One single plastic bottle. After it has served its purpose, where does it go?
Often, into the ocean.
By the year 2050, plastic will likely outweigh all the fish in the sea. Around 8 million to 10 million metric tons of plastic ends up in the ocean each year. And plastic waste makes up 80% of all marine pollution. These stats, from the UNESCO Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, portend a bleak future for the planet.
But from chilling facts like these an idea was born. Sarah Cieslinski and her fiancé, JJ Follano, imagined a business designed to help diminish the use and overuse of plastics on a large scale.
Zerowastestore.com is a sustainability products resource and Cieslinski’s brainchild; a coproduction with Follano that has blossomed into a successful e-commerce juggernaut to help tackle the plastics problem.
The business began operations from their Port St. Lucie home in 2018, but grew so rapidly that they had to quickly rent a 1,100-square-foot warehouse. Almost immediately, they had to break the lease and move to a bigger, more functional space.
Located in an industrial business development center near the New York Mets training complex in St. Lucie West, its sales, improbably, just wouldn’t stop increasing.
In early 2018, Cieslinski quit her job at a wildlife sanctuary and wondered what was next. Always someone with strong environmental awareness and consciousness, she and Follano began discussing the possibility of converting her awareness into action.
Follano, an entrepreneur and tech savvy executive, had just sold a health insurance business and was also up for the next adventure. He loaned Cieslinski $10,000 in startup money and the business was born. This would be the last of their own money they would need to put into the venture.
Then just 23 years old, Cieslinski dug in for what would become a run of enormous success.
Follano’s tech experience allowed him to build the website that would attract like-minded consumers. Six months after the couple first discussed the possible startup, they launched the website in July 2018.
The criteria for selling a product on Zerowastestore.com are strict and all under the same dynamic of sustainability, linking toward long-term improvement in the environment. No toxic chemicals are found in their product lines and, Cieslinski says, “we just make sure the brand [on the website] has created the product ethically, no sweat shops, sustainably sourced, as little plastic as possible. If it’s not 100% plastic free we know they’re moving toward that option.”
The product range is wide and materials diverse, from individual powder toothpaste tablets replacing plastic tubes to biodegradable dog waste bags made of flour meal. The bamboo toothbrushes have castor bean bristles. At the end of their useful life, the wood and plant fiber cleaning and scrubbing brushes can be buried in the garden to naturally decompose or be composted.
They’re also committed to lowering carbon emissions. By delivering their products via the U.S. Postal Service, which comes to every address nearly every day, instead of FedEx or UPS, they eliminate the extra gas required for that specific delivery.
“The first month, we got five orders,” Cieslinski says, “mostly from friends and family.” And initially the idea looked much like any new undertaking being run from a spare room in an entrepreneur’s home. “And I thought that would be fine,” Cieslinski says. “JJ told me if I could make $1,000 a month that would be awesome, just a little extra to supplement our income.”
But then, things took off.
“The first few months I focused on building the brand, on partnerships, social media and it was crazy,” Cieslinski says. “We blew up immediately. The mailman hated us.”
The marketing and sharing on social media began to draw customers and create a dramatic rise in sales, a consequence of awareness and demand, coupled with a COVID-19 shutdown in which people were shopping primarily online from home.
Zerowastestore.com went from $1,000 in sales the first month, to six figures at the end of the first year. In January 2019, it did $6,000 in sales, $12,000 in February, $24,000 in March, doubling every month, ultimately achieving $1 million in sales that year.
And during the heart of the lockdown, “COVID changed everything,” Follano says. The website began filling 600-700 orders per day. In one particularly robust month it had more than $300,000 in sales.
Post COVID, the sales have not stayed that brisk, but, according to Follano, “the growth is ongoing. If you look year-to-year, we’re still growing at 20%.”
The phenomenal evolution of the business is one reason why Cieslinski and Follano are looking for a funding partner who shares their sustainability ambitions. A local Florida investor would be their ideal choice.
Cieslinski, 27, is unwaveringly dedicated to her standards in shepherding a mission that has captured a like-minded clientele. They’ve even developed their own line of products among the 100-plus now available on the website, including brushes, laundry products, reusable 100% cotton “paper” towels and vegan bamboo fiber dental floss.
