In 1992, Tom Kemper, then a microfilm equipment salesman, was fed up with recyclable material filling up landfills. So he created his own public recycling event in Dallas by purchasing 350 50-gallon garbage bags and filling them with recyclables.
He tried to drop the bags off at recycling centers, but none wanted them. He soon learned that there wasn't enough demand by manufacturers for recycled materials to make it cost-effective for centers to collect them.
A year later, Kemper launched Dallas-based Dolphin Blue, an office supply retailer that sells only environmentally responsible products. All his products and packaging contain a minimum of 20 percent recycled material, and he prints using only soy- and vegetable-based inks.
The company grew slowly. For the first 12 years, Kemper struggled, plowing all the money he made back into the business to keep it growing. "The smartest thing I did was court government contracts," says Kemper. Early on, he heard about Saving of America's Resources, a U.S. Postal Service recycling program, and called the person in charge. After gaining USPS as a client, he spoke to 30 federal agencies and even secured the Social Security Administration as a client.
In the past five years, business has picked up, growing an average of 20 percent each year. "It's amazing how many calls we get now," says Kemper. "Real estate companies, legal offices, veterinary clinics, even a personal injury law clinic is interested in our products."
Kemper has enjoyed the surge in business due to increased public awareness of environmental issues but says there's a downside, too: "There's a lot of greenwashing going on right now," he says. "Companies are making unsubstantiated claims that they are green."
While his products are priced slightly higher than those that aren't made of recyclable materials, Kemper says that comparing the price of one envelope to another is misleading. "The truth is, we're all paying the price for products that are polluting the air and using energy and causing health problems."
Besides selling eco-friendly products, Kemper has made giving back part of his company's mission. Dolphin Blue, which projects sales of more than $2 million this year, donates a portion of its profits to various community, nonprofit and environmental education organizations.
JJ Ramberg is the host of MSNBC's small-business program Your Business and co-founder of GoodSearch.com.
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