In 2010, Sarah Kauss started S’well with an audacious goal — to rid the world of single-use plastic bottles.
At a time when sustainable products weren’t stylish and stylish products weren’t sustainable, Sarah’s company created the world’s first reusable hydration accessory — a product that fuses function with fashion.
Melany Eli, Managing Director, Strategy, Marketing and Communications, KPMG Private Enterprise, KPMG International caught up with Sarah to learn more about the secret to S’well’s success.
I’m so happy to have this opportunity to speak with you, Sarah. Ever since I heard you speak at a Women Corporate Directors Private Company and Family Business Peer Group Exchange, I’ve been looking forward to learning more about how you’ve put your personal passion and purpose behind S’well. Tell us how the story began.
Thank you, Melany. I’m always more than happy to talk about S’well and how we got to where we are today. It started with a personal mission to save the world from single-use plastic water bottles. They were infrequently recycled, bad for the environment and didn’t make sense to me.
I attended university in Colorado, and there’s a strong environmental sensitivity there that certainly increased my own social awareness. As my career progressed, I became a CPA and then an executive in a publicly-traded company where I traveled the world with my reusable water bottle, which I had purchased at a local sporting goods store. It looked like I was still hiking in Colorado. It wasn’t very professional and not something you would normally use in a board meeting.
So I thought, ‘what if I created a bottle that looks better, that people want to carry and will do the right thing for the environment.’ That was the starting point for the idea.
That sounds like it was an important ‘aha’ moment. How did you go from this initial idea to turning reusable water bottles into fashion accessories?
Well, I started the company in my mid-30s and I thought if I’m going to put my whole heart, energy (and savings) into it, I have to closely identify with it. So, my personal social consciousness was definitely the start, not the ambition to create a fashion product.
The problem was, our website didn’t work very well in the early days. We had pictures of the Pacific garbage patch and birds that had swallowed plastic. People didn’t stay on the site for very long, and my accounting background had taught me that I needed to produce and sell a product that had very good margins to support the causes and organizations I wanted to work with.
That’s when I realized that I needed to shift the message: ‘This is a beautiful product. Your water is still going to be cold and your hot beverages will still be hot and using it will also be good for the environment and for people.’
I couldn’t compete with the price points of products that were already being sold in sporting goods stores, so I decided to make it a highly saleable product as a ‘hydration fashion accessory’ that could be sold in fashion and other retail stores as well as our own online channel.
That was quite a pivot. What is keeping your purpose-driven mission alive?
Every day we’re inspired to bring style, innovation and joy to sustainable living. That means doing good and being good to ourselves and the planet through the power of design and ingenuity. It also means that we continue to strive to positively transform the world, not only through our products, but through our social actions and giving back when we can.
Every S’well purchase counts towards the displacement of millions of plastic bottles that would otherwise be polluting our environment and that fulfills an important part of our purpose.
The second part is achieved by operating a successful, Certified B Corp business that is able to pledge millions of dollars to education about sustainability to young people and their families and to water charities and organizations that are improving access to clean water in communities around the world.
What advice would you give to entrepreneurs who want to create a purpose-driven business like yours?
A research report presented at a recent sustainable brands conference stated that 53 percent of consumers said that ESG matters more to them as a result of the pandemic. We’re seeing that consumers are more willing to pay for brands that do something good. So, I don’t think you can go through something like our shared experience during the pandemic and not realize how our actions are connected in some way.
I know that it can seem deflating if you have a mindset that you’re only one person or one company and you can’t make a difference. But you have to start somewhere. I believe that consumers realize that it isn’t easy and they’ll give companies some slack when they start out on this journey.
All the small actions add up. And not trying is not the answer.
What have you accomplished at S’well that makes you most proud?
S’well has an amazing team of purpose-driven employees and we believe that something as simple as buying a beautiful reusable bottle or bowl can make a difference.
We’re only addressing a certain number of issues in people’s lives, but we’re giving them a way to think about things differently. We can conservatively say we’ve sold enough reusable water bottles to save over four billion single-use plastic bottles. That’s going around the planet 35 times at the equator. That doesn’t account for how we might have changed people’s behavior and how they’re going to consume other products differently going forward.
We want to continue to be a spark for change — the inspiration to live a little more sustainably in an unsustainable world. And every small step that we take in that direction makes me proud.
The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the interviewees and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of KPMG International Limited.
KPMG’s participation and contribution in this regard is not an endorsement, sponsorship or implied backing of S’well.