Zerowastestore.com’s biggest sellers are shampoo and conditioner bars made from sustainable ingredients, wrapped in recyclable packaging, assuring that no plastic shampoo bottles go into the landfill or the ocean.
Still in the growing stages, the young entrepreneurs say they want to take their time and make sure the venture is done right.
“We don’t want to rush things and lose quality,” Follano says.
Their own proprietary software makes their website onboarding easy. “If we approve a brand, that’s all managed through our application. Super efficient and super easy,” Cieslinski says.
But the durability of plastics can still make this vision seem daunting. The Environmental Protection Agency reports that basically 100% of all plastics human beings have ever created are still in existence. Even after it breaks down, generally a process of between 500 and 1,000 years, it then becomes microplastics without fully degrading.
The product selection for Zerowastestore.com begins with a sample product sent by the manufacturer. The staff will then evaluate the functionality, packaging and standards. If everyone likes it, and standards are met, the product will be included for sale on the website.
Social media is the main connector to their consumers and they’ve built a loyal following.
“We work specifically through Instagram,” Follano says. “We take recommendations and ask our community, because we want to carry what they want and are connected to what they want to see.”
With a very loyal base of approximately 50% return customers, the Instagram account also grew on a rapid pace, garnering 50,000 followers every six months for the first two years. Now with upward of 370,000 followers, Cieslinski posts every day. Combined on all social media channels, they have more than 400,000 followers.
“But we don’t do any paid marketing on social media or market on Facebook,” Cieslinski says. “It’s not very aligned with what we believe in. We believe it exploits the user’s privacy.”
With an organic approach to social media, Follano says, “we don’t really believe in exposing people’s privacy for our personal gain just so the business makes a profit.”
Their customers are scattered around the country, but Cieslinski and Follano would like to broaden their Florida community.
“It’s a big issue, and Florida is surrounded by water. If we work together, and all pitch in, we can help preserve this magical ecosystem,” Follano says.
They hire employees locally and efficiently from their web presence. Office manager Monica Herrera was once a customer. And Fort Pierce local Olivia Tremble does customer service and brand partnerships.
Their operations fulfillment is handled by Jasmine Pavao. Products are packaged and prepared to ship, using all water activated, 100% compostable nonreinforced, plastic-free tape. Every aspect conforms to sustainability, down to the cornstarch packing peanuts, “cheeseless Cheetos,” whose natural properties Follano demonstrates by popping one in his mouth and eating it.
But the fulfillment and shipping operations are moving to an appropriately eco-friendly 3PL [third party logistics] partner to facilitate the process.
“We had to make sure we found a shipper that uses only biodegradable packaging,” Cieslinski says. “We didn’t want to go with one of the big companies like ShipBob, because they all use plastic and won’t make exceptions.”
With the customer base all over the country and the shipper located in the Midwest, shipping costs will be lower and so will the carbon footprint.
These changes will not affect staffing, however. Follano is a believer in Peter Drucker’s, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast,” a famous philosophy championing the importance of the human factor. A positive employee culture, Drucker found, will always return better results than one that doesn’t value or appreciate employees no matter how solid or detailed the business strategy.
“Letting someone go would be a worst-case scenario for us,” Follano says. “No one is losing their job in the transition to a 3PL.”
These principles-driven ambitions are the heart and soul of Zerowastestore.com’s e-commerce success and will help take the company to the next level with an eco-friendly investment partner.
With decentralized shipping, the opportunity presents itself for Cieslinski and Follano to fulfill another dream: Outfit a van and travel the country, which is what they intend to do before settling down and having a family.
“Managing this is a lot of work,” Follano says. “With the new 3PL we can all work remotely or from the road.”
Zerowastestore.com’s approach is building to a better result.
“For us, it’s about everybody doing zero waste imperfectly, versus a few doing it really well,” Cieslinski says. “We need everybody to care just a little bit. We’re trying to give people one place for their needs at an affordable price. And know that their purchase is making an impact.”
Jan. 5, 2023