Today, women entrepreneurs are at the forefront of creating eco-friendly companies and marketplaces. Everything from beauty products to coffee is being produced sustainably by women-led companies in the hopes of creating a healthier environment for ourselves and our future. Meet the SeaBlue collective, a marketplace filled with like-minded creatives from various backgrounds developing innovative and ecologically forward products.
SeaBlue Collective started as The Ocean is Female, a women-run, and women-supported Instagram page highlighting female surfers worldwide. SeaBlue launched when founders Clarissa Kusel, Tiare Hogerman, and Lauren Sander were frustrated with the amount of plastic they would pick up in the ocean while surfing. The SeaBlue Collective was born with the vision to create a shopping place for individuals to purchase sustainable items, from clothing to utensils to beauty products, in an effort to stop mass production and plastic use at the source. Taking her company to graduate school at USC, Clarissa met Lauren Sander, another founder of SeaBlue, and they worked to build the company into what it is today. Clarissa emphasizes the importance of making small changes in your daily life and buying from companies that match your ethos.
Sustainability is so much more than beach cleanups, and SeaBlue highlights the need to minimize the use of plastic before it even reaches the ocean or other natural areas. Clarissa most notably reminds us that sustainability is not perfect, nor should one think it is. By simply being aware of the environmental impacts of plastic use and trying to incorporate small sustainability actions in our everyday lives, anyone can pride themselves on their efforts towards helping the environment.
First, I'd love to learn a bit more about you. How did the creators of SeaBlue meet? How long have you all known each other? Further, can you think of any examples or experiences you guys have had either by yourselves or with each other that have influenced the creation of SeaBlue?
I went to undergraduate at UCSB. There are three co-founders. Tiare and I taught ourselves how to surf at UCSB, and we didn't know how to surf before then. So that was a cool experience, and we've been surf buddies ever since.
[Before SeaBIue, we created an Instagram account called The Ocean is Female- around 2017]. Every time we walked into a surf shop, we saw a poster of a white girl on the wall, holding an unwaxed board, and her bikini was tiny. And we've worn those bikinis, or we've tried to wear those bikinis surfing, and they don't stay on. They're not sporty. We walked over to the guy's section of the surf shop; we saw a photo of a guy surfing a ginormous wave in Tahiti, and it's super cool. And all the board shorts are functional. [On the bright side], things have changed since. It's getting better.
We were frustrated with surf media and surf brands and how they didn't represent who we saw in the water. They didn't represent us. We started an Instagram account called The Ocean is Female. We just wanted to begin reclaiming the space for female surfers by using our own words. We sent out requests to interview as many people as possible, asking them to share their stories and send a picture. We didn't care about the picture quality; it's not image-based. We would pull a quote, post a photo, and if you go to The Ocean Is Female, we're still doing that to this day. That was the origin of our business ideas.
We created a community, and over the last four years, we have shared over a thousand stories. We've only repeated a couple of stories, so almost everyone we post is new from many different countries. We've shared stories in four different languages from female surfers around the world. We felt we had changed the space because we were an online source. Instagram at that time was super brand-oriented; everyone posted pictures in bikinis. Everyone used heavy, heavy filters, and we were the one organic place. We just kept it going, and many different organizations spun off from The Ocean Is Female. There is now more focus on Black girls surf, Brown girls surf, or the Latinx community to diversify the lineup. Since we launched, there's been a ton of work done that we love to see and share their projects.
After working for a nonprofit and feeling burnt out, I found a master's program online. It was all about building a business around social impact. I got a Master's of Science in Social Entrepreneurship. I brought The Ocean is Female with me to graduate school. We created a community, and we have almost twenty thousand followers. I met some amazing people, what do we do now? I brought it to my classes, and it was there that I met my co-founder, who's like my bread and butter. She said I'll help you, and I surf too. What you're doing seems cool. I relate to it. I want to join you. And I thought, yes, I need help!
We met many women who had also started their businesses, and a lot of people trying to create products and companies that are ocean-friendly. [I knew I didn't] want to continue reclaiming this space for women– there are a lot of nonprofits and organizations that are doing that. [So I thought], let's focus on something else. What's a major problem we face every day? And as surfers, every time we paddle out, there's plastic floating in the ocean. And [we wondered] what can we do about that?
Beach cleanups are just scratching the surface. You do a beach cleanup, and when it rains, there's more plastic on the beach, so it doesn't solve anything. How do we address this pollution at its source? How do we make it less about the consumer's choices and more about the businesses' responsibility not to use plastic or ocean contaminants?
