Making School Supplies More Sustainable with Green ABCs’ Beth Davies

November 17, 2014

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome to another edition of Green is Good. We’re so excited to have with us today Beth Davies. She’s the CEO of Green ABCs. Welcome to Green is Good. BETH DAVIES: Thank you so much for having me. Good to be here. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Beth, before we get talking about Green ABCs, can you share a little bit about your background and journey leading up to the founding of the Green ABCs? BETH DAVIES: Sure. I grew up in the States, in Connecticut, and went to school actually in Rhode Island, and eventually became an executive in a big company. We lived overseas for a few years. I came home because I have a son who’s nine, and I really wanted him to go to school in the U.S. I’ve always had social issues and sustainability and environmental causes as part of how I was raised. I can remember boiling things to recycle them back in the day; I’m that old. When I went to get the huge list of things that my son needed for school that the school nicely sent home, I looked for green options and there weren’t any. I stewed on this idea, actually, for a couple years because it’s something I’ve thought about. I went to try to find these products. It was a huge amount of material, and I thought it really should be green, and I couldn’t find it. I thought about it, and finally through some innovations and some things coming online in the market, we were able to create a green school supply company. The environment always has been very important to me and part of my life and the way I think and the way we live, and it really wasn’t something I could deliver well in this one aspect of school supplies, which I thought was odd. So, this is why we started what we did. JOHN SHEGERIAN: And, when did you start Green ABCs? BETH DAVIES: It’s really new. We started the business maybe like six months ago, but we’ve just launched the range of products online this summer and this fall. JOHN SHEGERIAN: And, that’s the fun of our show. We love having big companies, we love having new entrepreneurs and eco-preneurs on the show talking about the great things that they’re doing. For our listeners out there that want to follow along, I’m on Beth’s website right now. It’s greenabcs.com. It’s that simple, as ABC. Beth, can you share a little bit about obviously, you’ve put a lot of thought and work into this. Talk a little bit about some of the information and the background facts that you put into this that are compelling for our listeners out there, such as the scale of the environmental impact schools have in the U.S. and things of that such. BETH DAVIES: Sure. I think what a lot of people would be very surprised to learn and people not involved in the environment and the green industries and those kind of things, is how un-green schools are. There are a lot of schools that still use Styrofoam every day. It was really surprising to me, so what I would say is there’s a big opportunity. There’s one way to look at it, as a big opportunity. The amount of material that students use every year is profound. Just in copy paper alone, there’s 52 million school-aged children in the U.S. If each one of them uses two or three pages of copy paper a day, which is grossly underestimating it, that’s one-half of a million trees a year plus. So, that’s a lot of trees. I think my son’s a genius. We all think our kids are a genius, but he’s not writing the Iliad in fourth grade. I think we can use recycled paper. You know what I mean? So, I think that there are two big wins here with green school supplies. One is the environmental impact, which is profound. We’re talking about a lot of natural resources that we’re using that are virgin material to create product, but we’re also talking about a huge opportunity for recycling and for using products again to create things like pens and notebooks and scissors. But we have a huge opportunity as well in terms of education. If you’ve ever thrown out a soda can in front of a ten-year-old in the garbage instead of the recycling bin, you’re more than likely going to hear all about it. “That’s recyclable.” The education about recycling has been really strong in schools, and it’s successful. Teaching children at a young age about these kinds of things has proven to be a really successful way to go. So, imagine if in 10 years, you went to go buy something in the store, and that child said, “What is this made from? Is it renewable? Is it made from recyclable materials? Is it made from renewable resources? Is there innovation that makes this biodegradable?” In 10 years, if a child automatically thought when you go to purchase something, “What’s in it? How’s it made? Where is it made?” Then that’s a huge step forward in the culture of sustainability and the things that we use every day. So, our vision is twofold. It’s to help schools to use sustainable products, and it’s also to help create this mindset and this teaching opportunity with children about sustainability in the things you use every day. JOHN SHEGERIAN: I like it. When you started the business enterprise and actually took your vision and the information