Sustainably With FinalStraw - Emma Cohen - Public Goods

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Sustainably With FinalStraw – Emma Cohen

Perhaps catalyzed by a viral video from 2015 — in which a team of graduate students studying sea turtles off Costa Rica’s shores pulls out an elongated, plastic straw from a turtle’s nose, blood trickling out of its nostril during the process — single-use straws have generated public shame.

emma rose cohen holding finalstraw and case

“The plastic straw has become a stigma,” Emma Rose Cohen, CEO of Final, said over the phone.

FinalStraw, the company’s first product, is the world’s first retractable, reusable travel straw that fits on a keychain. People have tagged the product hundreds of times on Instagram.

“We get tagged in celebrity posts all the time: A celebrity will post a photo of him or herself with a single-use straw and our fans will comment, ‘You need a FinalStraw!’” Cohen said.

Cohen earned a master’s degree from Harvard University in Environmental Management and Sustainability. She also spent four years at Los Alamos National Laboratory in the Pollution Prevention department working in waste minimization, all before becoming a “straw-preneur.” But her interest in sustainability blossomed even earlier.

During her undergraduate studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, while dressed up like a mermaid, Cohen found a passion in sustainability. She and her friends had decided it would be fun to lead a beach cleanup dressed like the mythical sea creatures.

“Generally, you have these older, more granola kind of messages,” Cohen said of sustainability. “But we thought, ‘Wait, you can make it fun, sparkly, sexy and a party? Why can’t we make sustainability a party?” she wondered. “And people really resonated with it.”

Cohen’s mermaid beach cleanups continued with an immediate following in tow. From there she and her friends started Save the Mermaids, a nonprofit that promotes environmental education to after-school programs at the elementary level.

As a team, they began discussing ways they could make a deep-rooted impact. They would arrive at city council meetings in mermaid costumes so they could “speak for the fish,” to get involved with the single-use bag ban. At one city council meeting, Cohen and her team offered sandwiches filled with plastic to board members who had been quoted saying that consuming plastic was not detrimental to sea creatures. It was a bold move reminiscent of that scene in “Erin Brockovich” in which Julia Roberts’ character informs the counselor — who both does not believe that the water in Hinkley is toxic and is about to take a sip of water during a negotiation — that “We had that water brought in special for you folks. It came from a well in Hinkley.”

Kids are just easier to work with, Cohen admitted when I asked why Save the Mermaids targets after-school programs. They do not possess preconceived judgements (“oh, you’re a hippie or an environmentalist if you care about our planet”), and they look at everything with a fresh lens. They love nature, they love the outdoors and they love weird little creatures.

little girl dressed as mermaid sipping smoothie with finalstraw

“So when you explain the concepts around conservation and single-use plastic, it just clicks with them right away.” Conversely, with adults, “we start making excuses: ‘Well, I’m just so busy I just need to get this single-use to-go thing for lunch everyday,’ or all of these excuses we’ve made with ourselves to justify our behaviors whereas kids are like ‘NO!’”

Working with children is what Cohen cites as the moment she got her feet wet. Through this altruistic work, intrinsically connected to the environment, Cohen found herself severing ties with the pre-med track she initially began at the UCSB.

“I hate hospitals!” she recalled. “And whenever I went into one, I would think, ‘Why would I make this my office?’”

Yet, studying neuroscience on the pre-med track turned out to be auspicious to some regard. For one, working in hospitals exposed her to various instruments and tools she would later consider when designing the prototype for FinalStraw.

By learning about how the brain functions and how thought processes develop, Cohen is able to create messages that resonate with people, whether it be on the FinalStraw website or through its various social media platforms.

“It is a different kind of angle of the same topic,” she said of her education, “but it’s very helpful.”

Cohen has been working with straws for over a decade, an interest that only sharpened during her graduate studies at Harvard University. Even in those 10 years, she remembered people questioning her interests: “Why do you even care about straws?”

In 2015 she conducted a Tedx Talk titled “How to Save a Mermaid,” raising awareness on the deleterious effects of plastic straws on the environment. On stage she can be seen wearing a black shirt of two skeleton mermaids beneath a blazer.

Two years later she began the groundwork for what would become FinalStraw, an innovation that aimed to provide an alternative to single-use plastic straws that was both “convenient and durable” with then partner Miles Pepper, whom Cohen has since bought out. Cohen’s publicist said she does not plan on adding another partner.

Then in July 2018 — three months after she launched FinalStraw on Kickstarter — Seattle, Washington became the first major U.S. city to ban single-use plastic straws.

