How Lauren Singer Built a Sustainability Empire from a Tiny Mason Jar
The 28-year-old founder of zero-waste store Package Free opens up about the realities of fundraising, the glamorization of female founders, and the importance of complete transparency during a global pandemic.
You may know Lauren Singer as the owner of the singular mason jar that’s held eight years worth of trash. The sustainability advocate has been a leader of the zero-waste movement for nearly a decade—transforming her blog Trash Is For Tossers and social media presence into a business that’s spanned two New York store locations and raised an astounding $4.5 million in funding last fall.
Package Free was born in 2017, when Singer became fed up with the lack of information and resources to live a more sustainable lifestyle. Now a destination for everything you need to transition to a low waste lifestyle, from bulk beauty products to on-the-go utensils, the 28-year-old founder (and her business) is on a mission to make the world less trashy. But after COVID-19 forced the closure of both of Package Free’s brick-and-mortar locations, she’s facing the same dilemma as many other CEOs: pivoting to digital while preserving the future of her staff. We sat down with Singer to discuss how the current global pandemic has affected her business—from new strategies and lessons learned, to an Instagram Live with Miley Cyrus, and a hopeful outlook for how all of this could change the future of sustainability.
The Helm: People are still so overwhelmed by the topic of sustainability—including myself. What has been the most effective way for you to educate consumers about Package Free’s mission?
Lauren Singer: Even if people aren’t buying anything when they walk into our stores or go to our website, our goal is to make sure that everything we’re putting out into the world adds value. Now, while people are at home and probably more than ever reading the emails and Instagrams that we put out, and the content that we’re creating—whether it’s about how to compost, or information on reducing greenhouse gases—it’s all about practical, simple and easy ways to reduce waste for a more informed consumer.
My top three tips for people who want to reduce waste are always: start with composting! Second, if you are a menstruating person, using a menstrual cup is a great way to reduce your waste. Third, look in your garbage can and at what you are throwing away and see if there is a simple swap you can make to reduce that waste. Each brand we carry at Package Free is a mission-based and ethical company, which is also really important. We ship everything in 100 percent plastic-free packaging with paper wrapping, labels, and tape—all of which are 100 percent recyclable and compostable. Some of the sustainable products we sell do still come in compostable and recyclable packaging because that’s just what manufacturers and consumers are used to. Our job is to lead the shift in what it means to be a sustainable business.
The Helm: How were you able to leverage your own personal brand and digital presence to build Package Free?
Lauren Singer: I wouldn’t be anywhere without social media. The whole company and zero waste movement was based on social media and having a blog. Without the following of Trash Is for Tossers, I don’t know if Package Free would have been as successful. Trash is for Tossers almost became a business in and of itself as a platform where I was partnering with brands and looking at how to build relationships to spread our message. Then, my first company was The Simply Co, which was a laundry detergent company that we’ve just brought back actually at Package Free. That taught me all about consumer products, supply chain, working with different stakeholders. That’s how the idea of Package Free came about, it was because I started meeting other people in the consumer product space who had the same questions around scaling and aggregating products as I did. Through having this community, I realized the problems that so many other people had were so similar to mine: there was no sustainable solution that I could find and that’s why I created it.
I truly think that the function of business is to solve problems and I’m the kind of person where, for better or for worse, I always try to offer a solution. I saw no one offering a solution around the problems that were affecting me on a day-to-day basis, but also emotionally because my values are so tied to sustainability.
The Helm: Now as a CEO, does the pressure of having to keep up that active social media presence ever feel overwhelming?
Lauren Singer: No, not at all. I consider Trash Is For Tossers [and social media] to be a part of my actual job because my mission is to create large-scale positive impact, so that’s directly correlated.
"I wouldn't be anywhere without social media."
The Helm: How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your business?
Lauren Singer: It’s created a lot of changes, having to close both our retail locations and having to have new conversations around what happens to the future of our team. As a CEO, it’s really hard and scary to think about the future sometimes; we have a team of 50 and I’m responsible for the livelihoods of that team. We have luckily not had to lay anyone off, so I’m just making sure that I’m doing everything I can to keep the business running strong, continuing to grow, and making sure that we are prioritizing our team.