you had gathered and now put it online as a business opportunity, how do you go about marketing it? Of course putting it online is one thing, but then what segments of the population did you start trying to message and educate to start building traction? BETH DAVIES: That’s a really good question. How do you reach these people? Most public schools have Parent Teacher Associations, so what we’re doing is reaching out to those associations to let them know about our company. What we do for schools is every school is different, but I don’t know if you have kids or have kids who are school-aged, the list you get home can be 25 to 50 items deep, depending on the school. It’s variable. So, we work with PTAs to create what’s called customized kits. PS 1 in Manhattan, we will sit down with them and we will design a kit from our full range for each one of their grades, so they’ll have a kindergarten kit, a first grade kit, and we will give them all the tools they need to send out flyers home in the backpacks and also to have parents go online and order it online. They can create custom kits for what they need for their school, and the parents have the option to buy the green version, so they know they’re getting exactly what the school wants. We also sell standard kits. This is a kit that provides a year’s worth of school supplies, so you don’t have to keep going back to the store and this kind of thing. It’s five notebooks for the year and three packs of pens and this, that, and the other, depending on the school. We also sell standard kits that provide what you need for the classroom and your child, so things like copy paper and things like that are included. We have student kits, which are just what the kid needs, what your child would need for their grade for the year, and then we have teacher kits. Your teachers spend over $1 billion a year on school supplies, so this is a great way for people to give a gift to a teacher or to support a teacher in their life, by buying kits that provide what the teacher needs to run their classroom, so the folders and the pens and the things that they themselves need, and gives them a bit of supplies for some of the kids in their class that don’t necessarily have everything they need. So, if you have 25 kids in a class, five to 10 will buy the kits, five to 10 are going to buy what their individual child needs, but there are, unfortunately, going to be some children in the class whose families are not in a position to buy anything. So, these teacher’s kits provide some items that all the kids are going to need, so teachers can help out the kids in their class individually. A lot of my family are educators, my mom, my sister, my brother-in-law, my great aunt was a teacher, so there’s a lot of teachers. I remember every year going and buying reams and reams of stuff at the store, and having a drawer where she’d dole out things to the kids in her class because the reality is that in New York City alone, we have 1.25 million kids in the public school system. 250,000 of those children get a free lunch every day, which means they are below the poverty level. So, there’s a real gap in resources for a lot of these students, and a lot of that burden falls on the teachers. They end up buying a lot of supplies for kids who need them. So, those are three options. We have four options. We have kits that are standardized. If you live wherever, you can just go online and order it. If you want to try to move the green agenda forward in your school, we can meet with your PTA and help create custom kits for you and your school and your child’s class and his grade and school, and get that process going for you. JOHN SHEGERIAN: For our listeners who just joined us, we’ve got Beth Davies on. She’s the CEO of Green ABCs. To learn more about Green ABCs, go to greenabcs.com. For our listeners out there, whether you’re a teacher, a parent, a student, a superintendent of a school system, there’s an entry point for everyone with regards to what you’ve created. BETH DAVIES: Sure. Absolutely. At the individual parent level, at the teacher level, at the friend of the teacher, at the systemic level, if you’re a superintendent, absolutely, yeah. We can scale it as big or as small as you want. That’s how our business is set up. But I think our vision is to green every school in the U.S. That’s our vision. That’s what we want to do. We feel we can be a part of that because there’s really kind of four aspects to green schools. There’s the physical environment, making sure it’s not toxic and it’s safe. There’s the consumption aspect. What do you use in your school? Are those resources sustainable? Are they green? Are they nontoxic? There’s green spaces. That’s kind of about increasing the green in your environment, whether that’s growing plants in the classroom or taking back an empty lot in the next lot or in the country, whether that’s creating gardens. Then the fourth component is about education, really creating a robust and profound environmental education component to your curriculum. So, those are kind of the four aspects of it. We feel we’re a real asset to any organization to help them create both a sustainability a plan, but also to help them drive the actual consumption part of their green agenda. