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Reusable bag company rings success bell

Kaitlin Ballard

We all have a special way of celebrating, of taking a second to realize achievements. For the women behind Blue Avocado, a line of eco-friendly grocery bags launched a year ago, that special way is in the form of a bell, like the kind you ring when supper's ready.

Founders Paige Davis, Melissa Nathan and Amy George recently purchased one for their East Austin office to take note of small successes, such as getting good sales news or securing another retailer.

"We've rung it like five times," George said four (working) days after the purchase.

"Now we're a little crazy with it," said Nathan.

Despite meeting for coffee at different times (George and Nathan at Whole Foods and Davis at Progress Cafe), they share similar sentiments about the growth of their company and the reception among retailers and consumers. Davis and Nathan are sisters, and George and Nathan went to the McCombs School of Business together.

Blue Avocado started as a response to plastic bag ban initiatives across U.S. cities, with San Francisco at the forefront in early 2007. Davis was living there at the time and relayed the news to her sister, who admits she used nearly 50 plastic bags per week for her young family.

"We started thinking ... what would it take for me and people like myself to kick the plastic bag habit?" said Nathan.

After several online surveys and product tests, where users journaled their likes and dislikes for two weeks, the first line of Gro-Pak reusable grocery bags was born. They found that while the bags needed to be functional, they also needed to be stylish, not to mention collapsible and machine washable.

The Gro-Pak bags are designed to work together and can be purchased in a kit or separately (kits start at $29.99). With names like Pak, Gro, Veg, Pod and Chil, each have a specific function. For instance, the Veg is a ventilated mesh bag and is kept in a side pouch on the Pak bag labeled "Veg here"; the Chil can keep items hot or cold for up to three hours, and the Pod is an all-purpose bag that clips to the pak. They fold up to a clutch-size kit that can be taken anywhere.

It's been labeled "the diaper bag for grocery shopping," said Davis.

A year after the launch, the bags are sold in more than 40 states and Canada at stores such as Sprouts, Whole Foods, H-E-B and Kroger. The company has received national press in Real Simple, InStyle, Parade and "Good Morning America."

The goal was to "start the green journey" for people, and that journey has crossed into nearly every aspect of their lives, too. Nathan downsized her car, and George's 3- and 5-year-old use "reduce, reuse, recycle" in everyday conversation.

Blue Avocado has different connotations for each of the founders, though "the avocado is very clear. It's the green inside," said Nathan. For her, the blue is about style. "For Amy it was very much about the environment, and for Paige it definitely had style, but it has more of a community around it."

The recent launch of a holiday kit and two new bag colors has brought upgrades. Blue Avocado wanted to trace the recycled materials in their bags, but quickly realized few companies provide such a service. They found Repreve, a company based in North Carolina that turns recycled plastic into reusable fibers and is the material used in the bags. The manufacturing company also happens to be women-run, a pleasant surprise when they toured the plant.

Then there's Schlumpy, a giant ball of plastic bags. He was created with the help of their advertising partner, TKO Advertising, as a way to catch people's attention and raise awareness.

They created the Billion Bag Pledge, a movement to get people to pledge to stop using plastic bags. So far, they've reached almost 1.4 million pledges and Schlumpy plans to go on tour next year. He's already been to Chicago, L.A., Atlanta and Nashville and was seen here at the Austin City Limits Music Festival.

Schlumpy's not the only one gaining recognition. Davis recently returned from Scotland after attending the British American Project annual conference as a newly nominated delegate to represent the U.S. This year's theme was "From Abundance to Scarcity" and focused on issues of food, water, climate change and energy. The result of the weeklong event is a formal letter to the president and the prime minister.

"The whole purpose is to encourage a trans-Atlantic debate and dialogue," said Davis. "It's a macro-level organization and very much about policy and systemic change."

Just as the BAP hopes to respond to problems, so does Blue Avocado. After all that's how this all began and they continue to achieve their goals despite launching in the middle of a recession.

And they have their eye on Earth Day, when they plan to reveal a new product. They're optimistic there will be plenty more chances to ring their bell.