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Taking Plastic Out Of The Environment And Keeping It Out – Justin Koehn, Co-Founder Last Bottle Clothing

This Earth Day, we are exploring the start-ups leading the charge in tackling some of the world’s most pressing climate challenges, and the founders behind them

Here, we speak to Justin Koehn, Emory Goizueta MBA ’15 and Co-Founder of Last Bottle Clothing, the leading solar electricity mesh-grid developer active in Haiti

What specific environmental problems is your company addressing, and how do you plan to make a difference in these areas?

We wanted tackle plastic pollution by taking plastic out of the environment and keeping it out.  For that we needed to find a circular solution.  Once we saw that apparel companies were using some recycled plastics in clothing, we challenged ourselves to develop a garment made entirely out of recycled material and more importantly, to make it recyclable back into our process.  Helping clean up one of the most polluting industries in the process, the textile industry, is a great added bonus.

What inspired you to start a company focused on environmental sustainability, and how did you get started?

My co-founder and I both have supply chain backgrounds so once the idea of sustainable apparel surfaced, we went straight to the source: textile manufacturers in the US.  We started with companies recycling plastic bottles into fiber.  Then we moved on to yarn spinners, fabric knitters, dye houses, cut & sew shops, and finally printers.  We worked with all of these partners to develop a prototype that at the end of its useful life could be recycled back into the same process as the plastic bottles were going into. 

How did your business school experience help to launch the venture (conception and planning, a network to open doors and possibly secure funding, etc.)

I received plenty of great advice from my professors about not only having a great story to tell, but making a great product as well. I was referred to a start-up accelerator by one of my professors that proved to be extremely helpful in our early stages.  We were also close to closing a seed round with an investor group we met through Emory in early 2020, that is until the pandemic hit unfortunately. 

What makes your company’s approach to environmental sustainability unique or different from other solutions?

Last Bottle is built around owning the entire product lifecycle.  We are accountable for how our customers use and dispose of our products because we live in this same world as everyone else. There is no such thing as “away” when someone throws something away. 

How do you balance your company’s environmental goals with the need to generate revenue and ensure financial sustainability?

There are certain non-negotiables when it comes to sustainability.  Sure, you can make the decision to source from Central America instead of the Southeastern US to help drive costs down, but when it comes down to our core mission of taking plastic pollution out of the environment and keeping it out, there’s no compromise. It helps that Last Bottle was incorporated as a Public Benefit Corporation, so that we are also accountable for the planet and people, not just profit. 

What are some of the long-term goals you have for your company, and how do you plan to achieve them?

Our long-term goal is to help other brands become circular.  I don’t think it was ever our intent to create a massive brand of our own.  We wanted to prove that a truly circular apparel line could be done.  Now that we have, in order to make the greatest impact, we would like to help other brands bring their own circular apparel lines to market. 

What advice would you give to other entrepreneurs who are interested in starting a company focused on environmental sustainability?

Do not feel overwhelmed at the scale of the problem you are trying to address. No single product or service is going to solve it.  Be laser focused on the small portion of the problem you can help solve and go after it. 

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