5 Questions With Entrepreneur Pierre Barlier, CEO of Eco-Conscious Shopping Bag Business, KeepCool
As the issue of climate change forces environmentalists to band together to encourage a level of activism that is aimed to prevent the unthinkable from transpiring — as a result of gross negligence and misinformation — those who are enviably armed with resources and the influence to institute progress — are being creatively prolific in their quest to preserve the environment.
Entrepreneur Pierre Barlier is a man on a crusade to replace single-use shopping bags with reusable versions via his KeepCool shopping bag business — that he launched nearly 20 years ago.
His vision for KeepCool was birthed from eco-conscious tendencies that spurned his need to put his money where his mouth is — by creating a company that echoes his passion — and supports the narrative of advancing a healthier lifestyle that will forever transform the behavioral habits of consumers.
KeepCool’s quest for social awareness by arming consumers with the power to participate in the ongoing exercise of environmental consciousness is quietly overtaking the landscape in the realm of reusable shopping bags — which are designed, manufactured and distributed to major mass retailers in North America and Asia. Notable customers include Costco, Whole Foods, Barnes & Noble and Staples — and their participation reiterates an adherence to the principle that small everyday actions can produce tangible results.
Pierre Barlier has successfully applied his business acumen to establish himself as a business leader thanks to his relentless commitment to innovation — as he sustains growth and viability in an ever-evolving landscape.
His first reusable grocery bag — Better Bag — is comprised of recycled plastic bottles — which in essence supports the circular economy of collecting plastic waste by focusing on elevating the messaging behind the specific materials that are utilized to produce his bags.
Barlier’s decades long business partnerships are flourishing under the banner of practical applications — and his thorough work ethic that allows for efficiency when tackling structural conundrums or alleviating issues with cost — and even more endearing is his willingness to go the extra mile to maintain the validity of his mission statement.
His travels have exposed him to the devastating impact of plastics on marine life — and this reality is what drives Barlier’s relentless passion and resolve to keep championing environmental progress in every venture he touches.
KeepCool is just one of many upcoming ventures that Pierre Barlier is spearheading and based on the results so far — it’s clear that his efforts will continue to overturn the damaging effects that single use bags wreck on our environment.
We had the pleasure of speaking to Barlier about his motivation and forecast for the future.
You are obviously extremely dedicated to environmental causes — what inspired your need to translate your passion into a business venture?
After college, I spent a year sailing around various islands. When you’re on the ocean so much, you pay quite a lot of attention to how clean the water is — or isn’t. Almost everywhere we went, I saw ocean pollution — bottles, bags, discarded personal items, you name it. The ocean was, during that time, my home, and it was being disrespected. That always stayed in the back of my mind.
When I stopped traveling and began focusing on my career, even back then I was searching for businesses with impact. Over the next several years, I was fortunate enough to work for businesses that had a bit of a more mindful bent. For example, a tool-importing company where I worked sold polyresin shovels, which are far more environmentally friendly than aluminum shovels, which can leach aluminum into the soil, where it then makes its way the digestive systems of livestock and wildlife. And these companies were both socially aware and successful. That taught me that you don’t have to sacrifice profit for your principles.
But my entrepreneurial spirit wanted me to break out on my own. That urge, coupled with my memories from my sailing days, prompted me to think about what sort of business I could start that would address the issue of ocean pollution or environmental sustainability on a broader scale. Rather than creating something new, I wanted to identify an existing business that was causing environmental harm and replace it with one that was affordable, easy to use, and — above all — sustainable. Shopping bags hit all of those marks. And thus KeepCool was born.
What were some of the challenges you faced — when you launched the KeepCool brand 20 years ago, and what was your mission for its viability and outreach?
When I started out, eco-consciousness wasn’t as popular or even as well-known as it is now. Few people thought about the environment except when they begrudgingly set out their required recycling bins each week. These were the people I had to convince that they should replace their single-use bags by investing in reusable totes, so I had to give them a very good reason to do so. The bags had to be durable, affordable, and perhaps even a bit stylish. They also had to go above and beyond in terms of eco-friendliness and sustainability to make them distinct from all the other bags on the marketplace. So I made sure those features were integral in the first bag I produced, a bag made of recycled plastic bottles, what Whole Foods now calls The Better Bag.
