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Less is more: Kiva borrower Hannah makes it her business to increase access to eco-friendly products

Back in the old days, before supermarkets became part of daily life, folks used to leave their milk bottles outside their back doors to be refilled. It was easy and convenient, and instead of creating an empty jug to throw away, it reused the same container again and again.

That’s the idea behind Foster’s Refillery, a small business based in Salt Lake City that delivers eco-friendly products to customers by replenishing their own reusable jars.

“We’re like the milkman, but for soap,” explains owner Hannah of her reinvented business model. “You leave your jars outside for us, and we come to your house and fill them for you.”

Offering gentle and effective cleaning supplies, shampoo, body wash, lotions, and more, Foster’s Refillery helps people reduce their single-use plastic waste. The delivery service has been a runaway hit in Salt Lake City and its surrounding areas, and when Hannah decided to expand her business, she applied for a Kiva loan to accommodate more suppliers and update her website.

“I'm always thinking about the most effective and ethical way to get funding. Kiva will always be something that I consider as we grow.”

“Our whole business is online, we don't have a brick-and-mortar,” says the environmentally-minded entrepreneur. “We needed to get our website up and running and streamline it and clear up a lot of holes.”

The simple online ordering process and lack of overhead keeps prices down on her products, which creates more entry points for people to achieve a more sustainable, less wasteful lifestyle.

After realizing the affordability of refillable products while traveling abroad, Hannah brought the concept back to the US.

“My business ethos is I want to make environmentalism, the environmental movement, something that everyone can be a part of and something that is inclusive,” attests Hannah.

“I realized that a refiller is a really good vehicle to do that because you don't have to pay for packaging, you don't have to pay for labels. You're just paying for the bulk product, and then customers can fill however much they want.”

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‘Fostering’ environmental awareness with entrepreneurship

Born and raised in Salt Lake City, Hannah moved to New York to attend City College of New York with the initial intention of becoming an environmental lawyer. After completing CUNY’s pre-law program and taking the LSAT, however, she realized she wanted to follow a different path towards making a difference. 

“I took a year off and went traveling, went through my savings, went to New Zealand for about a year,” she recounts. 

She snagged a job working at a natural grocery store that had a refillery component and realized that was the most affordable, since “a lot of these really cool eco-friendly products were super expensive.”

That seeded the idea of bringing the concept back to Salt Lake City, where she envisioned spreading the message of responsible consumption with a new venture that supported other small businesses.

“While I was in New Zealand, I was so enamored with small businesses because they have such an impact on their community. They have such power to do good. It's something that I knew I wanted to be a part of.”

Foster’s Refillery now sources about 50 percent of its products from other local companies, reducing even more waste by cutting down on CO2 emissions associated with transportation costs. (In fact, many deliveries are done by bicycle, decreasing emissions even further!)

Foster's Refillery is mindful of their emissions - that's why they employ a bicycle delivery service.

What’s not fulfilled locally comes from other companies that share Foster’s focus on sustainability and reuse of resources, applying it to the entire supply chain. 

“We get big bulk containers from our suppliers and then when those are empty, we send those back to our suppliers to be refilled, so there's no plastic waste, essentially at all,” says Hannah, who estimates that hundreds, if not thousands, of plastic bottles have been saved from the consumption cycle.

Related: Championing Black ownership in the toy aisle

Growing with a Kiva loan and community support

As a small business owner that relies on and supports other small businesses, Hannah needed a boost of capital to pay more vendors to create more of their sweet-smelling soaps and lotions. Applying for a zero-interest loan directly through Kiva, designed especially for U.S. entrepreneurs, made sense, though she had some trepidation about the loan’s local crowdfunding aspect.

“Initially, I was super apprehensive because it's awkward to ask people for money,” she admits of stepping out of her comfort zone. “But the more I learned about Kiva and looked into the other businesses that Kiva was helping, it made me realize that it was something that was accessible and not scary.”

Related: 6 more US-based women entrepreneurs that used Kiva loans to grow their businesses

It’s no surprise that the response was overwhelmingly positive, and the loan was funded quickly with the help of existing customers and members of Salt Lake City’s eco-minded organizations. 

“It helped me realize that I have a whole community behind me, a whole community that believes in this project and is willing to put money down. It made it a lot more personal and more motivating,” says Hannah of the loan process. 

“If you believe in your project, you should be able to talk to your community about it.” 

Fund a small business in the U.S. 

Increasing environmental access and participation

Growing Foster’s Refillery has not only increased profits, it’s also helping broaden social awareness across the region. While childhood camping trips to the desert with her dad instilled in Hannah an appreciation for the planet’s limited precious resources, she also saw how accessing pristine ecosystems was a privilege not everyone can access.  

“The environmental movement can be so boxy. I want to make it hipper, more fun, more youthful, something that's not quite so doom and gloom.”

“I remember some of my friends being like, ‘We don't do that, that's not for us because we don't have the gear,’” she remembers, acknowledging that “not only is it a socioeconomic divide, but it is so starkly a racial divide.”

Affordability and accessibility remain key points of Foster’s Refillery mission, as does supporting the larger environmental justice and equity movements. The company also partners with Multicultural Experts Socializing Around Solutions (MESAS), a program that trains Latinx youth for leadership roles and jobs in the ecological sector, and donates 15 percent of sales of the company’s hoodies to the organization.

“I just have always been really intrigued with how environmental work can also be tied into community work and how environmental work can also be tied with environmental justice, the intersectionality of it,” muses Hannah. 

She also believes that inclusivity can help alleviate isolation and bring people together around the planetary crisis. 

“Obviously, there are some very heavy issues revolving around our environmental state,” she acknowledges. “Global climate change and climate anxiety are so real, especially with our generation.”

Related: How to help the earth: 5 ways you can actively protect our environment 

‘Bringing vibrancy to the movement’ 

While environmental issues remain a formidable fear, Hannah hopes that the Foster’s Refillery can lighten up attitudes towards the challenges ahead. 

“I just want to bring a little color, bring a little spice, and bring vibrancy to the movement,” she says. “The environmental movement can be so boxy. I want to make it hipper, more fun, more youthful, something that's not quite so doom and gloom.”

Hannah's business is a hit in Salk Lake City - she was even featured on the local news!

Keeping environmental sustainability in mind, Salt Lake City’s modern “milkperson” hopes to expand delivery services to more of Utah and even different states by franchising warehouses, though she promises to keep the local bike delivery system. It’s all hypothetical for now, though Hannah says she would definitely apply for another Kiva loan when it’s time to expand again. 

“I'm always thinking about the most effective and ethical way to get funding. Kiva will always be something that I consider as we grow.”

Like the reusable containers of Foster’s Refillery, the money you lend on Kiva can be used again and again. Every time a lender is repaid, they can choose to contribute to another entrepreneur—taking part in a sustainable process that increases your impact on financial inclusivity. 

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About the author

Jessica Leigh Lebos

Jessica Leigh Lebos is Kiva's Senior Storyteller and an award-winning writer based in Savannah, Georgia, USA. Covering social justice, cultural equity, sustainable growth, financial literacy, and always celebrating others' success, she is thrilled to help share Kiva's mission—and the stories of the people it connects.