Thanks in part to Lonely Whale, the nonprofit whose mission it is to drive impactful change to our oceans, public campaigning and celebrity endorsements helped to raise awareness and set the wheels in motion for a national plastic straw ban. Both legislative and corporate movements against plastic straws surfaced.

By January 1, 2019, a ban on plastic straws in restaurants and municipalities began in Washington, D.C., National Geographic reported. Single-use plastic straws would only be served upon request come January 2020.

But what Cohen finds to be the most interesting reason behind the straw ban is the immense corporate support that ensued. Some of the world’s largest corporations — Starbucks, IKEA, McDonald’s, Alaska Airlines, Marriott, Disney — either already have or are planning to (come 2020) — ban single-use plastic straws. Paper straws are the replacement.

Timing was of the essence.

“We were lucky enough to just happened to have been working on a portable straw solution while all of this was happening,” she said. Had Cohen and her team launched the FinalStraw six months or a year earlier, “we would have launched a cricket. But we just got so lucky that everyone was talking about straws.”

Another fortuitous moment came via Kickstarter. In one month from launching in April 2018, FinalStraw had 38,000 backers and raised $1.89 million, a testament that sentiments and perceptions towards single-use plastic straws were shifting.

Cohen was blown away by the support.

“The most exciting and surprising thing that happened when we launched was the amount of community that came to support what we were doing and that continued to come every day — and still does. We haven’t slowed down. It’s mind boggling.”

“I think people want change. People want an alternative.”

She added, “I think people want change. People want an alternative.”

Before they launched, there was not a portable straw on the market. The only reusable straws available were the stainless steel or glass straws that would come in bulky cases.

“Good luck fitting that in your pocketbook,” Cohen quipped.

Today there are dozens of options fashioned after FinalStraw. Cohen is still floored by how much of a dramatic effect she and her team could have on the market with this one product.

The decision to do Kickstarter was by chance.

“We were kind of just the classic story of two kids with an idea, zero experience and just wanted to get that idea out to the masses,” Cohen said of the marketing involved in the Kickstarter platform. She had heard about Kickstarter, but had not backed one before.

She knew, however, that many great products that launched on Kickstarter went on to create successful companies, so she decided to try it out. But what really piqued her interest was the opportunity to create a video people would enjoy and want to share with one another.

The Kickstarter video, which has 782,000 views, is a creative visual that blends the boundaries of humor and awareness. In one scene a beautiful mermaid appears in a coffee shop and informs a customer, who has just placed a single-use plastic straw in her iced coffee, why she needs FinalStraw.

“People love the video and they love showing it to their friends. That is how you do viral marketing: just create things that people want to share, that people resonate with and identify with.”

Initially, though, Cohen was very skeptical about how Kickstarter would perform.

“You have to invest a lot of money into doing a Kickstarter. So I thought, is this how we should be spending the money? We had no money. We had $30,000 that we launched the whole thing with. We put $10,000 towards the video.”

She vacillated at first: “Is that the right use of our money? That’s a third of what we have. Should we maybe just put our money in advertising or something else? Obviously the Kickstarter was the right route to go, and I’m glad we did that.”

Because she studied neuroscience during her undergraduate years, Cohen is always looking for ways to quantify concepts. By illustrating the actual impact of say, the effects of single-use plastic straws, she delivers a message that hits hard with concrete facts.

There is a lot of light and fluffy messaging out there, she pointed out, that fails to raise awareness. The Final website presents a startling quantifiable measurement:

Americans use enough straws to wrap around the Earth 2.5 times every day, about the equivalent of 500 million straws.

Though this figure, 500 million, is disputed. Some people claim it is less, some claim it is more. Cohen said, “It doesn’t really matter. 500 million or 20 million; it is still too many.”

A mission-based company first, bent on creating lasting partnerships with its community, Final is a proud partner of 1% For The Planet, the nonprofit coalition founded by Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia, and Craig Mathews, founder of Blue Ribbon Flies.

Partners of 1% For The Planet donate 1% of their total sales. In 2018 Final donated over $7,500 to four organizations: 1% for the Planet, 5 Gyres, Lonely Whale, and the Plastic Pollution Coalition.

The company also donated FinalStraws to a plethora of nonprofit schools. Last year, for example, it donated 68 straws to seven nonprofits and three schools/student groups.

Past the halfway mark of 2019, FinalStraw has already donated $2,000, the required annual membership cost to 1% For The Planet, as well as 460 straws to 29 nonprofits and 118 straws to 25 schools/student groups.

“We get so many emails about donations; we actually had to hire a personal staff that entirely deals with donations,” Cohen said.

