nonprofits who had also taken a break from the office.
"You never anticipate when something is going to take shape like this," Quigley said. "It's the serendipity in life; the right person, right time, right idea . . . half of life is being ready to take charge when you see something good."
Their mission was to find a food-safe, dishwasher-friendly, attractive reusable bag. After months of research, they discovered that pastry bag fabric withstands high heat. It's also moisture-proof thanks to its thin polyurethane liner, which has been tested as safe by chemists in Europe.
The newly minted business owners then set out to find a manufacturer, which led them to Thermohauser, a German maker of pastry fabric.
"They were very interested in the idea of developing a new product," recalls Quigley.
3greenmoms now sells sandwich bags, snack bags and slightly larger sub bags in bold, graphic prints created by the company's creative director, Jennie Stoller Barakat, who has her own firm and is now based in Los Angeles.
"One of the things we are most proud of is that in one year our customers have saved more than 12 million plastic baggies from the landfill" by using LunchSkins, noted Bourelly.
For example, more than 20,000 tons of trash enters the Anacostia River each year, and plastic bags make up about 50 percent of the trash in the river's tributary streams.
3greenmoms has set a 2011 goal of keeping 100 million bags out of all landfills and waterways.
The firm has branched out into a co-branding program that offers to customize bags for schools, corporations, trade groups and other concerns.
"We see it as a fun and creative way for companies and schools to align themselves with our mission to reduce plastic" consumption, Quigley said.
3greenmoms got funding from family to start their venture and its cash flow has maintained its operations.
"We didn't just jump in and say let's make 100,000 [bags]. We said let's make 100 and let's make 200," Quigley said. "We watched how it's done, and we were careful not to overcommit."
The company is now profitable in its second year.
Retail sales make up 70 percent of the firm's income, while Web sales, which 3greenmoms started in January 2009, round out the remainder.
For the first three months of this year, the firm's revenue has increased tenfold over the same quarter in 2009, according to the company founders.
They credit that success in part to a mention in the April issue of Oprah Winfrey's O magazine, which spurred a lot of requests for the product from national stores.
Many of their sales are made in boutique stores, and for now, that's where they'd like them to stay.
"We want people to feel a loyalty to us," said Bourelly, and Quigley added, "We want to be part of the neighborhood."