Susan Aplin worked behind the scenes for two decades helping run some of the biggest retail stores around — Williams-Sonoma, Sports Authority, Staples, The Gap, Banana Republic, Old Navy and Pottery Barn.
But it wasn't until she and friend Carolyn Wapnick took a vacation to Alaska's Prince William Sound that she found her true calling: retail with a cause.
As a result of the trip, the duo founded bambeco, an online seller of sustainable home furnishings. Since 2009, the Baltimore-based retailer has grown from two employees to nearly two dozen and attracted more than $4 million worth of investment.
The company, which would not disclose annual sales, actively sells and ships its thousands of sustainable products to every state and Canada and expects to nearly double its workforce this year. Aplin, the company's CEO, also said she is working on the retailer's first brick-and-mortar deal: selling a line of glassware through a major grocer she can't name yet.
"Our mission is to change the world, one room at a time," said Aplin, who said the idea to promote sustainable living through home decor grew out of that 2006 Alaska trip. "My eyes were opened by the glaciers receding … and I saw the impact on the climate."
She returned to her home in Washington, D.C., determined to examine her own carbon footprint. She began looking for greener ways to commute, clean the house and do laundry. But when she needed to replace some household furnishings and sought sustainable products, she hit roadblocks.
"I couldn't find anything … that was fashionable," she said. "You could find pillows for sale, but they were made of hemp. I believed I wasn't the only one out there who felt that way."
Her research supported that belief. One survey showed that more than half of consumers would buy sustainable items if they were readily available, including a portion of die-hard shoppers who would go out of their way to make such purchases
As the idea to start a business evolved, she left her job, sold her house in Washington and moved to a cabin she owned in West Virginia. In Moorefield, W.Va., she and Wapnick, who has a media and technology background and is now bambeco's chief technology officer, found a distraction-free and economical place to hammer out a business plan.
With a $250,000 investment — their own money as well as funds raised from family and friends — they rented a warehouse, set up an office and launched the brand that takes its name from "bamboo" and "ecology."
All the merchandise — rugs, pillows, vases, clocks, serving pieces, dinnerware, duvets and blankets — are made from recycled, reclaimed, organic or natural materials.
The current collection features root wood appetizer plates for $28, organic cotton bath towels for $68 and reclaimed timber Spanish olive trays for $110. Shoppers can find Adirondack chairs made from recycled detergent bottles and milk jugs, chemical-free natural fiber rugs and recycled glassware.
While the company focuses on turning a profit, it also sets environmental goals, donating 1 percent of every sale to an environmental group such as the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the Nature Conservancy.
The company grew, attracting customers and bringing them back, despite almost no advertising other than word of mouth and social media.
In November, the company got a big financial shot in the arm, announcing it had received $4.5 million in equity funding. The deal included $1 million from New Atlantic Ventures, a venture capital firm that focuses on consumer products and technology startups. Other funds came from the Maryland Venture Fund and angel investors including Bruce Cleland, founder of Team in Training and former CEO of Campbell & Co., a Towson investment management firm.
Thanasis Delistathis, a managing partner of New Atlantic, said bambeco has all the right elements: a unique market and products; loyal customers; healthy margins; and a high percentage of items shipped from suppliers, reducing inventory costs. In addition, he cited Alpin's experience with iconic brands, a plus for filling what he views as a hole in the growing retail e-commerce market for a brand driven by a sense of mission.
"We always bet on the people, and — especially at the early stages of a business' life — it's important to have the right CEO," Delistathis said. "Susan is someone who has relevant experience in e-commerce but the passion for getting this done.
"We feel that this is a big market, and it's an untapped market," he said. "Consumers want to really find good green goods."
As demand has grown, mainstream retailers have responded as well. Pottery Barn advertises furniture with soy-based cushions and sustainably harvested wood. Ikea says it has increased its use of recycled wood and the share of cotton from sustainable sources. Crate & Barrel sells bamboo furniture and organic cotton towels.
Consumer research released last fall by the Sustainable Furnishings Council showed "the consumer is more aware about sustainability, especially as it pertains to energy savings and reclaimed materials," the council's executive director, Susan Inglis, said in a statement.
The study found that almost half of consumers surveyed were interested in buying green home furnishings if the style and cost were about the same as other choices.
Delistathis said Americans spend more than $157 billion a year on home furnishings, but nearly two-thirds say they can't find eco-friendly choices. For bambeco, that's translated to one of the highest rates in e-commerce of converting web visitors to customers, Delistathis said.
Besides funding from New Atlantic, bambeco has attracted a total of $1.3 million in backing from the state Department of Business and Economic Development's Maryland Venture fund since 2011. The state funding financed inventory going into the holiday selling period in 2012 as well as growth during the first half of last year, said Tom Dann, the fund's managing director.
"The management team of the company is really excellent," said Dann, noting Aplin's experience heading e-commerce for Williams-Sonoma. "We thought this would be a company that has the potential for rapid growth. We see them creating a lot of jobs over the next few years."
Aplin and Wapnick had no direct connection to Baltimore before moving bambeco here in 2010.
When it was time to establish a bigger corporate office, they wanted to be close to top talent in a sustainable setting. They narrowed down a list of a half-dozen cities — among them New York and San Francisco — to Baltimore, which they liked for its sustainability and ranking on a top 10 green cities list. They found space in a rehabbed building in Brooklyn on the city's southern end, a former grocery warehouse that had been converted into a wind- and solar-powered geo-thermal office building.
Since then, the company has lured experts from top retailers and brands, including Levi's, Timberland and Under Armour.
The Baltimore office seems fitting for a seller of green products, with open space, exposed brick walls, natural light from large windows and workspaces made of wood from recycled doors. Some employees choose to bring their dogs to work or park bicycles near desks. Plants hang in containers along the walls, near a whiteboard that poses the question: "What sustains you?" Among the handwritten answers from staff and visitors: "hope," "creative thinking," "birthday cake" and "a cool breeze."
Bambeco goods are showcased throughout, including a yellow serving tray that Aplin found out only recently had been used on the set of TV show "Modern Family" and is made of biodegradable polyurethane.
Most items are created by bambeco designers and made in factories, many of them family-owned, that agree to make products to bambeco's sustainability specifications.
To assemble a collection for each season 12 to 18 months in advance, Aplin said the company uses practices common to other home furnishings retailers. Designers develop specific products by closely watching dining, cooking and other lifestyle trends.
One of the biggest challenges for bambeco, as with every e-commerce site, comes down to finding the customers in the most cost-effective way, Delistathis said.
"We know the customers are out there," he said.