Susty Party‘s headquarters are just as adorable as you would imagine. This spunky little maker of sustainably-made partyware works out of a lofted space in Greenpoint, with a view out of the window to Manhattan across the East River. There are bright knick-knacks crowded onto the work desks, the remains of a winter-themed photo booth from a party, succulents and plants on the windowsills, a table strewn with party products and glitter, and a drink cart with all the fixings for some delicious cocktails. Oh, and a composting station in the corner that is collected by the composting company Vokashi.
The day I stop by, co-founder Jessica Holsey isn’t there, but kooky co-founder Emily Doubilet is. When an employee is offering me tea from the communal shelf, she jumps in with alarm. “That’s laxative tea!” she shrieks. “Don’t give her that!” We all giggle at how close they came to accidentally giving the journalist laxative tea, she gets me some normal tea, and we sit on a couch together, an array of donuts on colorful plates in front of me on the cute coffee table.
Emily grew up in Manhattan with parents who were National Geographic photographers. “I was traveling with them on assignment, visiting the world’s most beautiful underwater landscapes. I always felt like underwater was my special place,” she says. She went to Oberlin College, where she studied environmental science. At first she focused on coral reefs, but when she participated in a program on ecology and culture in Madagascar in college, she switched focus to sustainable business. “People need to eat, they need to be healthy, they need to have fun in order to also protect the environment,” she says.
When she graduated from Oberlin in 2006, she moved back to New York and worked at Ice Stone, a maker of sustainable kitchen countertops, eventually becoming the assistant to the director of sustainability. She was also a music, theater, and burlesque performer. “I always wanted to mix business and the fun art of entertaining, with the environment. I was throwing parties all around the city, and all the bar venues were using the disposable, plastic cups. It was really hard to have a party and be sustainable.”
So she combined her passions: parties and entertaining, and sustainable living, co-founding the Susty Party with Jessica. “Sustainability should be a celebration,” she says. “We try to make stuff that people feel good about and can enhance their celebration and have a positive impact on the world and people.”
They started with an online retail store selling the most sustainable party products on the market, which … didn’t do well. “It was hard to attract attention. We almost gave up,” she said. So they switched to making their own sustainable partyware: striped straws, wood silverware, pretty cups, plates and tablecloths, all in matching sets. Getting picked up by Whole Foods and then making it onto the show Shark Tank really launched them into the public eye, even though Shark Tank didn’t provide them with any investment.
“They don’t understand impact investing. They’re traditional sharks,” Emily says. “Even though I’m not supposed to talk about them much – I signed a million NDAs – I don’t think they have realistic expectations. It’s very made for TV for people at home to understand. There’s a major disconnect between how it felt to have them grill us, and what it’s like to sit with real investors who really know the industry. They’re about getting the best deal possible and the lowest evaluation.”
“In the year after filming Shark Tank, we’ve raised over $1 million from angels. They are true impact investors. They are all about a strong environmental impact. People are like, ‘I’m so sorry you didn’t get a deal with the Sharks.’ But it is better this way. It’s better that we’re not working with someone like that who puts a lot of pressure on us.”
I ask her about the fact that many sustainably minded people advocate against using anything disposable at all. “I struggled with that myself, because at the end of the day, our product line is disposable products,” she says. “The best thing is to not buy anything. But people need to have fun, they need to be able to be creative and create magic. When you have a big party, whether it’s a wedding or a picnic in the park, it’s not only possible to bring in your china and reusable mugs. People like convenience. I know I do. So how do we make something that is a step up from plastic, and provide jobs for blind and visually impaired while we’re doing it? If you don’t need the products, don’t buy them. But if it’s something you want in your life anyway, why not use it instead of a non-recycled paper napkin, or a heavy-duty plastic or styrofoam cup?”
They’re working on some custom designs that will visually set Susty Party apart. “People get confused because there are a bunch of these straws on the market that were made in China. A lot of people are like, ‘Your straws fall apart. I hate these paper straws.’ I’m like, ‘They weren’t Susty straws. You’re having the China straws, which are not sustainable harvested paper, not FDA-approved contact inks, they’re not as sturdy and thick.’ So we’re going to start printing Susty on the straw. I love how clean the design looks, but we’ve gotten feedback that people want the logo.”
Naturally. Wouldn’t you want the world to know you’re holding a sustainably made cup for your cute cocktail?