Our retail team has been able to sustain shifts in the warehouse, which we’re still shipping out of because we’re an e-commerce company. We’ve also transitioned some of our employees over to customer experience. For the rest of the team, we’ve been working from home, which is interesting because it’s actually something that I never liked. It’s been a new and challenging experience, but it’s working, things are good—the business is still growing and adjusting. It’s a really interesting thing to have to lead a team with certainty at a time that is so uncertain.
The Helm: What has been the most important thing you’ve learned as a CEO during the COVID-19 crisis?
Lauren Singer: The true test of a team isn’t when things are going well, it’s when they’re not going well, and everyone has been able to come together so beautifully to keep the business running as usual. It’s been a really rewarding experience. We’re communicating now more than ever; we have daily executive leadership meetings, which helps us to all be on the same page and make sure that our teams below us are all on the same page. But my days are longer than they ever have been. There’s just so much more to think about, there are so many question marks. I think it helps to take a step back and ask, what’s really important to me? What am I prioritizing? And I think now more than ever, we’re prioritizing the products that help to serve our community in feeling safe and clean, and also continue their mission and their values during this time.
The Helm: You raised an amazing $4.5 million in funding in 2019. How did you navigate the process of finding investors and fundraising?
Lauren Singer: I had no idea how to do any of the things that I did for fundraising. I had never done it before. When starting Package Free, we first raised funds from the vendors that were selling products with us; they paid upfront to be involved, a few thousand dollars, and they got to keep 100 percent of their sales. But besides that, I had no idea what the venture process was like, what it was like to sit down and have a meeting with a venture capitalist. We started as the retail store and raised venture capital two years later. I was so lucky to have people around me who walked me through the whole process in such a beautiful and generous way. They did everything from help me visualize what it would be like to sit in a meeting, to looking through my papers or my documents and helping me think bigger. The best part of raising [money] is having so many brilliant and qualified people workshop your business. That’s been really cool.
The Helm: Did you hire consultants to help you through the process?
Lauren Singer: No, they were all friends. Having a business in New York is amazing because there are so many entrepreneurs and people in the space who want to help, especially if you’ve gotten to a point where you’ve scaled and possibly sold a business. I hope that when I get to that point, I too can be a mentor and a resource for people who are where I was a year ago, who don’t know what the next steps are. Once you do [fundraising rounds] once, it’s so much easier to do them again. All of the confusion about not knowing how to do something has gone away. And I know that for our Series A, I have this in my head, I’m like, “I can do this now.” Before being in business, not knowing something was so overwhelming to me—it would make me feel so physically overwhelmed. But having to tackle huge problems and small problems has just made me realize that even if I don’t know something, I can figure it out.
The Helm: As a young woman who is also an influencer and has such a big social media presence, did you find that was a disadvantage to you in walking into some of those venture capital meetings?
Lauren Singer: I actually think it was a huge advantage. We scaled the business to the point that we did without any paid marketing or advertising. It was all organic and word of mouth. Finding product market fit and validation within the space that your business exists in is a key indicator for venture capitalists. That helped me to get the valuation and the funds in the way that I did. People typically have to pay so much money [for customer acquisition] to have the type of audience that I was so lucky enough to have, to help to scale the business in the beginning.
"The best part of raising [money] is having so many brilliant and qualified people workshop your business."
The Helm: What are some of your tips for other female entrepreneurs who are going through the process of fundraising for the first time? How do you suggest going in and confidently pitching yourself and your company?
Lauren Singer: First and foremost, I’d say don’t raise money unless you absolutely have to. Having venture capital dollars in your business is a whole different game. Try to get funds and scale your business naturally to validate its product market fit so you’re not raising money for a company that just isn’t going to work. Because then you’re beholden to so many other people and the risk is so much higher. Don’t quit your day job and make sure you have a comfortable amount of personal money to sit on as you start your new endeavor. Talk to as many people as possible and ask as many questions as possible. That’s definitely something that I did.
