Cosmic Bobbins, a finalist in the Green Plus Non-Profit / Social Entrepreneur Award category, is also eligible for the Green Plus People’s Choice Award. The Cosmic Bobbins business model transforms a business’s own paper wasteinto merchandise that bears its distinctive logo and design. The merchandise can then be sold to their employees, members, volunteers, and customers. For example, the Cleveland Botanical Garden sells $80 Cosmic Bobbins handbags in its garden store. The handbags, which are made from recycled stacks of the organization’s colorful quarterly bulletin, help to support outreach programs.
Kate Fox, Merchandise Manager of the Cleveland Botanical Garden’s store appreciates the bags’ subtle reinforcement of the Garden’s own sustainability goal to grow through socially, ecologically and financially responsible practices. She said, “We use and teach sustainable practices, such as composting and planting native plants.” By selling the Cosmic Bobbins handbags, the organization reminds customers to get in on the act of recycling. Fox said, “We’re doing our part. Now you do your part, and do it in a fashionable way!”
“It’s amazing,” said business founder Sharie Renee. “We’re giving people back their paper waste remade into something beautiful and desirable.” At an early stage in the business Renee encountered xenophobia among high-end boutique customers near the Mexican border, who rejected handbags featuring Spanish language printed material. Although the Spanish writing was accepted in Ohio, customers valued even more products made from printed material that originated in their organizations. And so Cosmic Bobbins focused on its current approach of recycling customers’ own waste paper.
But there’s more to the Cosmic Bobbins movement than recycling. The business insists on producing bolsas exclusively by Mexican natives to whom the indigenous craft has belonged for generations. Renee, who lives in Cleveland, Ohio, also involves people who have cerebral palsy in her hometown to sort magazine pages by color. By paying both the Mexican and American communities a fair wage, Cosmic Bobbins helps to relieve poverty and to create jobs for people whose talents are often overlooked.
Visionary Partnerships. Mary Smith of the United Cerebral Palsy (UCP) of Greater Cleveland, saw no limits in the abilities of her clients to participate. She teamed up some people with manual skills and other people with color-sense. Many people who couldn’t use their hands had an acute ability to distinguish different shades and hues of color. They could then use eye signals or sounds to direct the people who had hand dexterity to sort the paper into distinct color categories. Renee said, “When I see my clients at UCP, they are happy to see me, and I’m happy to see them. They remind me why I’m fighting so hard. I’m fighting for this movement, not for handbags.” Renee partnered with another Cleveland business, Jakprints, to cut the paper into strips that could be used with the bolsa technique. The two business owners hit it off. In a 2005 interview, Jakprint owner and founder, Dameon Guess, described his company?s intention to?help creative and artistic people promote andcommunicate their ideas (TuneCore News, 5/22/2005).
Renee describes her many and varied partnerships as “cosmic.” The magic of sustainable change, she said, is in connecting with people. She explained that people seemed to “fall out of the sky” at opportune times – mentors, professors, networkers, and business partners. “The more I do in service of this movement,” she said, “the more I manifest these people in my life to do good through business.”
Cosmic Bobbins was borne out of a disappointment-turned-insight. In 2005, before embroidered jeans were widely popular, a European fashion house saw a newspaper photograph of several pairs of blue jeans which Renee had elaborately machine-embroidered. A garment industry agent called her to participate in a start-up operation, but went ahead without her. After a few days of disappointment she had an epiphany. If she had a talent to spot trends in the sewn goods business, could she use it to help people?
That question emboldened her to travel to the Los Angeles International Textile Show, where she signed up to take a three-month class to learn the business side of the sewing industry. A chance to visit a relative in Mexico led to a meeting with a man who made bolsas. Back in Cleveland, friends liked the bags so much, that Renee hatched the idea to help people through a business of producing Mexican handbags. Despite several set-backs with artisans, border patrol, and the recent economic downturn, Cosmic Bobbins has thrived because of its partnerships with like-minded visionaries.
A Lifestyle Brand of Doing Well While Doing Good. Behind Cosmic Bobbins is the unrelenting drive of people helping one another through business. To Sharie Renee, this is what makes her business part of a movement. “You have to be creative and lead with the brand, so that people will value the movement – even if the price point is higher than competitive product. How do you sell the movement? How does a movement pay the bills?” Cosmic Bobbins does so through a four-point brand strategy. First, Cosmic Bobbins respects artistic tradition. It pays fairly for creations to be produced by the people who developed and continue to use the handicraft technique. It honors knowledge passed from previous generations and aims to preserve that special local value for the future. The first artisan to show Renee the bolsa technique left out an important step, fearing that she might replicate the handiwork herself and cut him out. She insisted on keeping the work local, and built trust with the artisan community over time.
