After being let go from her job at the height of the pandemic this summer, Kayli Kunkel was pushed to rethink what was important to her.
She’d spent years building her career as a marketing director at a tech company, but as she faced unemployment in a nosediving economy, and amid a “social justice reckoning moment,” she took a check of herself.
“I thought, what do I really value? What do I care about? And I care a lot about the environment and sustainability and supporting women.”
Kunkel did some research and discovered it was tricky to find affordable, sustainable items with eco-friendly delivery options for Brooklyn and Queens in one easy place.
Using $5,000 she’d saved, Kunkel took a risk and started Earth & Me, a zero-waste online store stocking sustainable essentials like toothbrushes, soaps and cleaning products, and sustainable gift options like candles and recycled-paper notepads.
In the past months, Earth & Me has seen such a high demand for local, ethical products that it is now set to open a physical store this Saturday at 2509 Astoria Boulevard.
“It really took off,” Kunkel said. “I think there was a really big need in the area for these products. I knew I had a need, and I was humbled and excited to see how many people around me did too.”
Kunkel said she stocks products from makers she has vetted for sustainable and ethical business practices, including Brooklyn’s The Best Kind (body butters), Kaylaan (toothpaste tablets), W&P Design (food and beverage containers) and Yay for Earth (face lotion).
There are two elements to a product – the actual item, and its packaging — and quite often it’s the packaging that makes things unsustainable. Many of the Earth & Me products are stored in recycled glass or cardboard packages, some refillable.
When she started out, Kunkel was taking items to customers in her Queens and Brooklyn delivery area via bicycle, and offering pick up, minimizing packaging.
She also takes care to keep packaging to a minimum, shunning bubble-wrap and decorative flourishes that waste materials.
“I think it’s important to not rely on packaging to be the only marketing tool… I think we’re entering a new phase of consumerism where we’re interested in what’s inside, not just browsing shelves and picking out the brightest packaging.”
Kunkel said the concept of zero-waste can be intimidating for some people, but she breaks it down. “It doesn’t necessarily mean that you can’t produce a single scrap of waste, you’d need to bend over backwards to do that, but you can be conscious and mindful of what you consume and what you throw away.”
She stocks products that we can reuse and repair, instead of throwing away — like a cloth instead of paper towels. She stocks products we must buy regularly, like toothbrushes, which are made of sustainable materials instead of plastic. And she stocks eco-friendly versions of things that are nice to have, but not necessities, like recycled gift-wrapping paper.
The opening of the new brick-and-mortar store means Kunkel can now have people come in and refill reusable vessels of things like shampoo, body wash and dish soap. Plus, she wants to start doing more community programming like workshops and a potential food-scrap drop-off with Astoria Pug.
While it sounds like Earth & Me could be on track to be the next big online retailer, Kunkel said she doesn’t believe in scaling her business up.
“This may be controversial, but I don’t think it’s the ethical thing or obvious thing to do. There’s not a lot of businesses that have scaled that I think stay true to their initial intent.
“If I grow, I don’t want to keep expanding, I want to become a consultant for others who want to start similar businesses in their own area.”
To check out Earth & Me ahead of Christmas, head to its website or — coming Sat. Dec 12 — the store at 2509 Astoria Boulevard, Queens.