Just because you’re passionate about something doesn’t mean that everybody else is, so testing your hypothesis is so important. It’s also really important to ask yourself, Why am I starting this business? What is the problem that I’m looking to solve? What are my values? What are the values of my business? And make sure that other people want the same solution that your business is offering. Then workshop your pitch because when I started going out and pitching, my view of what the business could be was so much smaller than what it has become. I talked to so many people and they were like, “Well what if you did this and what if you tried this?” It’s so easy to become insular when all you’re focusing on is your business, but it’s important to get other perspectives and not take them all as truth. Let them in and play with them and exercise those suggestions to see how you want your business to continue to grow and evolve. Also learning how to be flexible is a super important skill. Especially right now when business models are changing left and right based on the current situation.
The Helm: Before you took the leap, how much money did you personally save?
Lauren Singer: I wanted to make sure that I could cover my expenses for a year. Luckily, my overhead is super low. I don’t spend money on much besides groceries and even if I do buy clothing, I buy them secondhand. A zero-waste lifestyle has afforded me a lot of the luxuries of learning how to do more with less. The first two years I was hardly making any money at all. And that’s also why I’m grateful that I saved so much from my first job, which was working for the government. I was a sustainability manager for the New York City Department of Environmental Protection.
If you’re a first time entrepreneur, it’s important to realize that you’re not going to have a lot of money and resources right off the bat. And it’s important to adjust your expectations of the glamour of being a female founder and CEO. There’s so much glamorization of the female founder right now, but it’s hard work and you have to make a lot of personal sacrifices. Those narratives aren’t talked about as much because right now we’re honoring the women in power, but no matter what, male, female, young, older, it’s a hard job with a lot of responsibilities. Emotionally preparing for that and being in a place where you can accept that you’re going to make sacrifices in your life, at least in the beginning, is really important. The biggest sacrifice is time. When you start a business, the business is the priority and that means, at least for me, spending less time with significant others and friends.
I suggest being on really solid ground [emotionally], especially if you’re going to go out and raise. Raising is a full-time job of going to meeting after meeting, which is emotionally and physically exhausting because you’re traveling everywhere and talking to so many people, especially for someone like me who’s naturally introverted, but you’re doing that while having to continue to grow and scale your organization in parallel. It’s a huge amount of work.
"There's so much glamorization of the female founder, but it's hard work and you have to make a lot of personal sacrifices."
The Helm: There have been several public takedowns of female CEOs in the last year, especially amongst millennial women in the startup phase. Has that made you weary at all?
Lauren Singer: It’s like a witch hunt. I think people love to take down a powerful woman. From the Monica Lewinsky days to Martha Stewart; often they’re justified and valid like insider trading, but there are plenty of high profile men who have done that who haven’t been taken down in the same way that Martha Stewart was for instance. And there are plenty of CEOs that probably communicate in the way that Steph Korey [CEO of Away] did but weren’t taken down in the public way that she was. I think it’s just good learning to always communicate in a way—even if it’s a private communication—that you wouldn’t feel bad about being in the world. Communicate to your team as if each Slack that you sent was going to be in the news.
I think about that a lot. I’m a very direct communicator and it’s important to set expectations with your team about how you communicate from the get-go so they understand who you are and the pressures that you feel. That also comes with being transparent and letting people know what’s going on with your company. If you’re not transparent about the things that you’re experiencing, a difference in communication can be really jarring and alarming to people. I’m so grateful to have HR. I have an incredible [HR], it was something that I hired early on. I always suggest bringing HR into your organization early even though it doesn’t seem like a priority hire, it should be.
The Helm: You shared on Instagram that for the first time in eight years you created trash due to the current stay-at-home orders. How have you been adjusting your sustainability messaging and everything that the brand stands for with everything that’s happening right now?
Lauren Singer: Something that’s always been important is being super open about who I am as a person, the integrity of how I’m doing things, and having transparency in everything. Writing about all the changes that I have had to make definitely wasn’t an obligation, but it’s something that I felt was the right thing to do and the reason I started my company. Something that helps me figure out my next steps in business is that when I have a problem, I know there are probably other people that have it too. So I knew that this was a problem for me, it was weighing on me emotionally and just presuming that other people are going through the same thing is why I wrote that piece. As it turns out, a lot of people were going through the same exact thing.
