The demand for eco-friendly products continues to rise with the increase in climatic changes. As a pioneering CEO in the U.S. and abroad, Pierre Barlier has been working to eliminate single-use bags one shopping trip at a time — via his reusable shopping bag business, KeepCool, established nearly 20 years ago. As a business leader, Pierre has continued to focus on improving the environmental profile of his bags’ materials. His transparent approach and willingness to go the extra mile, whether in solving structural conundrums or overcoming cost challenges, have earned him business partnerships that have lasted decades. We had an opportunity to interview Pierre and asked about his story, how he started his business and the future of KeepCool.
Tell us your story. Why did you start your business?
After college, I spent a year sailing around various islands in the Pacific Ocean and that becamemy eye-opener — you wouldn’t believe the amount of trash you see. The Pacific is so vast that the shortest crossing lasts around 28 sailing days, yet over time we’ve managed to harm that immensity with all of our castaway, single-use products. I’d pull into a port that was touted as one of the most beautiful in the world, yet the marina was littered with flotsam and jetsam. The seed for KeepCool was planted then and there — it just took a while to germinate.
When I stopped traveling and finally began focusing on work, I gravitated towardsbusinesses that sought to change the landscape by introducing products that help better our world. At one of the earlier companies I worked at in France, we marketedpolyresin shovels, which don’t leach aluminum into the soil, like so many traditionally made shovels do. That’s just one example. Having impact goals beyond business profits became an early focus for me, driving my career choices.
Years later, I realized my opportunity to create impact was through the mission ofeliminating single-use grocery bags (paper or plastic)— one bag at a time. And that’s become something of the company motto. It’s what I wake up each morning hoping to achieve, and every day, I see a little more progress made. I feel fortunate that, since 1999, KeepCool has been able to be a conduit for the growing number of people who are making such conscious choices. We truly are making a difference.
How did you come up with your business name?
I’m French, but I learned English back when I was in college. The word “cool” is used equally in both languages, so I knew it would transcend many language barriers. Plus, I liked the double meaning: hip or chic, but also chill and fresh. So “KeepCool,” in a sense, is letting consumers know that it’s fashionable to be eco-conscious, while also highlighting one of our key features: We keep your groceries cool.
Tell us about your products and services. How do you help clients?
KeepCool is primarily a white-label service: We provide quality, environmentally friendly bags that our clients can brand as their own. These bags espouse a lifestyle and consciousness. Carrying one comes with a cachet of its own: It shows that you are both mindful and stylish. When we produce a bag for our clients, they then get to tie their brand to those assets.
We also take it a step further by developing unique styles and functions. One client came to us with the problem of creating a bag that could hold and protect odd-sized products, like turkeys or cakes, from the store to their ultimate destination. Our solution: the Cake Tote, which can carry bulky and/or square shaped items. Not only did we solve our client’s dilemma, but we helped them create a unique item that sets them apart from their competition.
What makes you unique? What is your unique selling proposition (USP)?
Yes, our bags are sustainable and made with quality. But I like to think that it’s our core operating principals that set us apart, particularly our pillar of honesty. I’ve always approached business as I do my personal relationships: I focus on being forthright and giving my all. This means delivering a beautiful and functional design using the best quality materials, all at an incredible value. Customer delight is our number one goal — profits are secondary, as crazy as that sounds coming from an entrepreneur. But when you do the right things, everything eventually falls into place.
Where do you see your business in the next 3-5 years?
We are constantly innovating and raising the bar. Even though our bags meet my criteria for sustainability and quality today, that criteria could easily change tomorrow, particularly with all the innovations being made these days. What was considered “acceptable” as a sustainable product five years ago would not meet my standards today. We can — and must — always do better, both for our clients and for the planet. As such, we were the first company in the world to use recycled PET to make reusable grocery bags. This was back in 2007. We continue to look for better materials and, in fact, we are very close to launching a truly unique bag within this space using renewable materials for improved carbon footprint.
Any advice you would give to entrepreneurs and business owners?
Don’t spend too much time researching your competition. That time is better spent researching your clients and customers. If you have the opportunity to get to know them one-on-one, do so whenever you have the chance. You’ll not only forge deeper relationships, as I mentioned above, but you’ll understand their needs far better. And when you understand their needs, you can provide a superior product — one that provides solutions the customer didn’t even know they needed.
For example, several KeepCool employees — myself included — once went “undercover” as grocery store baggers. We got to watch how store customers interacted with their bags, but — better yet — we saw what was frustrating for them, such as bags that didn’t stay upright while you were packing them. So we reinforced the sides of our most popular bags and voilà! Packing became so much easier. We also noticed that some customers were hesitant to put certain types of items together in a single bag, such as a greeting card in with produce for fear it would get wet. So we developed the Kangaroo Bag, a sort of bag-within-a-bag that allows for separate packing spaces in one compact design. And it’s been innovations such as the Kangaroo that have helped differentiate us from our competitors, who generally offer only a few basic bag designs.
What is your favorite business quote and why?
This may not be a business quote, per se, but it does pertain to my particular line of business, and it’s a thought I keep front of mind whenever I’m working on a new bag design: “You may be thinking that a bag is just a thing in which to put other things. And you’re right, of course. But that’s what makes them extraordinary. A bag has no intentions or desires of its own, it embraces every object that we ask it to hold. You trust the bag, and it, in return, trusts you. To me, a bag is patience; a bag is profound discretion.” — Yoko Ogawa, “Sewing for the Heart”
What have been some of your achievements that you are most proud of? Why?
I know I can’t take full credit for it, but I do think that KeepCool has been instrumental in bringing the reputation of reusable bags from fringe to mainstream. We were one of the first companies to offer such bags, way before they were considered “cool.” I’d go so far as to say that, today,reusable bags are customary and expected. Not only are people admonishing their friends for using single-use bags, whole communities — countries even — are banning them. So I’m proud that I was part of the movement early on.
Anything else additional you want to tell our readers?
You can be a successful entrepreneur and still be socially responsible — the two don’t have to be mutually exclusive. In fact, that is the only way to do business now:doing well and doing good, or at least doing the best you can. Not only that, but you’ll sleep better at night knowing that your business is healthy and you’re helping to make the world a better place.