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The Industry Interview: Sarah Kauss, founder, S'well

Marcus Jaye
04 January 2019

Recently, a French swimmer swam to Hawaii from Japan claiming he saw "one piece of plastic every three minutes” in the ocean. Benoit Lecomte, 51, reached Oahu, Hawaii, six months after setting off from Japan and says his crew collected 4,385 pieces of plastic during the six-month mission.

It is these types of reports that are making consumers think about reusable packaging, particularly with something as simple as water.

The first time I was introduced to the S’well brand, a few years ago, it was billed as “a portable hydration device”. My initial, British eye-roll response was justifiably, “but, it’s a water bottle?!”

I thought this was more L.A.-centric, Goop B.S. for woke mothers and their competitive yogic friends. Paying £40 for an aluminium water bottle, “are you mad?” I thought.

Fast forward a few years, add in a couple of episodes of Blue Planet and the hysteria surrounding plastic water bottles, and I think they’re onto something.

Sarah Kauss is, now, one of the most successful female entrepreneurs in the USA. She started S’well in 2010 with a mission to rid the world of plastic bottles and to create a product that was fun, fashionable and philanthropic. Over the last few years, the business has quickly gone from a $10m to a $100m global business and spawned many imitators.

Sarah grew up in Florida, but went to school in Colorado. Today, she’s back in Florida, but flies weekly to New York City. "Before S’well, I was a CPA (Certified Public Accountant) at Ernst & Young and later led the international business development division for a real estate company. In between, I attended Harvard Business School in Boston, where I earned my MBA in 2003.” she says.

“At the time I came up with the idea for S’well, I was searching for more happiness in my career, something more meaningful.”

“At the time I came up with the idea for S’well, I was searching for more happiness in my career, something more meaningful,” says Kauss. “I’d always carried a reusable bottle, but it wasn’t keeping up with my style or working as well as I wanted. I assumed other people like me might want a bottle that worked harder, looked better and did more good for the world. While on a hike in Arizona, I took a sip of warm water out of my reusable bottle and in that moment, the idea of S’well was born.

S’well has pioneered the water-bottle-as-fashion-accessory-while feeling-like-you’re-doing-your-bit-for-the-planet business model. People’s over consumption and wastefulness has been focussed on plastic, recently, and water bottles are the top of the villainised list of culprits.

“I launched S’well in 2010 by myself.” says Kauss. “Today, we are in our eighth year with just over 100 employees in NYC and London, and are sold in 65 countries. I still own 100% of the company. When we reached our $100m goal, we stopped reporting numbers, but we feel excited about our innovation roadmap and areas of focus for the future of the business,” she says.

"When we reached our $100m goal, we stopped reporting numbers."

Today, it’s cool to be seen to drink tap water. Micro plastics aside, this movement is growing momentum, and people are using these bottles as everyday accessorises. Infrastructure is going into support this growing movement. The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has confirmed the locations of the first 20 new public water fountains he is funding in busy stations, shopping centres, museums, business districts and other venues across London.

The fountains are part of the Mayor’s work to cut plastic waste by reducing single-use plastic bottles and instead encouraging people to refill rather than buy bottled water.

Four of the fountains have already been installed – at Heart of Valentines Park, Redbridge, Kingly Court, off Carnaby Street, and two at Liverpool Street Station – and are proving popular. More than 8,000 litres of drinking water, the equivalent of 16,000 water bottles, has been dispensed from the Liverpool Street Station fountains in less than one month. The Kingly Court fountain, off Carnaby Street, one of London’s busiest shopping areas, has been used more than 10,000 times a month this summer.

The average Londoner buys more than three plastic water bottles a week – 175 bottles a year. In the whole of the UK, some 7.7 billion plastic bottles are bought every year.

Selfridges just unveiled the Rolls-Royce of drinking fountains outside its new entrance on Duke Street crafted from exquisite green marble and provides regular filtered tap water and, in Bristol, the local authority has announced plans to introduce 12 new public drinking fountains across the city.


The Selfridges public water fountain

“We saw a huge opportunity in the UK and did not want to miss it, so we quickly opened our London office in October 2015,” says Kauss. “Highlights since the launch in the UK include: S’well more than tripled in growth from 2016 to 2017 in the UK and is continuing to trend in this direction. In the first 14 months, we entered every major UK retailer including Harrods, Selfridges, John Lewis, Harvey Nichols, and Liberty of London. Since then we’ve launched S’well innovation and our S’ip by S’well line in key retailers including Debenhams, Boots and more,” she says.

Made from food grade stainless steel, the S’well bottles are highly resistant to rust and do not need a liner. The ‘Therma-S’well’ technology keep beverages cold for up to 24 hours and hot for up to 12.

“There are a number of things that make S’well unique from our design, innovation and mission to our 70-step manufacturing process.” says Kauss. “S’well products are designed at our HQ in New York City and responsibly made in China. Since S’well’s launch in 2010, we have expanded from the Original Bottle to now offering six forms in multiple sizes with over 200 colours and patterns. We’ve even extended our accessories to include a drink-through Sport Cap, a hinged-handle Swing Cap and Commuter Lid, so there is a S’well for every one of life’s moments!” she says.

With the coloured wraps and different finishes, there are numerous opportunities for new designs and collaborations with other brands. Recent partnerships include Liberty Fabric, Lilly Pultizer and photographer, Gray Malin.

The S’well name is pure Americana, standing for the wholesome goodness of a bygone era and also suggests a groundswell of people coming together or the simple pleasure of watching the swells in the ocean says the company.

“People are beginning to understand the impact of plastic on the earth and our role in trying to change it,” says Kauss. “There has been growth in the hydration category as a whole, thanks to growing consumer demand and we’re excited consumers are looking to us as a beautiful and sustainable solution. Eliminating single-use plastic bottles has always been our mission, even before there were as many conversations on the topic.” she says.

“UK consumers, in specific, are very well educated on the environmental effects of single-use plastic bottles and are constantly looking for alternative solutions."

“UK consumers, in specific, are very well educated on the environmental effects of single-use plastic bottles and are constantly looking for alternative solutions. S’well provides a span of design-led products that cater to different needs and personalities, to help reduce the use.” she says.

“At S’well, we are always ideating new, impactful ways to communicate our mission to rid the world of single-use plastic bottles.” says Kauss. “To give you a recent example, this past September, we launched a major program, BRING IT NYC – a multi-channel campaign focused on helping New York City public school students and the community reduce waste through advocacy and action. Over 320,000 high school students across the city received a S’well or S’ip by S’well reusable bottle with the goal to displace more than 54 million single-use plastic bottles over the next 12 months.”

Can you recycle a S'well bottle? “Yes! We encourage people to recycle according to their local guidelines.” says Kauss.

We’re finally waking up to the fact we can’t throw away the volumes of waste we currently do and the water business is a simple and easy fix solution by reusing a durable water carrier. Anything that makes it cool and encourages people to use and refill their water bottles is a good thing and S’well has created a desirable and personal product. Let’s just hope it’s a case of all's well that ends S’well.

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