Let's start a marketplace, bring on some of these entrepreneurs that we've met, and start promoting their products as people who are doing the work. These people are trying to use less plastic. Let's push them forward. And since we already have a following, that makes it easy. These are our first customers. And so that's what we did. That's the origin story of SeaBlue.
On your website, you state that community is your lifeblood. Could you go deeper into that idea? What does community mean to you, and in turn, how is that represented in your presentation of SeaBlue today?
Community is huge for me. I love creating groups of people who can work together to solve a problem. When we began working on our marketplace model, we wondered how to make ours different, more innovative, and more supportive. Our vendors are an essential part of our marketplace. We continued the storytelling aspect of the ocean is female into our marketplace. You can read their story and feel more connected to the founders' intentions and product. For example, one vendor tried hard only to use deadstock fabric, or another founder has overcome many obstacles to bring their product to the marketplace. You are not just buying a product. You are supporting a business, which is a cool switch to make. The storytelling aspect helps inform and support the consumer and the vendor.
Another aspect is helping our community of vendors support one another and bring them all together. Our vendors create different products. Some of them are swimwear, and others produce bamboo utensils. They all have the same issue because many are small businesses. Many of them [ask], how do I market our product? How do I retain customers? What are some ways that you are doing sales? So we bring them together. We have vendor meet and greets that allow them to speak with each other and come up with ideas, and they do giveaways among themselves. The sustainability space is expensive and confusing, so we also bring them together to share concepts.
Most of our vendors are small business owners running their businesses independently. You don't have hours to spend on research, so how can Sea Blue cut down that effort and make it easier for them? We provide discounts to sustainable packaging companies, sit down with them, run them through the scorecard, and provide them with resources.
The idea is that, yes, business by nature is competitive, but sustainability efforts should not be. One should not be more sustainable than the other, and that shouldn't be a competitive thing. We should all be as sustainable as one another. So that's the concept behind the community aspect of SeaBlue Collective.
Mindful consumerism is something that seems to mean a lot to you all. How would you define that? Also, how do you incorporate that into your everyday lives? Is mindful consumerism something you CAN incorporate into your daily life? How do you work to make mindful consumerism more accessible? How do you offset the fact that it's an online business / the environmental impact of shipping?
First and foremost, mindful consumerism is imperfect. It just is by the sense of affordability, access, and resources available. We acknowledge that several products on our marketplace are expensive, and they're expensive for various reasons. When you produce in smaller quantities, your costs are higher than mass-producing. Many of our vendors make per order, but it's expensive and more challenging. Another reason is that many materials are still new, so they're not as affordable. Eventually, the idea is to democratize the marketplace. There needs to be a mass transition to make these innovative sustainable materials more affordable. So with that said, it is imperfect.
We hope someday there will be a world in which we can all find products that match our ethos that we can also afford. We live in a fast-consuming society with different seasons, colors, and styles. Things go in and out so quickly, and we are used to fast fashion. I fall victim to it too. No one's perfect, and it's understanding that and being cognizant. If you have the financial means, purchase from companies trying to make a difference when you can. Your purchase is essentially a vote for the overall system to change. You are supporting them with your money, and that's important for everyone.
It was ideal that we started during COVID because everything was online. We are a dropship company. Once you become one of our vendors on our site and have a product you want to sell, send us product photos, upload your product to our vendor's backend, add the price tag, shipping cost, etc. As soon as someone places an order, you get an email, and you ship it from wherever you ship your products. We did that primarily to avoid the additional shipping routes and because we didn't want a warehouse filled with stuff.
[Our motivation] was that we did not want to purchase inventory. Another option for our marketplaces was to purchase items at wholesale to get a better rate, which would make us more money. [For example], when you get a cheaper rate on the product, you can mark it up as much as you want on your site and then ship it. We didn't want to waste products, and we didn't want products sitting somewhere not selling, and we didn't want to create slowness in the supply chain. Also, the additional shipping route is just an additional carbon footprint.
We also have a sustainability scorecard. We have four major categories. One is ocean contamination, most commonly known as "reef safe," but we count it as anything that leeches, even things like inks. Then, plastic, carbon footprint, and human ocean access. The carbon footprint aspect is where we work with [our vendors]one-on-one to figure out what's happening with their supply chain in their shipping routes.
How much of the product are you purchasing overseas?
How much of it are you able to bike down the street and get?
Is it traveling via freight?
Is it traveling via airplane?
