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Infusing Sustainability into Your Business Model Earth & Me owner Kayli Kunkel brought her mission of sustainability to New York City, creating the first ever zero-waste store in Queens. Now, she has her sights set on growth.

By Emily Washcovick

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Courtesy of Earth + Me

The pandemic caused people around the world to reevaluate their careers. For Kayli Kunkel, a layoff from her corporate job led her back to her roots. Inspired by her childhood experiences spending time in nature, Kayli created Earth & Me, the first zero-waste store in Queens, New York.

Earth & Me offers a wide selection of zero-waste home and self-care products. To encourage customers to live more sustainably, the store also sells bulk products, like shampoo and conditioner, at refill stations where customers can fill their own reusable containers.

"Our real benefit for the consumer is that you can come and shop and know that you're doing good by the earth," Kayli said. "You don't have to vet products because we've done that for you."

Reviewer Lina A. was first drawn to Earth & Me by the floral aroma and sunny decor. After learning more about the store's mission and the refill stations, she felt inspired to shop there more and make her habits more sustainable.

"I do purchase things in plastic to be honest, but to walk in a store that's completely different than what I'm used to, that's what intrigued me," Lina said. "I've never seen a store like that."

When Kayli first opened Earth & Me, she started small with a pop-up shop. It was so successful that she decided to transition to a brick-and-mortar store. Three years later, Earth & Me has two locations and is gearing up for a third.

In addition to expanding to new locations, Kayli has expanded the range of products she offers in her stores. While personal care items are the main focus, the shop has introduced vintage clothing and home goods options in an effort to diversify product offerings.

Ever aware of improving her business, Kayli considers customer feedback to decide which new products to introduce and the best locations to open in. She hopes to continue expanding beyond her three locations and eventually turn Earth & Me into a bodega style shop you'd be happy to see on any street corner.

"[Starting a business] is really scary, especially in the aftermath of COVID. There are a lot of risks that you undertake. But people who come and check it out and are excited to tell people about it really gave me the confidence to move forward," Kayli said. "I had this idea and I loved it and I'm passionate about it, but if it doesn't resonate with my community, then what's the point?"

To solidify Earth & Me's connection with the community, Kayli regularly hosts events and local initiatives at the store, such as flower arranging workshops and clothing exchanges. She also uses the store's social media to share educational resources and opportunities to get involved in environmental justice and partners with other sustainable brands that share the same values, particularly women-owned businesses.

"Being a woman-owned business, it's so important to me to use that space to really elevate women in our community who are doing the work," Kayli said. "Other women-owned businesses, artists, and makers—it's a diverse community that's very important to me."

Lina resonated with the emphasis on female empowerment and community at Earth & Me, saying she appreciates how welcoming and inclusive the store feels. The thoughtful environment keeps her coming back.

Since many customers like Lina are learning how to live more sustainably, education is an important part of Earth & Me's customer service. Lina said the staff are always helpful and willing to answer her questions about the store's products.

"For me, customer service is everything. The business is important, and what the business offers, but customer service is very important," Lina said. "That sells your business. That makes me want to come back."

In addition to tips on becoming more sustainable, Earth & Me shared great advice for any small business:

  • Keep your business values at the forefront. Customers will resonate with your mission if you're genuine and share what you care about. Post about your values on your social media and include them in branding around your store.
  • Partner with businesses that share your vision. By working with other local businesses, you can grow together and learn from each other.
  • Engage your community. Host community events to bring in new local customers and raise awareness for causes you care about.
  • Continue prioritizing the customer experience. Even as you expand, customer service should always be top of mind. Teach new staff members about your customer service guidelines to ensure culture doesn't change across stores.

Listen to the episode below to hear directly from Kayli and Lina, and subscribe to Behind the Review for more from new business owners and reviewers every Thursday.

Available on: Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, and Soundcloud.

Emily Washcovick

Small Business Expert at Yelp

As Yelp’s Small Business Expert, Emily is meticulously focused on helping local business owners succeed and grow. Her expertise lies in customer engagement, reputation management, and all things digital marketing. Through speaking engagements and thought leadership, Emily shares industry insights that entrepreneurs in any business category can leverage for the growth and well-being of their businesses. She is also the host of Behind the Review, a podcast from Yelp and Entrepreneur Media, where each episode features conversations with a business owner and a reviewer about the story and lessons behind their interactions.

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