Jill Fecteau has always been passionate about protecting the environment. Now she’s making it her business.
Six months ago, the 26-year-old Malta resident launched Earth Sunflower, which sells more than a dozen eco-friendly products online at earthsunflower.com and in Capital Region stores: cotton and muslin produce bags; cotton mesh shopping bags; canvas tote bags; bamboo and steel drinking straws; and bamboo cutlery sets that you can carry in your car, purse or backpack. Most of the products are handmade by artisans in India.
Fecteau is determined to reduce plastic pollution by providing alternative products that are reusable.
“I’m about the mission, the education,” she says. “That’s what I want the business to be about, getting people to wake up to the reality. The five-year plan is to kick butt and get plastic out of people’s houses.”
On a recent snowy day in Saratoga Springs, Fecteau sipped iced coffee in the Four Seasons Natural Foods Café, looked up at the wall and admired the beautiful, colorful photographs of decomposing fruits and veggies from Terri-Lynn Pellegri’s “Love Compost” exhibit.
“I’m thrilled to be able to do what I love. I’m thrilled to be able to talk to people about plastic. I do it every day and I’m not tired of it.”
Her timing couldn’t be better. With the New York state ban on plastic grocery bags rolling out today, Earth Sunflower offers two cotton bags that can be used for groceries. While plastic produce bags for fruits and vegetables are not part of the state ban, the reusable trend is apparently catching on, as Fecteau’s cloth produce bags are her best-selling items.
“Consumers are wanting different options. It’s really a win-win,” she says.
State officials estimate that 24 billion plastic bags are used each year to package items from stores, and Fecteau knows that some shoppers and cashiers are concerned about the ban.
“It can be frustrating at times. We’re talking about complete lifestyle changes, societal change.”
Earth Sunflower is an outgrowth of Earth’s Last Straw, Fecteau’s campaign to eliminate plastic straws in Saratoga Springs. For two years, while working as a manager at Tushita Heaven on Broadway, she went door to door downtown and talked to owners of restaurants, cafes and bars about getting rid of plastic straws.
“Now I’m trying to do it with people. I’ve turned my attention from the establishments to the people who go to those establishments,” she says.
Four Seasons Natural Foods Store, Healthy Living Market & Cafe, Saratoga Tea & Honey, Saratoga Debut Salon & Boutique, Old Saratoga Mercantile in Schuylerville and Moorfield’s Green Grocer in Clifton Park carry her products. She’s also on Etsy.
Fecteau runs the operation on a laptop from her home or on the go with her phone. She recently hired a bookkeeper, but she does the marketing and mails the online orders. Products headed to local retailers are delivered in person. Her online customers are from all over the country.
“Arizona, Florida, California, Maine. Yesterday I sent an order to Hawaii,” she says.
To help pay the bills as her business grows, she teaches English online to school children in China and works as a dog walker, which offers a flexible schedule and time outdoors.
Fecteau’s interest in nature and the Earth took root as she grew up and played outdoors in the Albany County town of Bethlehem.
“I’m the generation that did have big clunky computers and Game Boys, but it wasn’t as crazy as it is today.”
Today, she’s a hiker and kayaker who finds “ultimate happiness in the middle of a Northeastern forest.”
Her awareness of the plastic problem evolved as she earned a bachelor’s degree in international/global studies from Arcadia University in Pennsylvania and lived in Germany, Belgium, Tanzania and India.
In 2013, she spent eight months in Pune, India, where she was a social services intern assisting sex workers in a red-light district.
“I really saw plastic pollution at its greatest height. Rivers weren’t flowing anymore because there was so much plastic in them. It’s all over. And a lot of it is Doritos and Lay’s and Gatorade … exported from the United States.”
Her connections in India, including a friend who lives in Maharashtra state, helped her find companies and organizations that work with artisans.
Earth Sunflower products are made by two different groups in India. The small cotton bags that hold straws and cutlery are handcrafted by physically disabled men and women. The organic bamboo cutlery is handmade by a group of men in another part of India. Her newest products, reusable cotton makeup pads and coconut handle dish brushes, are made by women in Bali.
“Where it’s made is really important to me. I won’t order unless I get some pictures of the artisans or where the artisans are working. I hope in a year or two to actually go there myself and meet them.”
In the Capital Region, Fecteau is constantly answering questions about plastic recycling and alternative products.
She says the most common query is, “Why can’t I just recycle that?”
“Recycling is not working anymore,” she tells them. “It’s not really a great solution. It’s not even a solution.”
From the 1950s to 2018, an estimated 6.3 billion tons of plastic waste was produced worldwide, of which 9 percent was recycled and another 12 percent was incinerated, according to The Economist magazine.
As Earth Sunflower moves forward, Fecteau has several goals.
“A lot of people are still getting on the produce bag train. I’m hoping to expand the line. Everything I want to bring in online is an alternative to single-use plastic.”
Right now, she’s researching how to replace the plastic bottle of dish soap that’s in every American kitchen. She’s also investigating single-use bamboo fiber straws made in India and wants to see how long it takes to compost them. “I’ve found that restaurants are not ready for reusables. They want eco-friendly single-use products.”
Fecteau’s personal reusable bamboo straw is eight months old. “It’s rockin’ and rollin.’ As long as you clean them properly and let them sit out to dry, bamboo is incredible.”
She’s not optimistic about replacing plastic straws with paper ones. “I’m really on the all-reusable train. That mindset is dangerous, where you swap one single-use for another single-use. That is not the road that we should be heading down because it still gives people the illusion that it’s OK.”
Another goal is to create a 30-second educational video. She also wants to talk to recycling companies in upstate New York and find out what’s cost-effective and what’s not.
Fecteau’s 10-year goal is a big one.
“I’m going to run to be a New York state senator. I really want to get into environmental policy,” she says. “We just need to talk about this. There needs to be a dialogue, and the dialogue can’t stop.”