Can an Instant Pop Up Store be Sustainable?

Look out, it’s nearly the 40th anniversary of Earth Day (now a month-long affair) and companies everywhere will be grasping at tenuous links to the occasion, vying for the green in your pocketbook. And what are we doing?

A green pop up shop , of course, at the Port Authority Bus Terminal, in the heart of the busiest part of New York. We are doing this in conjunction with the Times Square Alliance and NY’s Fashion Center Business Improvement District, which is trying very hard to bring more sustainable businesses and retailers to New York.

Is this a wise thing for a green business to be doing? After all, creating a short lived store space, then carting off and disposing of all the related materials that went into making it can be quite wasteful. Pop up shops have been largely used by big companies in metro areas in hopes of drawing people out into the suburbs where their full time store is, encouraging additional driving. Why would a sustainability-focused business like ours do such a thing?

Of course we’re not doing it that way. And we’re not doing it alone.

What could a green pop up shop look like? Our Green Up Shop begins by all the displays being made from waste. Along with carrying our entire product line there, we’re also collecting 30 different types of waste, giving people the option to get an on the spot reward–a discount on purchases.

When people see, perhaps for the first time, what the packaging they would have thrown out can do in a second life, what do you think will happen? We’re expanding beyond being merely mimicking a brick and mortar store, to being a hub for education and inspiration.

And, rather than have but one set of voices and products represented there, we’re being joined by a number of independent sustainable and wellness companies, each going beyond merely selling products and reaching out to the public in a way that’s both beneficial to them and will likely generate long lived brand awareness and ultimately, sales.

Brooklyn based RePlayGround is known for its products  that allow consumers to build their own lamps, for instance, using household waste. We’re going to be doing children’s workshops with RePlayGround, where kids can use food wrappers to make something themselves. Can you imagine, at that young an age, getting such a strong and different connection to waste?

Being sustainable isn’t all about what you buy, or eat. Your health matters, too. That’s why companies like Natural Fitness and upcycled furniture fabric based Earth Spirit yoga bags will be represented, exercise classes happening in the space during our tenure there.

So this is all grand, but does it provide anything more then fodder for press and a shiny thing for the Port Authority to show off for Earth Month?

Yes, absolutely. Thousands of people pass by this space daily, and when they encounter a place where sustainability is demonstrated to be far more then buying organic and getting a Prius–and far more accessible–it’s going to have an impact that will likely shift the thinking and hopefully the actions of many people.

And, though people will likely be first drawn in by what they naturally tend towards (like the couture dress Chistianna J. Paul has made entirely from peanut M&M wrappers) they won’t help but notice what else is there, perhaps broadening what’s in their sphere of interest, as people and as consumers.

We see this is as model for sustainable businesses everywhere. You have a story to tell, a lesson to teach, and a connection to make with your consumers that most other companies just can’t, why not take advantage of that?

So, while pop-up shops have  a less then stellar reputation when it comes to sustainability, we like to think that our Green Up shop shows an example to other  businesses of how they can upcycle the concept.

Readers: What’s your take on this? Do you see how your business could implement more dynamic models of customer interaction such as these? Do you see room for improvement in how we’re doing it?

Tom Szaky is the Founder and CEO of TerraCycle, Inc. a company that makes eco-revolutionary products entirely from garbage! TerraCycle, since its humble beginnings in a Princeton University dorm room, is committed to being a triple bottom line company. Tom at the ancient age of 19 learned about composting with worms. The concept of using tiny little worms to turn food waste into a powerful, organic fertilizer fascinated Tom, who was appalled by the amount of food discarded by his campus's cafeteria. Tom started TerraCycle with no investors from a friend's garage by building a Worm Gin where he could house millions of worms in a small area. He all but bankrupted himself and maxed out all his credit cards to build the machine. With the help of friends he would shovel pounds of rotten, maggot-infested food from the Princeton cafeterias. Without any money left over, Tom could not afford to buy bottles to package his fertilizer. That's when the sustainability gods smiled on Tom, who was up one night wandering the streets Princeton in search of an answer to his packaging dilemma. It just happened to be recycling night and Tom realized that millions of homes were putting billions of free bottles out on the curb once a week! That serendipitous moment set everything to follow into motion. Slowly he began to finance his infantile start up by winning business plan contests. Finally he hit the pay dirt! He won the million dollar grand prize at the Carrot Capital Business plan contest. However, the financiers of the contest wanted to move TerraCycle away from used bottles and away from it's environmental focus. Despite being on the verge of bankruptcy, Tom turned down the money. In the six years since then TerraCycle has grown to a multi-million dollar company that doubles in size every year. Still we are committed to our triple bottom line beginnings. Still making our products from other's people waste. Still based in an Urban Enterprise Zone in Trenton, NJ. Still a second chance employer. Find out how and why, here at

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