Lauren Singer runs a company with one business goal: Go out of business
by Tobias van Schneider
Lauren's company, The Simply Co., sells cleaning products that are sustainable and toxin-free. And while Lauren’s glad people are choosing to purchase products that don’t hurt the earth, she would rather we all make them on our own.
Because sustainability is more than a job to Lauren. It’s her life.
And it’s the world she wants for everyone.
Lauren’s trash from the last three years fits in one 16 oz mason jar.
She lives zero waste, meaning she doesn’t produce any trash that could end up in a landfill.
That brings a lot of questions to mind. One being, “What does she use to wipe her butt?” We’ll get to that in a minute. But first, how it all began.
Three years ago Lauren was an undergraduate in college at NYU, jumping between majors and failing classes before eventually realizing she was passionate about environmental science. Like, straight As, perfect attendance (except for when she was skipping classes to protest environmental causes) type of passionate.
It was a classmate’s lunch that sparked the change Lauren’s senior year. The student would come to class every day and bring a plastic bag filled with food wrapped in more plastic. A water bottle, container, utensils, bag of chips. All of it plastic. Then she’d throw that plastic away.
It made Lauren angry.
“I was like, what are you doing?” Lauren says. “We’re these environmental study students. We’re about to go off and like, try to make the world a more sustainable place to live in and you’re throwing away a ton of plastic every night. This doesn’t make any sense at all.”
That night, Lauren went home and opened her fridge. She noticed all her food was packaged in plastic. She went in her bathroom and saw all her beauty products were plastic. Her cleaning products were packaged in plastic. Everything in her home, plastic.
She realized she was just like the girl she’d judged in class.
“I thought that just by caring I was doing something, but I was so mistaken,” Lauren says. “When I actually looked at myself I realized that I wasn’t living at all in alignment with the things I cared about.”
“I thought that just by caring I was doing something, but I was so mistaken.”
So she decided to make a change: no more plastic. It wasn’t as easy as buying her way out of it though, so she started making her own products. Then she found a blog about zero waste living and realized she could do more.
Instead of just reducing her trash, she could eliminate it completely.
She could stop using all goods that would eventually end up in a landfill. She could stop buying products filled with chemicals that hurt our planet. She could compost and recycle things that were safe for the earth. Rather than reducing her waste, she could avoid making waste in the first place.
“[I thought], this is it. This is how I can align my everyday life with what I believe in… Zero waste was a way to start living my values.”
But it didn’t happen right away. One step at a time, Lauren found a way to make her own products. Toothpaste. Lotion. Deodorant. She slowly replaced all of them with her own products, made with sustainable ingredients. And she made lifestyle changes, like taking reusable bags to the store. Each step she counted as a little victory to propel her forward.
“I wanted to do this for myself and because of that, I wasn’t turned off by failure. I was like, ‘I’m doing this for me, I don’t care what anyone else says.’”
I wanted to do this for myself and because of that, I wasn’t turned off by failure.
Soon she started a blog, Trash is for Tossers, to share her recipes and provide resources for others who wanted to live sustainably. Several readers wrote in saying they admired what Lauren did, but didn’t think they had time to do it themselves. They asked if there was anywhere they could buy products like hers — minimally produced, vegan, toxic-free ones that work.
Lauren started researched and while she could find comparable cosmetics, cleaning products were out of the question.
“When I started looking into it more, I realized cleaning products don’t have to disclose all the ingredients on their product packaging. You can say ‘fragrance’ instead of telling people what’s in the fragrance you’re using, because they’re considered ‘trade secrets’ or somewhat proprietary. And that could mean any toxic chemical.”
Like formaldehyde, the same chemical they use to embalm dead bodies. Or sodium lauryl sulfate, which some believe has carcinogenic properties.
“They’re putting ingredients in these products that knowingly make us sick, but why do we say it’s OK?” Lauren asks.
Because we don’t know. Cleaning product manufacturers don’t have to tell us, and we don’t look for answers.
“When I learned about these things I thought, “This is totally unfair. We as consumers deserve products that aren’t bad for us. We deserve products that are good for us.’”
Products that don’t harm people — or the earth.
That led to her crazy Kickstarter campaign.
Lauren decided to launch a Kickstarter and raise money to sell her homemade, toxic-free laundry detergent. Then she promptly quit her job as sustainability manager at the NYC Department of Environmental Protection and left for a road trip. She knew it was a rash move, especially since it was a great job to have straight out of college. But she felt certain about what she wanted to do.
Her kickstarter goal: Raise $10,000. It was an arbitrary number based on quick calculations.
In less than 48 hours, she’d already surpassed that. By the time she closed her Kickstarter, she’d made $41,000 and had hundreds of orders to fulfill.
“I was like, this is incredible,” Lauren says. “People are ready to move toward a more sustainable product.”
