Sustainable Swag with Gia Machlin

September 24, 2020

Gia is the President & CEO of EcoPlum, Inc. She has a deep commitment to helping combat environmental issues through the social enterprise she founded in 2007. EcoPlum offers branded marketing solutions to help universities, businesses and organizations integrate sustainable values into their programs and practices. EcoPlum brands and customizes its curated Sustainable Swag® line of eco-friendly promotional products with clients’ logos, taglines or messages.

EcoPlum is certified nationally as a women-owned business by the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council (WBENC) and is a Green America “Gold” approved business. Gia and EcoPlum have been featured on ForbesBooks Radio, Crain’s New York, Inc. Magazine, and many other business publications. Gia is a 2020 Enterprising Women of the Year Award winner.

Prior to founding EcoPlum, Gia was President of MMC 20/20 Systems, Inc. In 1998, She co-founded Plan Data Management, Inc. (PDM) growing it into a thriving software and data services provider servicing Fortune 500 companies. A public company acquired PDM in 2006. Gia’s professional experience also includes management consulting at the Machlin Consulting Group and Deloitte & Touche, along with sales and marketing roles at Unisys and AT&T.

Gia serves as Board President of the Blue Card, Inc., a non-profit organization that provides cash assistance to needy Holocaust survivors living in the United States. She is a longtime member of the Women Presidents’ Organization and a founding member of the Columbia Business School Alumni Club’s Sustainable Business Committee. She volunteered for NYC public schools for 14 years.

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John: Welcome to another edition of the Impact! Podcast. I’m John Shegerian, and I’m so excited to have our friend, Gia Machlin. She’s back on with us. She’s the president and CEO of EcoPlum. Welcome to the Impact! Podcast, Gia. 


Gia Machlin: Thank you, John. I can’t tell you how happy I am to be back here. Thanks for inviting me back.

John: Oh, of course, and I’m so happy to hear your voice today. I know you’re speaking with me from the Upper West Side of New York City, and I’m in Fresno, California, and we’re living in definitely different times right now.

Gia: We are. That’s for sure.

John: I spoke with you originally when you were just about growing your business. It was pretty new, and now you are thirteen years into it. Before we get into talking about your great company, EcoPlum — and for our listeners out there that want to find it, they could go to business.ecoplum.com — can you share your journey leading up to the founding of it and why you even created this business?

Gia: Sure. I was in software, actually. I started a software company back in ’98 when my son was born, and we made software for insurance companies — health care insurance companies — so I had a pretty different kind of trajectory and sold that company, and although I found it very fulfilling to create jobs and start a company, I just personally didn’t feel like I was contributing as much to society as I really wanted to. At that point, I had young kids and starting to think about the next chapter in my life. In 2007, I said, “Hey, maybe there is a way to start a company that’s in sustainability somehow.”

John: When you were raised, was that part of it? Was recycling a big deal back when you were growing up, and was that part of your world, or was this something you learned about as an adult and it really catch your interest while you were evolving as an adult?

Gia: I think it’s a little bit of both. My mom was from Italy, and we had our own vegetable garden in the back and grow our own vegetables and kind of had almost like a farm-to-table sort of experience. So, there was some element of sustainability in my childhood, but in terms of recycling and waste and really understanding a lot of the externalities associated with business, I didn’t begin to grasp that until I was older.

John: Got it. For our listeners out there, EcoPlum is also a Women’s Business Enterprise and also part of Green America’s Gold Standard. Gia, who is very humble, won the 2020 Enterprising Woman of the Year Award. So, you’ve done a lot in these thirteen years. Share a little bit about starting the company, your expectations, and how it’s evolved since your start and now you’ve grown it now for thirteen years.

Gia: Okay, so first, let me just give a quick overview on what we do now, just so that people know, and then I can go into the evolution of it. At EcoPlum, we showcase your brand and its values with our curated line of sustainable swag products that can be customized with your logo, tagline, or message. We are a promotional product company that does only sustainable swag.

John: Wonderful. That’s cool. I’m ignorant on this. Is there a lot of competition in that space?

Gia: No, there isn’t. There are a few companies that do what we do, but very, very new space, so we’re happy to be a trailblazer in that space. So, how we got here is really interesting. As I was mentioning, I was looking for something to do that was in sustainability and started thinking about, “Hey, maybe there is a way to sell sustainable items online and get people to be excited about them and sell things that were just as stylish as non-sustainable products.” So, I started EcoPlum as an e-commerce company for consumers with sustainable fashion, jewelry, home decor, and beauty products, and our tagline at that time was “Sustainability Meets Style.”

