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How Eco-Friendly Fashion Startup Landed on Top Retailers' Shelves in 6 Months

How Eco-Friendly Fashion Startup Landed on Top Retailers' Shelves in 6 Months
After launching a winning campaign on Kickstarter, Vincent Ko
(left), Michael Mills (not pictured) and Luke Lagera (right)
founded Panda in 2011.
Image credit: Adrian Cabrero, courtesy of ENK International

It may sound like a ploy to get shoppers in the door, but the power of "green" and eco-conscious consumers can't be denied. After all why else would giant companies like Groupe Danone purchase the Londonderry, N.H.-based organic-yogurt maker Stonyfield Farms in 2003 and the Coca-Cola Co. snap-up Honest Tea in 2011?

So Georgetown University buddies Vincent Ko, Luke Lagera and Michael Mills thought: Why not? And in the fall of 2011, the now 24-year-olds started up Panda, a Washington, D.C.-based sunglasses maker that uses sustainably-harvested bamboo for its frames. To complete the virtuous cycle, they're devoting a portion of their profits towards funding eye exams and cataract surgery to aid people in the developing world.

Since launching, the fledgling fashion company founders have managed to land their frames in popular retail outlets including Urban Outfitters and Nordstrom. But what separates Panda from the herd of "eco-friendly" products on the market? And what can like-minded startups learn from a company that grew from fashion obscurity to prominence in just six months?

YoungEntrepreneur recently sat down with Vincent Ko, one of the visionaries (no pun intended) who co-founded Panda. Here, an edited version of that chat:

Q: What inspired you to start Panda?
A:
We don't hide the fact that TOMS Shoes was a huge inspiration. We figured if we could make a fraction of the impact that Blake Mycoskie made with a different item, we'd be doing a good job. I want Panda to also be a recognizable brand for social change, so when someone sees Panda, they know that for everything that is purchased through the company, an individual in need or a charitable organization will benefit.

Panda’s Kennedy style in a black stain.
Panda's Kennedy style frames in a black stain.

Related: How One Young Trep Bucked the Odds During the Great Recession

Q: Why Sunglasses?
A:
You can tell a lot about someone walking down the street from their sunglasses. Are they outlandish? Quirky? Or more conservative?

Q: Why did you partner with the TOMA Foundation (The Tribal Outreach Medical Assistance) instead of a larger charity?
A:
For a socially driven startup, partnering with a larger organization doesn't really make sense. All you'll do is make a relatively minor contribution. By contrast, if you partner with a smaller group, you can make a bigger impact.

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Q: How did crowd-funding website Kickstarter.com help you get Panda off the ground?
A:
Kickstarter not only allowed us to get the funds to start production, but also gave us a lot of publicity. We got many of our initial retailers and partners through Kickstarter, which completely levels the playing field for young entrepreneurs. Unfortunately, there's starting to be a commodification of Kickstarter. You see established companies using it as just another marketing tool at the expense of smaller, in-development ideas. But I would still recommend it, because it does help with fundraising and publicity.

Q: How do you avoid becoming a passing trend?
A:
Consumers aren't stupid. They know when something's authentic. And if you're going to go try to start-up a social venture, you have to do it end-to-end -- with everything from messaging to packaging. Of course, this takes time. There's no way that a 6-month-old sunglasses startup is going to be perfect on day one. So we send a regular newsletter out to all of our customers, updating them on the steps we're taking to improve.

Related: Recognizing the Silver Lining -- And Business Idea -- Behind a Bad Internship

Q: Do you really think your customers are environmentally conscious?
A:
We thought initially that our eco-friendly approach would resonate most heavily with customers. That was not the case. It's sad to hear, but when it comes down to it, customers are not likely to prioritize environmental causes, so it's simply our job to raise awareness. You're not going to change someone overnight.

Q: What advice do you have for young entrepreneurs looking to launch startups in this economic climate?
A:
Don't wait. There is no better time than in your early 20s or mid-20s to start a business because at worst you'll just end up where you started -- having learned from the experience, of course. Ultimately, though, proceed thoughtfully and systematically. It's really important to grow responsibly and not overstretch.

What's the hardest part about starting and running an eco-friendly business? Let us know in the comments section below.

Eric Shapiro is a freelance writer in New York.

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