Lauren returned from her road trip to a brand new business with thousands of laundry detergent orders already in the queue. The only problem: She didn’t know what the hell she was doing.
Soon, her apartment was filled with boxes and jars. She had to enlist friends to grind soap in her living room. She ended up putting in thousands of dollars of her own money to fulfill orders, since she hadn’t accounted for shipping and taxes in her Kickstarter campaign.
And so The Simply Co. was born.
“It’s just trying to change the narrative about what we actually need our lives and showing people that sustainable products work,” Lauren says about the business. “And the second step of that is I want people to not buy my product and learn to make it themselves.”
She likens her goals to the non-profit business model. Nonprofits cease to exist when the problem they’re looking to solve goes away.
“For me, I want my business to go away when everyone is making their own cleaning products,” Lauren says.
“I want my business to go away when everyone is making their own cleaning products.”
The Simply Co. laundry detergent recipe uses only three ingredients, two of which are common household items. And it works. Lauren’s convinced that if enough people replaced purchased products with sustainable alternatives like these, it would make a difference.
But she knows that’s only a small part of a big picture. It’s not just cleaning products hurting the earth and our health. Our entire system is skewed.
We live in a one-time use world.
Everything we use is disposable, from razors to cups to fashion. We live for convenience and don’t think about what that means for the future of our earth. And as Lauren points out, companies have no reason to provide anything different. We as consumers are driving this system because we want instant gratification, comfort.
Plus, businesses are not held accountable for putting products like these out into the world, so they keep doing it. When people buy a product, we’re the ones responsible for where it goes. We also pay taxes so the government can dispose of it. After we buy it, the business has nothing more to do with it.
“That is wrong,” Lauren says. “I think if businesses were held responsible for the waste they’re creating, then people wouldn’t use such unsustainable materials because it wouldn’t make sense.”
If companies were incentivized to use better materials or held accountable for what they put into the waste stream, the mindset would shift.
But what if we were designing sustainable products in the first place?
Designers create the packaging for products. We influence what materials go out into the world. Of course we don’t necessarily have the final say, but our designs can determine what kind of products end up in the earth.
Lauren’s suggestion for designers: When you create a product, think about who’s using it, what’s happening to it and where it goes.
“The first thing to do is ask, ‘Does what I’m designing or making or doing need to exist? Why am I doing this? Is this really necessary and is this important? And beyond me and what I’m making, what’s the impact of what I’m doing? Is this something that’s going to leave the planet and the world and humanity in a better place?”
“The first thing to do is ask, ‘Does what I’m designing or making or doing need to exist?”
Lauren did that when designing the packaging for her laundry detergent. She even went to the NYC recycling facility to see where her product would go when people were through with it.
“The guy who worked there told me I was one of the first product designers to ever come to his facility to see what would happen to the product I was designing, which to me was mind blowing and sad,” Lauren says.
She found that even the materials she thought were recyclable, like the sustainably-made stickers on her jars, go straight to the landfill — at least in New York. So she chose to screenprint her jars instead.
Then she looked at the ingredients in her product. Where do they come from and what happens to them later? What do they do in the water? How do they biodegrade in the environment?
“You have to think about these things because as a designer, as a creator, you’re really responsible for what you’re putting out there,” Lauren says.
If what you put out there is plastic, it will last forever.
Yes, there needs to be room for creativity. Yes, we live in a modern world that’s accustomed to a certain level of luxury. But Lauren believes there’s a way to meet in the middle.
“I think there has to be a place where convenience and reality and sustainability intersect,” Lauren says. “And it’s happening. I see that because I see businesses like mine becoming successful. It wouldn’t happen unless people were realizing that things as is can’t continue, because there’s something wrong with throwing every single thing we buy away.”
“I think there has to be a place where convenience and reality and sustainability intersect.”
Lauren’s found that people have one of two reactions to her lifestyle and business.
They either think it’s awesome and want to learn more about it, or they think it’s bullshit — that she’s lying, she’s seeking attention or going about it the wrong way.
“You can think whatever you want,” Lauren says. “But I do this not for you, I do this for me. Because this is how I want to see the world. This is what I want my world to look like.”
She’s not out to force anyone to live the way she does. Rather, she wants to create awareness about environmental change and inspire people to do it for themselves.
“People say you’re just one person you can’t do anything. Well I’m doing at least everything that I can,” she says. “I would rather do everything that I can and live to my best ability the life that I want to everyone to lead, that I wish everyone would lead, and just be an example for how I wish the world could exist. At least then I know that I’m living the best life for me.”
“People say you’re just one person you can’t do anything. Well I’m doing at least everything that I can.”
So, what does she use to wipe her butt?
Recycled toilet paper. Wrapped in paper. She also recycles the tube.