For Tonia Torrellas, the solution to cutting down on the plastic waste from dry cleaners seemed obvious:
Create a reusable dry cleaning bag customers could use to drop off and pick up their clothes, eliminating those pesky plastic coverings traditionally sent home by cleaners.
It took only months to come up with the initial design of It's My Bag, but it's taken two-plus years and counting to try to get both customers and dry cleaners to change their habits and be willing to pay extra for her greener option.
"In the beginning, I was starry-eyed thinking it was all going to be easy," says Torrellas, 53, founder of Hicksville-based It's My B Inc., the parent of It's My Bag. "I was mistaken."
Between a poor economy and resistance to change, Torrellas, who still works part time as a nurse, has invested six figures into a green business she hopes will soon start to bloom -- not an uncommon dilemma for green start-ups.
"It's hard to change habits, especially in a difficult economy where price is more dominant than ever," explains Bill Roth, founder of Earth 2017, a San Diego-based consultancy helping companies make money going green.
Key to expanding business
The key to revenue growth is finding "that niche customer that's willing to pay more," says Roth, who worked with Torrellas as a complimentary mentor when she was selected last fall as a winner of the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce Foundation's Green Builds Business Program.
She must cast her net wider than just dry cleaners, who at this point have little incentive to give up their low-cost plastic coverings and invest in buying her product for $8.95 to sell to customers, he notes.
Torrellas should look to "concerned caregivers" such as environmentally conscious moms, green-focused businesses and the hospitality industry, including hotels, as potential markets to tap into, says Roth.
Dry cleaners have been slow to respond since she began approaching them in early 2010. She's managed to get into more than a dozen cleaners, including American Drive-In Cleaners in Hicksville, which purchased 200 company-logoed bags.
"Most people who buy it like it very much," says American owner Peter Kuchlik. Dry cleaners can hang clothes vertically in the zippered bags, which also include a slot for a customer's cleaning ticket and a separate hamper section for dirty clothes that closes with a clip, a patented design that differentiates her from her competitors, says Torrellas.
For Kuchlik, focusing on being greener prompted him to purchase the bags, but he says in general with the poor economy, "cleaners aren't looking to spend more money on something that may not work for them."
Kuchlik has sold the initial 200 he purchased and has also brought the bags into his corporate account, Cablevision, Newsday's parent company, where some employees have purchased them.
A push for visibility
Torrellas is in talks to do a joint venture with Mount Sinai-based My Laundry Station, a patent-pending vending system for laundry and dry cleaning services, which has agreements with universities, hospitals and residential communities.
"I think there might be some value in customers' eyes to have the ability to purchase a dry cleaning bag to transport their garments back and forth," says Mike Viviano of Laundry Station Services, which owns and operates My Laundry Station.
Torrellas, looking to boost visibility, has donated bags to business groups including the Hicksville Chamber of Commerce, 100 Black Men of Long Island and Vision Long Island, in exchange for sponsorships. She's sold ad space on the bags to offset costs and has generated modest revenues of upward of $3,000.
"My big push is to get it into the hands of the trendsetters," Torrellas says, "and then I believe the trend followers will come on board."
AT A GLANCE
Name: It's My B Inc./It's My Bag, Hicksville
Owner: Tonia Torrellas
Established: June 2009
Employees: Sole entrepreneur