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Many pay lip service to the importance of conserving the Earth’s natural resources, but Julia Scheeres and her two girls have made it their business.
Stop by her Albany home, and chances are you’ll find Scheeres making shampoos and hair conditioner, lotion, even dish detergent — all resembling bars of hand soap and containing ingredients like coconut oil and beeswax.
The idea for Sustainabar, the cottage industry that the nonfiction author and freelance reporter launched in late 2019, evolved from a conversation she had had with her daughters about changes they could make in their daily routines to be kinder to the environment.
“What kind of world are we leaving for our children?”, Scheeres asked rhetorically. “It’s bad now … what it is going to be like when I’m gone? I just felt I had to do something.”
Concerned about climate change in particular, Scheeres turned her attention to ways of cutting back on the approximately 140 million tons of waste dumped in U.S. landfills every year. Materials in the garbage, including plastics, produce so-called greenhouse gases, which trap heat in the Earth’s atmosphere.
Recycling those materials to reduce the volume of refuse is one way to help the environment; another is curbing the sale of items in plastic packaging — material that is usually not repurposed and can be toxic to the environment when thrown out — by giving customers the option to buy the same goods in more Earth-friendly wrapping or containers.
During an online search for ways that her family could embrace a zero-waste ideal, Scheeres stumbled across the suggestion of making shampoo bars.
To test one out, she headed to a store that specializes in soaps and bought a tiny sample. The 1.9-oz bar of shampoo she bought was foamy, lasted about as long as two average-size bottles of shampoo and wasn’t packaged in plastic. On the other hand, it cost a hefty $13.
Scheeres began wondering if she could produce something similar and started searching for recipes.
That’s how she began creating shampoo bars from butters, oils and lye dissolved in distilled water.
After melting coconut, olive and castor oils with cocoa and shea butter, she added the lye and blended everything together.
Scheeres described her first attempt as a “near disaster.” She had placed the lye in a tin container instead of a steel one, triggering a chemical reaction between the caustic white crystals and the metal that produced a thick cloud of hydrogen gas.
“I didn’t know what I was doing,” she said with a chuckle. “It was a scene!”
The soap manufacturing process also involves adding essential oils such as rosemary and mint or lime and bergamot, then pouring the scented liquid into molds … and waiting.
It takes four to six weeks for the water to evaporate so the bars fully solidify and become less caustic, Scheeres explained.
After trying her hand at shampoo, she found another recipe for making bars of hair conditioner. The school of one of Scheeres’ daughters was holding a holiday crafts fair, so Scheeres assembled sets of shampoo and conditioner for sale, and shoppers quickly snapped them up.
“We saw that there was a demand,” she said.
After that, it was time to set up a website, and as the online orders began coming in, Scheeres peddled her wares to local brick-and-mortar retailers with samples in hand.
A tiny gift store started carrying Sustainabar products, then a refill shop in Oakland followed suit. A few months ago Scheeres acquired a second such vendor in Morgan Hill, which minimizes plastic packaging by having customers bring their own containers to fill with product.
During her first full year in operation, Scheeres received online orders for 1,341 bars and sold about 500 additional bars through physical stores.
This year, she had sold 1,023 bars online as of mid-December coupled with in-store sales of about 450 bars. And Scheeres received her first large-scale corporate order for 209 five-bar sets that a company wants as gifts for clients.
She now has customers in all 50 states and recently filled her first international order when someone in Scotland bought bars for a friend in the United States.
The half-dozen types of bars that Sustainabar sells comprise not only two kinds of shampoo but body soap and soap pucks for shaving.
Twelve-year-old Davia Rose-Scheeres’ favorite is the lotion bars that smell like honey; she keeps one by her bed because it softens her elbows and soothes the itching when her eczema flares up.
Scheeres spends most evenings and weekends turning out bars in between working on her next book, but Davia and her 15-year-old sister, Tessa, also do their part to support the endeavor.
The two package orders, and they use compostable materials whenever possible. They place the bars, most of them unwrapped, in cardboard boxes filled with shredded junk mail, newspapers — even a few report cards — in lieu of plastic air bubble rolls, then cover the package with durable kraft paper and seal it with paper tape.
Tessa and Davia also include handwritten thank-you notes to customers and, as a light touch, a corny joke (“What did the cat say after he fell off the table? Me-OW!”) with each shipment.
Tessa spends about 30 minutes a day on weekdays as well as a couple of hours on the weekend prepping orders while juggling school with a busy social life and three to four soccer practices, but she readily acknowledged that the investment of time has its rewards.
There’s the “wow” factor for starters — her friends not only love the free samples, but also “they think it’s really cool I have a business,” the 10th-grader said.
And Davia enjoys the unofficial title she shares with her sister: “It’s cool to be a CEO!”, she said, quickly adding that their mother is the big boss as Sustainabar’s chief operating officer.
They aren’t complaining about the pocket money they make, either. The girls each receive 10% of the proceeds from a sale, half of which goes into a bank account, and the remainder is theirs to spend. And when they make a bar all by themselves, they keep 100% of the profit.
While Scheeres maintains Sustainabar’s Facebook page, Tessa posts artful product images on Instagram; sometimes she’ll also send a bar to proponents of sustainability who have lots of followers in hopes they’ll post a glowing review.
But what matters more to Scheeres than the money is knowing that she and her daughters are reinforcing the message that the environment needs protecting.
“This is one way to contribute as a family,” she said. “I don’t care if they buy our products — I just want people to be aware that this is an easy way to reduce plastic use. Buy a bar; ditch the bottle. It’s easy.”