The Green Garmento was featured in The Sunday New York Times Business Section!

 

 

TAKE THEM TO THE CLEANERS AGAIN AND AGAIN

By Amy Wallace

Man or woman, every one of us has experienced the frustration that drove Rick Siegel to become an inventor. He would be in his clothes closet, running late, wrestling with the plastic bags that encased — and the twist ties that entangled — his dry cleaning. Surely, he thought, those twist ties would drive him mad.

“He’d freak out,” said his wife, Jennie Nigrosh, recalling the typical harried morning. “Scream is a good word.”

Familiar, too, is the guilt that Ms. Nigrosh felt when she tried to intervene. Her husband is 6-foot-4, meaning that if the artist Christo did an installation using the plastic film around just six of Mr. Siegel’s suits, he could easily wrap your garage. Ms. Nigrosh’s father ran a cardboard recycling factory when she was growing up, so a trip to the closet made her stomach clench: Where did all this plastic go?

Suddenly Mr. Siegel, who was once a Hollywood talent manager, and his wife, a marketing copywriter in the music industry, had an idea: a reusable bag to transport your clothes to and from the dry cleaner. After an initial investment of about $200,000, the Green Garmento was born.

“June 2008, we got our first prototype,” Ms. Nigrosh recalls of the Christmas-morning-like feeling she had when they opened it. Then came disaster.

“It ripped,” Mr. Siegel said, grimacing.

“Gi-normous rippage,” agreed Ms. Nigrosh.

“We went from heaven to ‘Oh, no!’ in five seconds,” said Mr. Siegel.

Two years and several design improvements later, they say they’ve sold about 40,000 Green Garmentos — priced at about $5 wholesale, $9.99 retail — and expect to sell an additional 300,000 more by July 2011. And in March, they got their first outside financing, other than $100,000 that’s come from friends: $350,000 from a small cap investment fund put together by the Progressive Asset Management Group, a brokerage firm that specializes in what it sees as socially responsible investing.

The fund, which Mr. Siegel hopes will eventually raise $900,000 for the company, promises investors a 30 percent annual return on their money until it is repaid — via the first 9 percent of gross revenue.

Just as important, Mr. Siegel and Ms. Nigrosh say, they’ve begun to alter how a very set-in-its-ways industry thinks about doing business. For the Green Garmento to succeed requires not just a customer base, after all, but also a cultural shift within the dry-cleaning world. After all, a reusable bag, unlike disposable plastic, must be kept track of and returned to its owner.

The Green Garmento is not the first reusable cleaner bag. There’s a nylon rival out there, for example, called the Converta Bag that Mr. Siegel says he didn’t know about until they were already committed to their bag. (The Green Garmento is made of polypropylene, a recycled product derived from oil sludge.)

Mr. Siegel, 53, and Ms. Nigrosh, 44, say they’re glad for the competition. They’re trying to do more than make money. They’re trying to change the world.

“Single-use plastic at dry cleaners has gotten a pass,” Mr. Siegel said. “We’re not so much selling our bag as publicizing the concept of the bag.”

According to an analysis of 2005 census figures by the Drycleaning and Laundry Institute, 1.4 billion pieces of clothing and other items are professionally cleaned in the United States each year. If you figure that most cleaners wrap no more than two pieces in a bag, that’s at least 700 million bags a year, or 131 million pounds of plastic gathering dust in the back of our closets. At 5 to 8 cents a bag — plus twist ties and the like — that adds up, which is why even nonenvironmentally minded dry cleaners may be open to making the switch.

That means opportunity, said Mr. Siegel, who says hotels and cruise lines are Green Garmento’s other target customers. “If we can make it the Q-Tip, Kleenex or Xerox of the industry,” he said, “ours will be a $10 million-a-year company.”

Here’s how Jason Lafer introduced the Green Garmento to customers of his Linders French Cleaners in Bernardsville, N.J.: Last November, he informed his 730 pick-up-and-delivery clients that they’d be receiving no more plastic on their clothes. Instead, in a move he called “Greenvenient,” customers received two Green Garmento bags emblazoned with the Linders logo (for which he charged them $7 a bag).

 

Of those 730 customers, only 29 objected. Mr. Lafer, meanwhile, said he got double that number of phone calls of praise, which he found refreshing. “You usually only hear from people when they have a complaint,” he said.

In the months since, he’s decreased his plastic consumption by 69,020 bags, or more than 35 percent.

“Imagine if you multiply that by all the cleaners in the nation,” he said.

Mr. Siegel and Ms. Nigrosh are aware that as newcomers to the industry, they have much to learn. “We know we could be seen as Mr. and Mrs. Hollywood,” Ms. Nigrosh said, explaining why she spends so much time talking to established dry cleaners. “They’ve taught us a lot.”

But in this eco-image-conscious town, where the Prius is the car of choice for many an A-lister, they’d also be crazy not to reach out to entertainment industry players they know. Mr. Siegel spent 19 years as a manager, helping to develop the careers of talk show host Craig Ferguson, among others; Ms. Nigrosh has worked for Warner Brothers Records.

Recently, the couple got word that the Green Garmento may have landed its first product placement. Unless the scene is cut, it will be seen on a bus bench in a future episode of the Showtime series “Weeds.”

Talk about green.

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