The Helm: As such a mission-driven brand, what is the hiring process like? Is it a requirement for people who work for Package Free to live by your zero-waste lifestyle and values?
Lauren Singer: No, not at all. We’re hiring the best people that we find for the roles. It just so happens that there are a lot of people who are incredibly talented who are also super mission-aligned.
“Sustainable products are a basic human right and should be accessible to everyone.”
The Helm: There’s been a huge rise in greenwashing and brands marketing themselves as sustainable, even though they really aren’t at all. Has the competition and misinformation changed how you operate your own business?
Lauren Singer: Definitely. We put out content all the time about greenwashing. Part of our role is to serve our community both with products and information to help them become more informed consumers, whether they’re consuming from us or elsewhere. How can I use my platform, my education (I studied environmental science) to inform the people who come to us and look to us as that leader in sustainability to help them? Lifestyle products aren’t the only products that are sustainable or that can or cannot be sustainable, everything that you buy has a back story and a supply chain. Right now we are in a time of cancel-culture and people call out things that are not sustainable in a way that they never have before. And while cancel-culture is really tough, it’s also beautiful in the sense that it pushes people to be even better and really helps to quickly clarify things that are greenwashing.
The Helm: What are some of your future goals for Package Free and the sustainability market in general?
Lauren Singer: I started Package Free to help make sustainable products more accessible to people who already care about sustainability. But the bulk of sustainable impact doesn’t just come from the sustainable consumer, it’s from all consumers. Ten years ago when I was studying sustainability, I could count on my fingers and toes the amount of people who were working towards it in our close community. [Now] the dialogue and information around sustainability has become so much more accessible and change doesn’t happen overnight. From my vantage point, it’s becoming even more accessible than ever before, but that’s still not good enough. There’s been a lot of conversation around sustainability like, “Why is it only accessible to a certain type of person with a certain type of income?” My belief system is that sustainability shouldn’t just be for an upper middle class type of person; sustainable products are a basic human right and should be accessible to everyone. As I’ve grown Package Free, I’ve grown my perspective of how we can make sustainable products accessible for more people. My goal as a company is to make sustainable products as price-point-accessible to as many people as possible and of course that doesn’t happen overnight. But I want to remove the barrier of price point from the narrative around entry into sustainable consumption.
The Helm: Looking beyond COVID-19, do you think you’ll rely more on the digital side of your business? Do you have plans to reopen the retail locations?
Lauren Singer: The core of our business is e-commerce. We’re really lucky that we’ve leveraged digital in a big way to engage our community because just having retail stores, the amount of people that we’re able to reach is so much smaller. But especially now, people want more information on how they can change their lifestyles to be more sustainable given the circumstances and they’re more open than ever to make those changes. People are becoming more self-sufficient, getting into things like sprouting or growing their own food and cooking more, so hopefully, this shift will create more awareness about the importance of sustainability.
For us, we’re taking the events that would have been physical events and bringing them online to engage a wider audience. That’s something that we weren’t prioritizing as much [before Covid-19] and now are super excited about and putting our resources into doing. We still want to engage our community because at the end of the day, our community is what helps us grow as a company.
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The Helm: One of the more fun, experimental digital things you’ve done during all of this is an Instagram Live video with Miley Cyrus. How did that come to be?
Lauren Singer: I’ve been talking to Miley for a while, she’s so incredible. I’ve always admired her for all of the awareness she brings to issues that have nothing to do with being a musician. I did a post on menstrual cups and I think that’s the first time we connected; we’ve been having conversations about sustainability from there. I love that she’s not just interested in things, but wants to use her platform to drive awareness. To me, that’s so inspirational and she’s such a role model in that way. I’ve been so lucky to build a platform around my voice and the problems that I’m looking to solve and I hope to be able to use my platform to do the same thing as Miley. I’m so grateful for people like her who believe in the power of individuals to make positive impacts in the world.
The Helm: Given everything going on, I hope more celebrities and influencers begin to use their platform to raise awareness in that way.
Lauren Singer: Me too. The world is changing and clearly has changed. It’s a beautiful opportunity to see how people readjust their business models and their missions to lend themselves towards the current situation and the future. I think a lot of beautiful things will come from this.
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