Gia: We went live in the fall of 2008. So, our website actually went up in the fall of 2008, so you can only imagine the time was not the best time. It was during the financial crisis. We were bootstrapped, and it was a struggle, and we kept the company going. I kept it going for many years, but we really didn’t have the resources to scale, and we didn’t have a retail storefront to really scale this business to consumer-type business or enterprise. So, it was a struggle for some years, but during those years, we established a brand and an amazing team, and we all learned so much about sustainability and all the real issues facing our planet that they were really useful years even though the company was struggling during that time.

Gia: But then, one day, we were just kind of going about our business, selling sustainable fashion items, and we got an inquiry from a Fortune 500 company in the Midwest, asking if they could get a thousand of our reclaimed wood smartphone holders that they saw on our site, and they wanted their company logo on them. I said, “Yeah, no problem,” and sold them a thousand of those, and then the next week, sold them another thousand of those. I realized, wait a second, I got to get back into B2B. B2C is not my strength. It’s not my company’s strength. It’s not my team’s strength. We really need to be B2B with relationship selling, and it was going to be difficult to scale on the consumer side without having a lot of resources. So, we realized, “Oh, we can just do B2B again and reach out to organizations and businesses and universities and help them get their brand out there with a sustainable message.”

John: How has that been going?

Gia: It has been going amazingly well. Actually, one of our first clients was Columbia University right here, on the Upper West Side.

John: Wow!

Gia: They’ve been with us ever since, and we are really, really happy to work with them. But then, we expanded to other universities, companies of all sizes, mid-sized companies, Fortune 100 companies, small companies, and nonprofit. We trademarked the term “sustainable swag,” and so, we started using that, and we focused on unique and innovative and useful products that are sustainable in some way, made of reclaimed wood or recycled plastic or any kind of reused material or fair-trade or organic — something that is better for the planet than just virgin plastic, which is what most promotional products are made up. Now, we offer branded marketing solutions and sustainable promotional products to universities, businesses, and nonprofits.

John: What a great thing, because when you think about it, a company, they give out these products, whether they are t-shirts or hats or bags, and they have their logo on it. It really represents that brand, and if that brand wants to be marketing that they’re part of the circular economy, they’re part of the sustainability solution and not part of the problem anymore. What a great way of doing it by showing, by using your products, your sustainable swag, as their first touch on making the best impression with people.

Gia: Exactly. Swag stays with people, they carry it around, they have it on their desk, they have it in their homes, and it’s a constant reminder of your brand. What a better way to remind them of your values as a brand than giving them something that is sustainable?

John: For our listeners out there, to reach Gia and her colleagues and to reach her great company, go on business dot ecoplum, E-C-O-P-L-U-M, dot com — business.ecoplum.com. As a B2B business, do you feel that the upside, the ceiling is even much higher than when you first started the company as more B2C?

Gia: That could be a question. I do think so because you can reach pretty much any business out there. We work with some of the largest businesses. So, we are making an impact, and I see that it’s kind of the sky is the limit there. We focus on transparency, focus on our sustainability criteria and third-party certification, and that’s something that appeals to businesses that want to do the right thing.

John: Right, right, right. Recently, you’ve also created your application to become a certified B Corporation. I read about that a lot, and our listeners hear about that a lot in the media — what does that truly mean when you go from just a general regular Corporation to a B Corporation? Is that good? What does that represent?

Gia: So, we have been operating like a B Corporation for years but just haven’t had the time or the resources to actually do it formally. A B Corporation takes into account all of the stakeholders when it makes decisions. So, unlike a C Corporation or regular Corporation where they’re accountable fully to the shareholders, a B Corporation takes into account other stakeholders like clients and the environment, employees, vendors in the community, and we write that into our bylaw and say that we will take the environment into account when making company decision — and like I said, we have operated that way, but now we’re going to be held accountable for it. We’re in the process of applying, we haven’t received our certification yet, but we’re very excited about this next step, and when we do, we’re going to have a big party.

John: That’s awesome.

Gia: Yeah.

John: It’s going that be this year? Will that be this year?

Gia: We are really excited about it.

John: Will that be this year?

Gia: I hope so. I hope so. I got my fingers crossed in everything we’ll go through this year. It’s just super exciting. We’re going have to report on it as well and report publicly on our environmental, what do you call it, book.

John: Right.

Gia: [laughs] The markers.

John: Yeah, the data points of how you are doing everything.

Gia: Data points, yeah. It’s insane.

John: So, wait a second. Of course. Let’s go over this. So, how about if there are listeners out there that are listening to us today, and they have products that they think could fit in your sustainable swag selections, are you always looking to expand the product mix that you have? Are you looking always for new vendors? Since podcasts now go around the world, and there are people listening to us in China, in Africa, in Vietnam, and all throughout Europe, and in India, are you always looking to add to your selection of sustainable products?

Gia: Of course, we are always looking for new great products.