Just because someone is not with the 1% for the Planet does not necessarily mean Final is not going to support them. Arizona State University’s Plastic Oasis, a three-day student-run event focused on conservation and sustainability, is one such recipient of FinalStraw’s magnanimity.

Having the 1% For The Planet logo on their products has garnered positive feedback for Final.

“For people who know 1% and they know what it means, yes, it is advantageous. When they see that logo, they think, yes, this is awesome; this isn’t a company that isn’t just trying to make money; they are also trying to create lasting partnerships with people in different communities.”

Those who are unfamiliar with 1% for the Planet, Cohen said, ask, “How come you’re only donating 1%? Why not 2%?”

Cohen reminds herself that it is impossible to please everybody.

“Even donating a part of sales is a stretch. We’re a one-year-old startup. We’re a baby. And so figuring out those finances is not easy,” she admitted.

Within a year, though, she has overcome obstacles in design and manufacturing. The 1.0 FinalStraw came with a cleaning squeegee and drying rack she did not necessarily agree with. But business partner at the time felt strongly about this decision, so she made the compromise.

“For me, and my love for efficiency, the drying rack didn’t hit the mark,” she said.

The 2.0 FinalStraw that launched in June, 2019 has replaced the squeegee and drying rack with an antenna bristle brush she refers to as a “fully-baked idea.”

The straw is now approximately a half-an-inch smaller, making it even more compact so people are more compelled to put it on their keychain. Ultimately the 2.0 model is more sustainable because fewer materials are being used.

FinalStraw’s price point, $24.50, has been contentious, a reason why Cohen did not receive funding from any of the sharks when she appeared on Shark Tank in October of 2018.

As Final’s website indicates, however, the company “really cares about creating a long-lasting, ethically-made product. That means higher costs for quality materials and committing to eco-friendly production facilities. Our mission is to create less waste in the world, so we’ve invested in making each FinalStraw a product that will truly last you a lifetime.”

To date, some 350,000 FinalStraws have been sold, an indication to how customers have gravitated towards this mission.

woman holding finalstraw

The future looks promising for Final. In the next ten years, Cohen envisions the entire Final line becoming a household item, one that people associate with “high-quality, sustainable, and badass products.” It is her hope that these products not only serve a purpose, but that the company is also well-known for giving back to the community and becoming involved in different schools and nonprofits.

“That’s definitely the most important thing for me. It’s not just about the products, it’s about the entire thing. I see us being the Tupperware of the 21st century,” she said.

She and her team often joke about creating Final Parties, similarly to the Tupperware party craze of the latter half of the twentieth century. An episode of “60 Minutes” titled “The Mad World of the ‘70s Tupperware Parties,” via CBS, illustrates such popularity.

Cohen gets excited at the thought of empowering people to create their own businesses via Final.

“There are so many causes we want to support and so many different ways we want to specifically empower women in business. I feel so fortunate to be here and to be in this position that I want to make sure that a big part of what we are doing is supporting others,” she said.

Another idea Cohen speaks about with fervor are Foreverables, a new market category Final is currently fashioning in the lab. These items, designed to last forever, come with a lifetime guarantee and replace single-use items. The goal is to create a whole line of items so there are no more excuses for being wasteful.

“That’s where we’re at, making excuses to justify behaviors,” she said. “What I realized through creating FinalStraw is that if you can just create convenient alternatives, then people will switch. But you have to create those first.”

Straws, Cohen believes, are to an extent, the focus of plastic solution because they are such an “easy item to remove from our daily lives.” They are unlike forks, a utensil that would make eating difficult without; however, there is still a community of individuals who depend on straws to which Cohen explained is a “different story.”

A year ago when the straw bans were surfacing, a friend of mine who is a Registered Nurse reminded her social media followers that many of her patients rely on straws that are essential to their diets.

“But for most people,” according to Cohen, single-use plastic straws is a “culture of convenience.” Straws are also something people do not generally ask for. They get placed in our drinks, and then we are somewhat responsible for creating that waste. Cohen calls it “nonconsensual plastic.”

To circumvent this nonconsensual plastic, Cohen devised the leave-behind Ambassador card, which is included in every FinalStraw purchase. Individuals who are given a straw at a restaurant or bar can leave a FinalStraw card behind, requesting that said business only serve straws upon request.

These cards boast the “FinalStraw” logo, but people do not necessarily know it is a product, Cohen explained. Her aim is not to simply sell a product:

“The idea is really more about spreading awareness. If you don’t know, then you don’t know. And once you know, then you can’t unknow. Just like the turtle video, you can’t unsee it. There will always be this little feeling inside of you every time you use a single-use plastic straw. That’s kind of how humans are wired. We’ve got these little consciences that are speaking to us constantly.”

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