Another way we broke into the market was by introducing insulated bags that protect cold food. We believed that once consumers saw the advantages of these reusable bags, they’d be open to others. And it worked. Insulated bags definitely helped open the marketplace to reusable shopping bags in general.
Then there was the fact that, in the beginning, I was a one-man operation that had to convince national chains that I was serious and reliable and that I could run rings around my competition. To land long-term contracts with big-name brands, I also had to prove that KeepCool was going to be around for a while. So I set out on forging relationships with my clients in a way that set me apart. I’ve always looked as those relationships as partnerships, and I treated them as such. That approach helped me gain a bit of a reputation in how I operated my business, which in turn gave me more credibility. The best part is that’s how I prefer to work. I never was much for hard-sell techniques — I built the KeepCool business on the pillars of transparency, commitment, service, and value — so approaching prospective clients as if we were about to embark on a business journey together came naturally.
How would you assess the impact of your quest to eliminate single-use bags in a global sense and are you encouraged by the progress you’ve made — so far?
Almost every time I go out, no matter where I am in the country, I see one of our bags, whether it’s on a store shelf or walking through a parking lot. It never fails to give me a thrill. Although I don’t have hard numbers on KeepCool’s impact in eliminating single-use bags, our bags’ omnipresence is testament to the fact that, given the right product at the right price, consumers will make the eco-friendly choice. And it is through such choices that consumer awareness and engagement toward broader causes deepen.
Convincing national retailers to carry KeepCool bags was part of that strategy. It wasn’t just that big accounts come with big revenue. It was that we could reach more consumers that way. And when a national chain such as Costco or Whole Foods sells your product, it provides validation. So landing a big fish was one of my goals early on.
I’ve always said that KeepCool is working to reduce single-use bags “one bag at a time.” That means it will take a while to completely eliminate plastic and paper bags, but I’m very proud of the strides we’ve made so far.
Do you have plans to expand your already thriving brand and what advice would you offer to burgeoning entrepreneurs who are hoping to align their interests with eco-friendly themes?
Being an entrepreneur means you have to constantly bounce around new ideas. There are always ways to improve a product or fill a newly identified need. Our first product was a simple reusable tote. When we realized that bag solved only one consumer problem, we identified others and developed solutions for those. We created insulated bags to protect cold food. Trolleys made it easier to cart purchases home. We were the first company to make reusable bags out of recycled PET plastic, which is what the majority of beverage bottles are made of. The entire team, including myself, even went undercover as supermarket baggers to see how we could improve our bags from the bagger’s perspective, not just the shopper’s.
For entrepreneurs, I advise truly getting to know your customers and their customers. Understand how they use a product — they might have uses you didn’t even think of. Or their actual handling of the product might provide insight. When we were “undercover baggers,” we realized how important it was for a bag to be structured so that it stayed upright and open as you sort and pack the goods flying at you from the conveyor belt. That informed our next bag model. We knew that in order to stand out from the competition, we had to add value and over deliver.
On another occasion, we spoke to consumers and found that one of their peeves was that sometimes they purchased products that couldn’t go in the bag with all the others — like a greeting card that might get wet or crushed in a bag with fresh produce. So we developed the Kangaroo bag, a sort of bag-within-a-bag that allows for separate packing spaces in one compact design. We never would have figured that out if we hadn’t spoken to and listened — truly listened — to consumers.
Being sustainable isn’t enough for a brand to be successful. You have to offer a quality solution and do it better than your competitors in order to justify the price difference.
What are your hopes for the sustainability of the environment in the future and how can the responsibilities we share be implemented in an effective way?
The good news is that people around the globe are beginning to wake up to how important it is to protect our environment. And technology is advancing at such a pace that eco-friendly solutions that were once out of reach logistically and financially are now becoming a cost-effective reality. It gives me a lot of hope.
But in order for more people to take action, they need to know that their actions are making a difference. They need that gratification. So we need to talk about that more — how certain species are coming back from the brink of extinction, how the air quality in some cities has improved. Without that validation, there’s no gratification. That knowledge — both what we should be doing and how what we are doing is bettering our world — needs to get out more.
We can always do better. We have to do better. This planet is our home and we’re treating it as if it’s disposable. There isn’t another Earth. We’ve got one shot at this.