The TH Interview: Michelle Kalberer of Klean Kanteen

A Klean Kanteen in a box.

Tiago Pereira / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

After hearing Julia Butterfly Hill speak about the impact of plastics to our planet and to our health, Robert Seals decided he was going to do something about the ever-growing problem of plastic water bottles. He created a stainless steel water bottle that is inert, toxin-free and non-leaching. Robert needed a distribution company and someone to run the business. Enter Michelle Kalberer and Jeff Cresswell, siblings who joined the family distribution business after graduating from college, and Klean Kanteen was born. When Robert moved on, Michelle and Jeff became the caretakers. Treehugger chatted with Michelle about the ups and downs of running an eco-friendly business and how they got from sitting atop an ancient Redwood tree named Luna to a stainless steel water bottle.

TreeHugger: In general, how skeptical are people when you inform them of the use of plastics and is awareness growing?

Michelle Kalberer: Most people are somewhat already aware of the issue. We try not to push this as we feel they should investigate it on their own and make their own decision. We refer them to several places to read about plastics. The awareness is growing indeed as we get many phone calls a day with people talking about these issues and who are very glad to have an alternative.

TH: Being a business that sells a "green" product, do you find that you are held to a higher standard, whether it be your environmental impact or social impacts, than other businesses?

MK: Yes. We feel we have to be environmentally and socially friendly as our customers rely on that. Sometimes that is hard to do, but we are trying our best to be that type of business.

TH: If there was one aspect of your business model you could change, what would that be?

MK: Have a product development and marketing team so that we could bring similar products to our customers and the public. But this takes money and as a small company we are working to get there. There is a lot more, but this is good for now.

TH: What was the biggest obstacle facing the two of you in starting up this business and what is the single most important piece of advice you would give our readers who want to start their own eco-friendly business?

MK: Initially, cleaning up a disorganized company and moving forward. Secondly, eco-friendly products are often more expensive than their counterparts. Our advice is to have good organization, friendly customer service and marketing to get the buyer to spend the extra dollar for an eco-friendly product. One last and very important aspect, is having a good image -- a memorable logo -- which is what we are working on right now. This is what people will remember you by.

TH: What's it like to run a business with your sibling?

MK: We absolutely love to work together. We each have our own strengths and weaknesses that play off each other well. We are lucky that we get along so well together and both have good work ethics. The only down side is because we are both so involved that we are constantly talking about work after hours which drives our spouses crazy.

TH: Where did you two inherit your passion for the planet? Has your family always been environmentally conscious?

MK: We live in a community that holds its public park as its crown jewel. Bidwell Park (in Chico, CA) is one of the largest municipal parks in the nation. As children and now adults, we enjoy its rewards daily as it has engrained in us an environmental awareness for open spaces. We grew up always trying to recycle, conserve electricity, and to not waste when possible. Our college years further made us aware of environmental issues and how to make change.

TH: What is the single biggest factor holding us back from being a more environmentally aware and conscious society?

MK: We feel that the media plays a big part in showing us how we are supposed to look, act, and feel. As a materialistic society we are spending our time buying things to meet those stereotypes which are often unnecessary and environmentally degrading.

Michelle Kalberer is half of the brother-sister team that heads up Klean Kanteen.

[Interview conducted by TreeHugger intern Lien Thoo]