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Obviously, you’re on the cutting edge of leading the green revolution in the U.S. school system, which is, by the way, badly needed. BETH DAVIES: It’s really shocking how bad it is. I really had no idea until my child got school aged. I’m telling you, there are schools that use Styrofoam plates every day, all day, 180 days a year still. Wow. OK. Where are we going to go from there? There’s a lot of opportunity, like I said. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Beth, how many brothers and sisters in arms, in terms of eco and entrepreneurs out there, have you met along the way that are part of this mission goal in some part of the ecosystem, not exactly what you’re doing, but also doing other things, other pieces of the eco pie that are helping to accomplish the goals that you’ve well laid out? BETH DAVIES: Sure. There’s an organization called the Green School Initiative, and you can find them online. They have some really great tools for people in terms of creating a green and sustainability plan for your school and giving some information about what the impact on the environment is. There are some places in the United States that are doing a good job. San Francisco, San Diego, their public school systems are cutting edge in terms of recycling more so than preconsumption. The issue is that there’s not a lot of this going on. Most schools and most educators are talking about post-consumption recycling, which is very, very important. We go through 50 million bottles of water a year as a country, but we only recycle about one-fourth of them, so that’s not good, obviously. So, there’s a huge opportunity in the post-consumption aspect, but we’re really trying to drive the conversation to before you buy it, what’s it made of? We’re trying to change how things are made because the issue with the environment, from my perspective, we’re really not going to solve this issue unless we stop making things from virgin material, unless we stop making everything we use every day, and we start recycling things or we start using things that are renewable resources. We use, for example, corn to make our plastic, as opposed to traditional plastic, which is a petrochemical derivative, we use corn. We use bamboo to create some of our paper. All of our paper is 100% recycled. It’s made from bamboo, which is an extremely strong plant, one of the fastest growing in the world. When you harvest it to make things, you don’t kill the plant, so it’s a renewable resource. We need to look at things like that and change how we make stuff full stop on a big scale. JOHN SHEGERIAN: We’re down to the last three minutes or so. I do want to ask you, you’ve spent a lot of time and energy not only doing research and then making the relationships and building the website and all the sell through aspects, but also sourcing all these great green materials that you’re now promoting and selling. BETH DAVIES: Yes. It took months and months to find these products. We work with some big brands, like Paper Mate has a line of products that are all made from recycled wood and Elmer’s Glue, but there’s lots of little brands like Onyx and Green, which is a great company out of Canada that has a whole range of green products and uses a lot of innovation. They’ve created the corn plastic and they have a additive they put in their plastic folders that makes them biodegradable. We had no boundaries of who we’d work with in terms of, obviously they had to be green and they had to be an innovative company, but we weren’t saying we’ll only work with big, well-known, global brands. So, we really sourced the best of what’s out there for each of the categories that we have, whether it’s pencils or paper or markers. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Love it. We’re down to the last two minutes or so. Tell me and our listeners what’s your goals here? You’ve got hurdles. Obviously, the legacy of the past and the apathy that still exists. What are some of your biggest challenges in the next year or two ahead, given you’re a relatively new business, and what are some of your goals? BETH DAVIES: Our biggest challenges are getting schools to adopt sustainability as a vision that they want to deliver. Our biggest challenge is getting schools to commit to becoming green and working with us to help them in the supply aspect of the school supplies. That’s our biggest challenge. But I think we plan to just do one school at a time. We have a sales team around the country, and just meet with the schools on an individual basis and grow year in year. Our vision is to help every school become green. JOHN SHEGERIAN: I think that’s a great vision. For our listeners out there that want to learn more about Beth Davies’s company, go to greenabcs.com. You can buy products, you can learn more about her great services, and you can introduce it to others in your school system, other teachers, other students, other school superintendents that run entire systems. Share the great word of Green ABCs. Beth, thank you for leading the green revolution in the U.S. school system. You are truly living proof that green is good.