As a pioneering CEO in the U.S. and abroad, Pierre Barlier has been working to eliminate single-use bags one shopping trip at a time — via his reusable shopping bag business, KeepCool, established nearly 20 years ago. At KeepCool Pierre’s visionary and eco-conscious thinking quickly propelled him to the forefront of the market, while simultaneously jumpstarting a social awareness that has forever changed consumer behavior. KeepCool has since been quietly changing the landscape for shopping bags and promoting stronger environmental consciousness among consumers. Today, KeepCool is the leader in designing, manufacturing, and distributing reusable shopping bags to major mass retailers in North America and Asia. Costco, Walmart, Whole Foods, Barnes & Noble, and Staples (to name just a few) have long been customers, all aligned around the principle that small everyday actions can produce big impact.
As a business leader, Pierre is recognized for his relentless commitment to innovation within an ever-changing marketplace. He introduced the Better Bag — the first reusable grocery bag made of recycled plastic bottles, supporting a circular economy of collecting plastic waste — and has continued to focus on improving the environmental profile of his bags’ materials. His transparent approach and willingness to go the extra mile, whether in solving structural conundrums or overcoming cost challenges, have earned him business partnerships that have lasted decades.
How did you get into the industry?
Even before striking out on my own, I’ve always worked for forward-thinking and conscientious companies. So when I decided to follow my entrepreneurial instinct, it was only natural that my venture be socially conscious. I actually had several ideas for my startup, but when I analyzed the pros and cons of each, reusable shopping bags stood out from the rest. Not only were there no competitors yet in the market, but the product represented a pressing societal need: eliminating single-use shopping bags. Those were the two main deciding factors.
Any emerging industry trends?
Zero-waste policies. And these are going to extend outside of the sustainability sector to become the norm. Technology has already advanced so much that we can recycle, upcycle, or reuse pretty much any product or material. There’s really no excuse anymore not to. For example, Lush cosmetics has a line of package-free products. Why does soap need packaging anyway? You’re going to start seeing more big-name brands following suit. One prominent example is Bionic Yarn, co-owned by music mogul Pharrell Williams, which produces textiles and materials from ocean plastics. You’re going to see a lot more celebrities and well-known entrepreneurs collaborating with eco-conscious companies, leveraging their personal brand for good.
Any industry opportunities or challenges?
There are always opportunities. Recognizing and acting upon them is what sets one brand apart from the next. Right now, the biggest opportunity I see in the sustainable space is creating conscious habits in areas where doing so is not yet mandated. For example, even though many cities and states are beginning to enact bans on single-use bags, there are still many states that allow them, which means our bags can have an even greater impact in these regions. Once consumers latch on to the idea of bringing their own bags, they’ll begin to realize there are so many associated benefits they hadn’t even considered. Many of our bags, for example, are insulated, so using them keeps produce fresh while also keeping a single-use bag out of the cycle. We’ve also made sure that our bags are aesthetically pleasing and comfortable to carry — the exact opposite of a plastic bag, which can become twisted or even dig into your palms. It’s a chain reaction. What starts out as seemingly punitive creates a beneficial habit that helps to protect the integrity of the groceries from store to home while also raising the level of conscientiousness on waste and environmental impact. Win-win-win!
Inspiration for the business idea, and your vision for the business?
After college, I took some time off to sail around the world. My time at sea had a profound impact on me. I’d always enjoyed spending time in nature, but being on a boat is a full-time immersion. When you’re in the middle of the Atlantic, you’re at the whim of the sea — which is both a gift and a challenge, mentally and physically. I’ve always had a respect for our oceans, but that yearlong voyage deepened that respect. At the same time, I was intensely aware of how much damage humans are causing to the very waters that sustain us. In nearly every port, we saw vast amounts of pollution, particularly from plastics, since those don’t break down the way materials such as paper do. And a good portion of those plastics was single-use bags. Those visions stayed with me for years. After working for other companies and deciding I wanted to strike out on my own, those visions made me realize that no other company was yet providing a solution in any sort of meaningful way, I knew what my business would be.
What's next for the business in the near future?
We recently launched Out of the WoodsTM bags, featuring Supernatural PaperTM, a lightweight, vegan material made primarily of paper, a renewable resource. It’s pretty amazing — it has the look and feel of leather while also being washable, completely animal-free, and — most importantly — sustainable.
Our first Out of the WoodsTM rollout is exclusive to Whole Foods Market, which has been one of our partners almost since KeepCool’s beginnings. The response has been beyond even what we’d hoped. We knew that consumers were looking for ethical yet aesthetically pleasing totes — we just didn’t know how much until our product started flying off the shelves. In some regions, 50 percent of our stock sold out in two weeks. So our immediate pipeline priorities will be on expanding distribution of Out of the WoodsTM and developing new styles for the brand.
Your key initiatives for the success of the business?
The KeepCool parent company is a private-label business, which means we make the finest quality bags that are tailored to our customers’ needs and worthy of their logos. That makes our customer relationships our most prized asset. I go into every meeting with a prospective client looking to forge a long-term relationship, not make a quick sale. My philosophy in business is delivering the best product with strong value proposition from aesthetics, quality, sustainable materials, and — above all — price. This creates a strong value chain that inevitably leads to success. Adhering to this philosophy has allowed us to forge some of our strongest partnerships, who have been with us since our early days — and that longevity has made all the difference in our success.
Your most difficult moment at the business? (and what did you learn?)
Our early business model wasn’t the right fit. We started out with insulated bags that were sponsored by frozen food vendors. Although we got a lot of orders, it wasn’t a sustainable business model — and, after so much early success, that realization hurt. My first thought was that the company wasn’t going to work, because your first thoughts are always negative ones. Luckily, I’m a pretty positive person, so those thoughts didn’t last long and I instead focused on coming up with a model that would work. A few months later, we switched gears to the model we have today, which is private-label bags for resale. And it was by far the best decision we could have made for the business’s future.
Ideal experience for a customer/client?
Our customers always say that working with us is very different than many of their other customer/client relationships. We take a long-range view in everything we do, with the objective of solving problems and providing an element of delight in the finished product. We aim to make the process as pain-free for our customers as possible by offering a service (the final bag) that is turnkey from design to launch.
How do you motivate others?
I know it’s a cliché, but I believe in leading by example. I never ask an employee to do anything I wouldn’t feel comfortable doing myself and, because we’re such a small company, I often make it a point to try out some of the tasks that my employees do on a regular basis. Not only does it set an example for them, but it gives me a deeper appreciation for the work they do. It also has a practical element: By putting myself in their shoes, I get a new perspective on that portion of the work process, which often leads to finding efficiencies that help improve the overall process. To that end, I believe every manager should be fair, honest, and generous, and I do my best to demonstrate those qualities every chance I get.
Career advice to those in your industry?
There are no short cuts to success, particularly in the sustainability sector, where every action has a long-lasting repercussion. You absolutely must have a long-term goal in mind from the get-go, and that goal needs to drive your everyday actions. Remember, whether you like it or not, you’ll be leaving a legacy, and only you can determine what that legacy will be — big or small, positive or negative, long-lasting or fleeting. Before you take any action, ask yourself, What will be the result of this and how will that reflect on me and affect our planet later this week, this year, and well after I’m gone?