Second, the customer’s recycled material returns to that customer in a new desirable form. As both the source and destination of the material, the customer receives a double benefit. Renee added, “People love getting their own stuff back.” The artwork builds the customer’s own brand when people recognize logos, key words, and corporate colors in the tiny squares of the handbags. A quick look into the display case at the Cleveland Botanical Garden reveals a Cosmic Bobbins handbag in pretty hues of purple. A closer inspection reveals words and parts of photographs related to Orchid Mania, a popular event at the Garden.
Another brand element plays on the creations’ aesthetic appeal. “Customers think they’re cute,” said Kate Fox of the Cleveland Botanical Garden. Even people who are not personally close to the Garden have bought them. Finally, many customers enjoy knowing that the products help people that the customers care about, from their own organizations, to people with disabilities, to impoverished people in the mountains of Mexico.
The Impact of the Innovation. Because of Cosmic Bobbins, 38 people from United Cerebral Palsy of Greater Cleveland have jobs. By calling them “her clients,” Renee is clear that the business values everyone involved in the business, not just the handbag-carriers. In Mexico, up to twenty families receive a living wage by making a trade out of a locally well-known but labor-intensive handicraft. According to Renee, this is how Cosmic Bobbins can honor the relationships she has formed with different cultures and communities. As a result, Roman’s children can afford to go to school in Mexico.
Cosmic Bobbins is poised to expand and strengthen its business model. Renee is ready to partner with UCP and other organizations around the country. She is already exploring innovations to reduce the physical intensity of sorting and folding paper in order to create jobs for more disabled people. Her countless personal car and plane trips to Mexico carting paper southward and bolsas northward will come to an end. Instead, she is designing an innovative partnership with a new customer’s existing UPS distribution system.
“Building this business model with natural organizations like the Cleveland Botanical Garden and the United Cerebral Palsy Foundation takes advantage of existing infrastructure, so it can be replicated in other geographic areas,” said Renee. Her vision is that the model might spawn co-operatives to spring up elsewhere in the sewn goods producing industry. Renee has also talked about eventually moving Roman and his family to Cleveland – perhaps to be followed later by other families – so that they might have more opportunities.
Helping Others. Sharie Renee is a third generation entrepreneur. Her grandfather, Emil Golub, was a Cleveland councilman and ran a funeral home business. To his granddaughter he passed on his passion to help people. When she had the insight to use business to help people, she said, “I could hear him saying to me, ‘Do something with this!'” Even when her business was funded by credit cards, her commitment did not waver. She said, “I believe my vision is pure. I’m not afraid to take the next step. People will show up.”
Deep Change. Sharie Renee is as paradoxically idealistic and pragmatic as her business vision might suggest. One day, she was talking with her colleague Mary Smith from UCP about the business. Renee looked at Smith and said, “You know it’s not about handbags, right?” Smith said, “Right.” Renee said, “OK, let’s make some handbags.” And off they went to do that.
The Interviewer’s Experience. Sharie Renee is a person who shines with vision. But she is also a doer. Her commitment is not merely to an important idea, but to its realization. She reminisced about living on the top floor of the funeral home that her family owned. Her grandfather – and later her mother Karla who took over the business – would explain that there were “sleeping people” in the basement. Even from a young age, the realities of life were not to be feared. And so I was mesmerized as she told a story about a critical moment in her business when a large Cosmic Bobbins customer order was confiscated at the Mexican border and retained for a year. She didn’t give up or run away. She called a friend to ask for a job for a few months in her boutique. She called a lawyer friend who helped get the products back. She got stronger and continued to build partnerships in service of her vision.
Today, as sustainability-mindedness takes hold among more entrepreneurs, Renee’s approach seems essential. We are in a time of shift – as Renee puts it – from a traditional consumerist perspective to a collaborative, whole systems approach of doing good for people, planet, and profits. She marries the idealistic and the pragmatic in her perspective of a brand for the movement. She told me that for all the people involved in Cosmic Bobbins, “the handbags feed us and help us live. The movement is what’s worth living for.” For me, this tension between the ideal and the real makes her story not just Sharie Renee’s story about one business as a world benefit, but Everyone’s story.
The Institute for Sustainable Development / Green Plus