It all started with Styrofoam.
More than a decade ago, when Leslie VanKeuren Campbell was working as the general manager of a popular restaurant in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles, she was upset that the business was still using Styrofoam containers for take-out orders. “I was avoiding Styrofoam in my daily life, and using it didn’t match the other values of the restaurant I was working for,” says Campbell. “It became this neon-flashing sign that something was not right.”
The idea that personal values could—and should—mesh with business values resonated with Campbell, who has studied sustainability, recycling, and resource management at UCLA and with the California Resource Recovery Association. “To some extent, waste has never made sense to me,” she says. “In business, waste has cost. It’s directly affecting the bottom line.”
After convincing the restaurant to find alternative materials for its take-out containers, as well as making other eco-friendly changes to curtail waste and reduce water consumption, Campbell decided to start an entirely new business. She founded Sustain LA in 2009 to help events of all sizes produce less waste and divert the waste that is generated from landfills.
Today, Sustain LA, with Campbell serving as CEO, has evolved into a multi-prong business with eight employees. The company’s aim is to help customers achieve a zero-waste lifestyle. Zero-waste is an idea born out of the recycling movement; the goal is to generate nothing that will necessarily end up in a landfill or require recycling. “There’s no ‘away;’ there’s no trash,” Campbell explains.
For clients hosting zero-waste events, Sustain LA rents reusable necessities—dishes, glasses, beverage dispensers, napkins, and cutlery. For smaller parties, such as backyard barbecues, office gatherings, and weddings, they advise event planners on how to throw zero-waste gatherings. With partners such as LA Compost and Food Forward, they coordinate food composting and the safe donation of edible surplus food from events.
In 2018, the company also launched a refill station in the Highland Park neighborhood of Los Angeles—a storefront where customers bring their own reusable containers and purchase body care products, household cleaners, and more from the store’s bulk supply.
The company’s holistic focus on sustainability and zero-waste is a guiding philosophy that also pays off in myriad ways for the bottom line, says Campbell. Here’s how she built a business out of sustainability—and how you can, too.
1. Clearly Define Your Mission
The company’s goal is to “disrupt the concept of convenience,” says Campbell. “We’ve been sold this idea that we need convenience, and that convenience equals on-the-go and pre-packaged,” she says. “By disrupting the concept of convenience, we can change the linear economy where materials are extracted and designed to be thrown away. We can start to get into a circular economy, like nature, where everything eventually is fuel and food for something else.”
2. Find the Market That’s Looking for You
One of the primary benefits of a sustainable business is tapping into the existing market of like-minded people who want to reduce their environmental footprint—a market that has boomed since the launch of Sustain LA.
At the time, says Campbell, zero-waste was hardly a household term. The public didn’t have awareness of waste diversion—namely, keeping garbage that doesn’t need to go in a landfill from ending up there, such as items that can be recycled or composted. “At events, I had to call our waste diversion stations ‘eco-stations’ because nobody knew what zero-waste was,” Campbell says
But in the last few years influential social media influencers have helped popularize the idea. “People have embraced zero-waste now. Now it’s socially acceptable to want to avoid plastic and single-use containers,” she says. “It’s an exciting time.”
3. Be a Resource and a Destination
The refill station has found broad appeal. “I wanted a store that everyone would find exciting and beautiful to come to, and that’s been a huge help in the success of the store,” says Campbell. “It’s a happy, calming, supportive place to be.” She aims to provide more than just a retail opportunity. “A lot of people who come in are just looking around and making a plan to go back home and use containers when they’re empty,” says Campbell. “And that’s great. We want to educate as well as provide a resource.”
Campbell also wanted to ensure that Sustain LA’s website, which she moved to Squarespace when she launched the refill station, was an easy-to-navigate portal to channel customers to the company. “The website is so important,” Campbell says. “We have customers and clients from all over greater Los Angeles, and most are going to check out our site before visiting the store or retaining our services.”
4. Cultivate Connections Based on Your Mission
The company’s community focus and mission helped Sustain LA secure the space for the refill station. The owners of the building, Campbell says, wanted a tenant whose presence would benefit the neighborhood and the city. “There was a lot of interest, and they had stronger offers. It is because of our mission and practices that we were able to rent the space,” says Campbell.
The business has also been featured in numerous press stories, on television, and in magazines, because they’re a mission-driven business. “Many of these pieces have a similar thread—the climate crisis and plastic pollution education, with a spin on how to take action,” says Campbell. “Our concept of how to help people make these changes and do things differently has helped us be featured.”
5. Align Spending and Values
Day-to-day commitment to the mission also helps the Sustain LA cut down on costs. Most of the company’s supplies are reusable, so there’s no need to constantly purchase new disposables in the way that a restaurant does, for example. “That’s a huge drain on your bottom line and profits,” says Campbell.
And avoiding disposable products allows the company to spend in ways that align with its values. “We have spills and drips in the store as the customers refill their own containers,” says Campbell “so we provide reusable towels. We hire a linen service to launder them, and it’s a monthly expense. But it’s offset because we’re not spending in other areas.” The linen service, she points out, also means more local jobs being supported.
6. Find Purpose-Driven Team Members
As for jobs on her own team, Campbell says that Sustain LA’s mission helps drive employee retention and reduces turnover. “Our team is really proud of all the ways that we are able to reduce and reuse and avoid landfill,” she says. And she credits her committed team with helping her business quickly adapt during the COVID-19 pandemic. The team changed the store’s entire operations in a week to offer pickup and delivery only, as well as getting an online store up and running. The staff member who normally handles rentals gladly switched roles to take over the online delivery portion of the business. “My team’s been awesome,” says Campbell.
At the end of the day, it all comes back to the mission. “The bottom line is important to being a sustainable business,” says Campbell, “but the other two components are people and planet, and they are more important. If we don’t have people and a planet, we don’t have any business to speak of.”