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Two Women Who Launched Green Ventures in Midlife

One targets toxic chemicals in household products; the other turned her knitting into a lucrative business

By Elizabeth Isele | March 15, 2013
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Elizabeth Isele is co-founder of SeniorEntrepreneurshipWorks.org, founder of SavvySeniorsWork.com and editor of the 50+ Entrepreneurship e-newsletter.

Last year commemorated the 50th anniversary of Silent Spring, Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking book that ignited the global environmental movement and led to a nationwide ban on DDT.
 
I think Carson would be proud of two female boomer environmentalists who are carrying her legacy forward and their message to anyone who'd like to start a business or nonprofit to help make the world a greener place.
 
Arlene Blum: The Toxic Avenger

Blum, a 67-year-old biochemist and world-class mountaineer from Berkeley, Calif., is leading a charge against the use of toxic chemicals in consumer products.

The seeds for her campaign were planted in the 1970s, when Blum and Bruce Ames, a fellow biochemist at the University of California-Berkeley, discovered significant health risks posed by Tris, the flame retardant chemical that was being used in children's pajamas. Their findings, published in the journal Science, laid the groundwork for a federal ban of Tris in PJs.

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In the same decade, Blum led the first all-female American team to reach the 26,500-foot summit of Nepal's Annapurna I, one of the highest and most difficult peaks in the Himalayas.

Thirty years later, Blum was still leading mountain climbing expeditions when she returned to study flame retardants at UC Berkeley and learned that Tris was being used in furniture and other home products. Such toxic flame retardants migrate from furniture into dust and end up in humans, animals, soil, rivers and the food chain; they’re associated with cancer, reproductive and neurological problems, thyroid trouble and endocrine disorders.

An autopsy on Blum's pet cat, Midnight, revealed high levels of Tris in her system. (According to The New York Times, Midnight had begun losing weight, which the vet diagnosed as feline hyperthyroidism. Blum wondered if there was a link between that disease and the flame retardant, so she had Midnight checked and found that her cat indeed had a high level in her bloodstream.)
 
Blum's new research prompted her to do something to reduce the use of toxic chemicals in industry, so she launched the nonprofit Green Science Policy Institute from her kitchen table in 2007. The group provides scientific data to government, industry and nongovernmental organizations around the globe to stimulate "more informed decision-making about chemicals used in consumer products."
 
The institute's work has contributed to creating new flammability standards for mattress pads, pillows and comforters as well as cases for computers and other electronics, impacting the types and quantities of chemicals used in them. Today, it’s on a mission to produce similar standards for furniture and building insulation.

But Blum's crusade can be exhausting. According to The New York Times, when she learned that 27 countries were about to vote on a rule that would allow flame retardants in every new TV in the world, she spearheaded an international coalition through daily conference calls, mobilizing opposition. Within a month, the standard was voted down by 40 percent of the countries. "I'm so happy I am crying," Blum wrote to New York Times reporter Dashka Slater.
 
"Part of what we do is promote safer alternatives because there are many nontoxic ways to make products fire-safe,” Blum says. “Working with an international coalition, we have already stopped the passage of a dozen new flammability standards that would have led to the use of hundreds of millions of pounds of potentially toxic flame-retardant chemicals in consumer household electronics and other products around the world."
 
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I asked Blum what advice she’d offer others who’d like to enter the environmental enterprise arena. "There's much work to be done," she said, "and I always recommend the same advice I use for climbing a mountain.” Her tips:
  • Define your goals. Determine what you want to do and visualize the summit.
  • Prepare for the expedition. Before launching an enterprise, get your finances in order.
  • Select a winning team. Choose people you'd trust with your life.
  • Be passionate. Make certain you have the enthusiasm, persistence and the physical, mental and emotional fitness required for the long climb. 
 
Jill Kerttula: The Upcycled Sweater Star

In 2009, when at age 58 Jill Kerttula was laid off from her corporate graphic design position, she was surprised at her inability to land another job. She soon realized that employers perceived advertising and graphics as a field for younger, cheaper workers.
 
So Kerttula, of Madison, Wis., decided to see if the fiber art she’d been making as a hobby could generate some income.
 
She began experimenting with repurposed sweaters for women, buying gently used sweaters at thrift shops, cutting them apart, then going to work to fashion new ones. It’s called “upcycling,” a cousin to recycling, and involves converting used products into new, higher quality versions.
 
Working alone, Kerttula adds different sleeves to different bodies, sometimes pairing one sweater’s back to another’s front and, in certain cases, putting other collars and unusual buttons on the new creations.
 
"I design my sweaters to emphasize color, texture and comfort," says Kerttula. "Each one is unique and affordably priced. And by reusing the materials from the older sweaters, I prevented them from going into a landfill."
 
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To launch the sweater line, her first investment was the purchase of a serger, a sewing machine specially designed for piecing together knitwear. Kerttula bought one by taking out a one-year $1,000 loan.
 
Early in 2010, after Kerttula had made a few sweaters, she began marketing them on Etsy, the world’s largest online marketplace for handmade goods.
 
In just a few months, she had sold enough sweaters from her Jill2day store on Etsy to pay off the loan and end any thoughts about getting her resumé out the door.
 
Today, Kerttula has four shops on Etsy and sells at craft shows across the country. Her product line has expanded to include hats, scarves and gloves (for men and women), as well as blankets and pillows — all made from repurposed sweaters.

The business has added a new dimension to her marriage, too. Kerttula and her husband, Jon, who retired from his IT job in 2012, jointly load the items into their van and drive to shows in places they love to visit.

Two of their favorite areas are Washington, D.C. (partly because they can stay with their son, daughter-in-law and two grandkids) and Virginia Beach, Va. (where they can hang out near the ocean for three days while attending the Neptune Festival).

Most of Kerttula’s customers are in their 40s, 50s and 60s and buy repeatedly, sometimes requesting special orders, which Kerttula designs. Many have become friends.
 
"No one could pay me enough to return to a corporate cubicle or even a corner office," Kerttula says.
 
Her advice for others who want to shift careers and become green entrepreneurs:
  • Take personal inventory. Match what you can do with what you want to do.
  • Get in sync. Combine your lifestyle with your workstyle.
  • Be exceedingly realistic. If you build it, they will not always come.
  • Capitalize on your prior experience. Kerttula had overseen photo shoots in her advertising work, so she knew what constituted a good picture. Now she handles all the photography for her Web shops and her craft show pamphlets. A perfect fit.
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