John: Cool.

Gia: To be frank, it’s quite challenging because there is a lot of greenwashing going on out there, where we’ll find suppliers that say that their products are green in some way, but when we dig deeper and we do our due diligence, we find out that, in fact, they don’t meet one of our sustainability criteria. We have twelve sustainability criteria listed on our site, and every product we sell has to meet one of those — and for that, we really have to do our homework. So, we’d love to hear from you. If you are out there, you’re a mom-and-pop organization, or you’re a fair-trade organization, or mission-driven organization, we would love to partner with you and get your product out there to big companies and universities.

John: Gia, you bring up a great point. So, as opposed to when you were just doing B2C, and now your due diligence and your investigative work on the products that you’re representing has to go much deeper when you’re doing now sustainable swag and you’re making sure that all the boxes are checked on your twelve-point list, and now you’re going to be reporting under the B Corporation certification structure, this is a whole new level of accountability — both for you, your vendors — and that you’re selling that trust and that accountability to your clients, is that now more of your structure than ever before?

Gia: I couldn’t have said it better myself. [both laughing] That’s exactly what we’re selling. We really believe in what we’re doing, and we don’t want to get more plastic out into the ocean and landfills. We’re trying to reduce that. We’re trying to reduce the amount of waste that’s out there. It’s just very important to us that we stay true to that mission. So, the more that we can find partners, both on the supply side and on the client’s side that share in that same vision, the better it will work for everyone, including the planet.

John: Talk about your biggest challenges running a triple bottom line company. You have now evolved your brand, you found probably a bigger opportunity, you hang in there during the lean years, a true entrepreneur, what is now? What keeps you up at night?

Gia: So, like we were talking about, finding suppliers that really are transparent, that can provide some kind of third-party certification or other types of guarantee that their products are in fact made of reclaimed or recycled or upcycled material or one of our criteria, so that’s quite challenging. It’s also challenging to get the companies who are buying this stuff to maybe pay the extra dollar or two that they might have to take into account all these externalities that happen when you make products. They want the two-dollar t-shirt without thinking about the true cost of making that t-shirt. Companies and universities say they’re committed to sustainability, but their budgets seem to drive their decisions rather than their commitment to reducing waste. It’s like they don’t stop and think about the plastic in our oceans that they’re ingesting or the kids are swimming in when they’re making their budget — and they should.

John: Good point, good point. Yeah, it’s so interesting, Gia, you said that. In our journey, I felt this, I have seen the same thing. Everyone wants to be green, everyone believes in the mission and believes in the circular economy, in living and making the world a better place, but when it comes down to writing the checks, sometimes, they stop short, and they capitulate. It’s really interesting you say that. I think that’s an ongoing challenge for all of us in the sustainability space but one that I’m glad you point out. It’s really important to say that.

Gia: Yeah. I think people really should stop and think when they’re making their budgets and not be in their bubble of the financial world around them, but that there’s a bigger world around them. We all have to live in that world. It just would be awesome if every business leader thought that way. There are a lot of business leaders that do, and I’m a proud member of the American Sustainable Business Council, and they’re a great organization. I was on a call the other day; Eileen Fisher was on and talking about how every corporation should be a B Corporation. Only then will we really be able to address our issues is when every corporation is held accountable for their actions.

John: It’s a great point, and it’s something to think about because people really do — companies and the decision-makers — they really do vote with their pocketbooks. If they really want to be sustainable, it’s a service, and there is more goes into it than just doing things willy-nilly in the throwaway society. They have to pay up for that, though. It costs more money. That oversight, and that quality, and your sourcing, and your due diligence on who you source, someone has got to pay for it. If they are going to get the benefit from it and be able to brag about it — and I get it. We live the same parallel lives in a separate industry but still all sustainable, and it’s all under the heading of sustainability, so that’s really great.

John: I think it’s just awesome that you’re doing the B Corp. That is just wonderful, and I couldn’t agree with you more about the Sustainability Council, the American Sustainability Council. They’re just great people and just doing great things — couldn’t be better. Couldn’t be better. I want you to have the last word. What message do you want to leave with our listeners out there? Again, for our listeners to find you, I want them to go to business.ecoplum.com to buy your sustainable swag for your corporation or the entity organization you represent. I’ll give you the last word before we have to sign off for today, Gia.

Gia: Thanks, John. I just want to say that we believe that an organization’s brand reflects its values, where our mission is to help these brands make responsible choices and align their marketing practices with the positive image that they want to project, and we are here to help you do that.

John: You know, Gia, you are the reason I do this show. It’s a mission for me to highlight great sustainability stars like you. You are making the world a better place, and I’m grateful for you and all the work that you do.

Gia: Thank you so much, John. Such a pleasure always to be here with you.