Each has a different carbon footprint. How are you shipping it to the customer? USPS is one of the cheapest and has the most carbon-neutral shipping routes because they deliver every day no matter what. If you have a package, it will not add carbon to the system. Another thing is overnight or two-day shipping, that's usually going via air, so we discourage people from doing that. We are currently working with one of the carriers in their carbon neutrality efforts.
What are key changes consumers can make in their purchasing ethics? What should a consumer be looking for?
Our work is on the business side, so we focus more on making ocean-friendly products because we don't work too much with consumers. [For the consumer] make it fun. Make it something achievable. Honestly, do little things, like, make sure you have a reusable bag in your purse at all times. How can you limit buying plastic water bottles? Do you carry around a reusable water bottle? Just the basics. Make it easier for yourself. Take-out is another one. With COVID, it's been hard, but can you eat at the restaurant instead? When you throw parties, avoid balloons. If you start to make everything complicated, it'll become a pain, and you're not going to want to do it.
Companies are usually heavily structured with many rules and regulations. Are there areas of SeaBlue where you're allowed to be more creative and imaginative? What does this look like to you?
The whole concept of Seablue Collective is creative in a lot of ways. We built it from nothing, and we're not huge about rules and regulators. We are coming from a more effort-based practice. You need to be making an effort to make the changes. It's not like you don't change; you get kicked out. It's more about being willing to make the changes.
I enjoy our events; that's where we get to talk with people one on one. Our sustainability calls are also really wonderful because we learn a lot about our vendor's products. For example, if you make sunscreen, where you get your raw materials, such as the zinc in West Africa. You don't realize how much goes into one product.
Do you ship plastic-free, and is it carbon neutral?
How did it get to you in the first place?
What warehouse do you store it in?
Do you have solar panels?
Do you use wind power?
What are ways you're cutting down your plastic usage when you get all of your plastic materials from your suppliers?
Do they use plastic-free shipping methods?
Diving deep into these supply chains has been so eye-opening because we learn so much as a company and how we can potentially expand and grow to help businesses in the future make the whole process effective. I do all the marketing, and our third co-founder does all the artsy stuff. She is our creative brain, and we love her for it. And we do blog posts as well, which she writes.
What are some recommendations for girls and women that want to start their own business?
My advice to anyone that wants to start a business is to seek advice. I know that sounds crazy, but we talked to so many people. We reached out to people on LinkedIn, contacted people after networking events; we've had so many calls with so many different people. They all have different insights, and we take each call as their own. You can take it or leave it because not everyone knows you and what you're building. But that's kind of what has shaped our business, all that advice.
Starting a business is hard and stressful. It takes a lot of time and energy. You don't get rewarded right away. The other thing that's important to look at is your core business model. Can that business model make money? If it can't make money, when will it make money? And feasibly, am I OK making money until that point? Look at it hardcore like that because it's not like a fun class project, in which you have ten weeks to build it and get a grade and move on with your life. You either work on it forever, or you never get anywhere because you didn't get advice, or you didn't get feedback.
Also, co-founders! I would never do this alone. Some people are built for it. Honestly, I could not do it. Entering a business with another person is legitimately like entering a marriage. We argue all the time, but it's healthy. We're arguing about the business, and then we get to a place where we're like, oh, that makes sense, I hear what you're saying. We're compatible. She's super organized, really driven, and good at day-to-day operations. I am the big dreamer. We need that balance because I die in the day-to-day stuff; it does not excite me. She is overwhelmed by my big ideas, so it's helpful for her to reign me in and say, "Claire, so that's crazy," or she'll be "we can try that," and I'm like, OK! I can help you.
Finally, know when to quit and know what success means. What is success for your business? Did you change the way eleven people thought about one thing, and you're like, that's it, we did it! Or, did you disrupt the market? That's huge; that's a lot of work. If you don't meet it, it doesn't mean that you failed. It means that you learned so much and can start another business tomorrow. If we quit this tomorrow, we've already done so much work that we can start a new business fairly easily because we've already gone through the process. So it doesn't mean that we failed. I think that it's essential to know that continuing to work on it forever won't bring you anywhere if you know that it's done in your heart of hearts. It doesn't mean you're a quitter; you're intelligent for knowing when to stop something and put the energy elsewhere.
Enjoy Clarissa's Playlist
Lena grew up in New York City and came to the West Coast to study Graphic Design and Communications. She enjoys making art (especially collaging), being outdoors, finding new music, and hopes to improve on her surfing skills in the next year. Lena is the team leader for the Talkabouitit podcast at withitgirl.
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