Environmentally-friendly retail therapy: Alum expands “green” shop in MKE

Green is a way of life for Sasha Stone. As the founder of Green Life Trading Co., a Madison-based retail store offering sustainable and renewable products for cleaning, health, and beauty, she’s opened up an avenue for people who want to reduce their environmental footprint while still enjoying quality goods.

Now, her hard work and conservation-conscious ethos has paid off: Stone recently announced plans to expand her business to Milwaukee. Green Life Trading Co. will open in the space formerly occupied by Glass Pantry in the city’s Walker’s Point neighborhood.

Stone, a UWM alumna who majored in sociology, recently sat down to talk about her business, going green, and how UWM helped point her in an entrepreneurial direction.

You’re a business owner who didn’t major in business, but in sociology. What drew you to that particular major?

Sociology helped me frame and contextualize the world around me while also teaching me to think critically. I like to explain sociology as “if it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, it’s probably not a duck”. That’s what it did for me; it made me look at things I thought I understood and question my perceptions, which is so important for young adults.

Do you have any professors who made an impact on you at UWM?

Assistant professor Oriol Mirosa and his environmental sociology class was a turning point in my education and what turned out to be my career. This class showed me there was space for sociology and creativity in the environmental field. After this class, I picked up my Conservation and Environmental Science (CES) Minor.

How did the idea for the Green Life Trading Co. come about?

I love this question because it was in a class that the idea popped into my head for the first time. I believe it was Environmental Policy, a senior-level class filled with global studies and CES students. Our discussion prompt was something along the lines of: What actions do you personally take for the environment? The room was partially crickets. Looking around and seeing that the folks who were dedicating their careers to various environmental causes didn’t have the tools to make sustainable decisions in their daily life gave me the Oprah “aha!” moment.

It wasn’t until a few years later, when my partner and I had just moved to Madison, and I could not sleep until I put a pen to paper and listed every single product I wanted to sell, that the idea began to form into a plan.

What was the plan? What is your business mission?

Green Life Trading Co. believes that sustainability isn’t an exclusive club. Our mission is to provide friendly and accessible resources for thinking big and shopping small. Whether it’s in-store or online, we hope to bring a sense of eco-friendly ease into shopping for everyday essentials and inspired items.

And you have plenty of items from that initial list on sale today.

We offer a variety of sustainable, plastic and package-free home and personal goods. If you use something every day or week, we probably sell it! Our most popular items are toilet bowl cleaners, laundry detergent, dish soap, deodorant, shampoo, conditioner and hand soap.

We focus on the end of life of our products. That means if you can’t use it up, or compost or recycle the product or packaging, we won’t sell it. We even have a take back program for compostable goods. For our bulk section, we encourage folks to bring their own reused jars or grab one from our free, donated jar shelf.

Green Life Trading Co. started life online. What prompted you to open a brick-and-mortar location?

We launched our online store in October of 2018 as a way to dip our toes in the water. When I started, I thought I had a good idea of what people wanted, but through popups I realized that these products were not enough. At that point we only sold low waste goods because refilling was not an easy task online.

The brick-and-mortar allowed us to open the refillery where we offer almost 80 products in bulk, and over 60 of these products we also sell on our website.

But then along came 2020…

Our biggest challenge, COVID, forced us to create an online bulk refill marketplace that is exceptional in its offerings and sustainability! Our opening day aligned with Dane County’s stay-at-home order, which left us with a store full of bulk products that people couldn’t access.

Until this point, I did not want to deal with the logistics of offering our bulk products online, but COVID left us no choice. We now offer over 60 of our liquid, powder, and packaging-free items online to be shipped anywhere in the lower 48. We ship liquids in refillable pouches that come with prepaid return mailers so folks can easily send the pouches back to be sanitized and reused. We ship using reused boxes and filler and compostable tape.

Do you have a favorite product you sell?

I love our bar soaps. They are made by Perennial Soaps, a Racine based woman owned company, their soaps are vegan and palm oil free and come in so many amazing scents.

You can buy bars online but in store is the fun part! We carry these huge loaves of soap, the length of your forearm, and folks can cut off however much they want to buy.

You are about to open a second location in Milwaukee – what led to the expansion? What are your hopes for your company here?

Our Milwaukee expansion was serendipitous. Jenna, the owner of The Glass Pantry, has been a business bud for years. When it came time for Jenna to renew her lease, she decided not to so she could spend more time with her young family. After she publicly announced her closing, we had one of our business bud Zooms. I expressed interest in buying her shelves and bins and she expressed sadness that Milwaukee was losing its low waste store.

This conversation snowballed into expanding into the former Glass Pantry. With Jenna’s help we were able to move in and get this project underway, with an expected soft open of mid-November.

I am so excited to continue what the Glass Pantry started! Jenna did an amazing job working with local makers and nonprofits which is a practice we hope to continue.

What are the challenges associated with being an entrepreneur? What do you like about it?

The biggest challenge is how often I have to say no. I am surrounded by a team of incredibly smart, creative, talented and positive people. We will have a staff meeting that goes half an hour over because people are overflowing with ideas. If I had all the time and money in the world, we would do them all!

On the flip side, having been the final decision maker for some time now, I am confident in my experience and knowledge. When I have to go back to my team and say no, I can also say, “and here’s why,” knowing I’ve made the best decision for our company, community and environment.

Have you been able to see your impact?

The most unexpected experience has been the amount of people that thank us for existing. From my perspective, I need to thank them for letting me have my dream job.

On the business side, we have several vendors who did not originally offer their products in bulk but were open to it when we reached out. Now, I see these vendors in low-waste stores across the country. It’s so fun to see their names pop up in other stores and think, hey, I did that!

Do you have advice for other budding entrepreneurs?

Take advice with a grain of salt. While business experts might have a wealth of knowledge and experience, nobody knows your business as much as you do. I was once told I wouldn’t be able to manage more than 7 products. Welp, last I checked we have about 1,000 and we’re managing just fine!

Did your UWM education help in any way to get you to where you are today?

It absolutely did. Although more personal than business, I always say my degree made me a better person. That’s what college is supposed to do.

By Sarah Vickery, College of Letters & Science