A recycling phenomenon that started in South Africa in 1992 and rapidly spread throughout Europe is starting to turn notions of tableware fashion, art and environmentalism upside down in the United States as well. Green, a company that converts empty, discarded bottles into elegant glassware, has established a North American manufacturing facility in Central Wisconsin. And the magical essence of its product is delighting trend setting consumers and corporate brand managers from Los Angeles to New York.
The company is the brainchild of entrepreneurs Sean and Philip, who hold a worldwide patent on the unique conversion process they invented. Green currently manufactures about 25,000 goblets, tumblers and drinking glasses each month at its production facilities outside of Johannesburg, South Africa. Johannesburg recently hosted the World Summit on Sustainable Development.
The new facility now completed in Weston, WI, is equipped with state-of-the-art machinery created by Tetley that will have the capacity to produce over 80,000 glasses a month - all through the inversion of reused bottles.
Revered throughout Europe and other parts of the world as collectable art glass, Green goblets have even been chosen for the table of King Carlos of Spain, movie sets and celebrity dinners. In addition to their popularity with consumers and collectors, Green products are quickly becoming a valuable marketing tool in the corporate world. Etched with a company name or logo, the glasses not only provide enduring brand exposure, they also contain a special ingredient the magic of a potent story behind the origin and crafting of the glass.
The story behind the origin and growth of the company also has a magical quality to it. But even though its success has far exceeded original expectations, as both will attest, it didn't happen overnight.
Back in the early '90s, found themselves as casualties of a jobs famine in their native South Africa. Penrith, an electrical engineer, had returned from Argentina where he worked both in sales and also on sails doing maintenance and repair work on flotillas of private yachts.
A series of events left him almost broke and Tetley wasn't in much better shape financially, having spent 13 months and nearly every cent he owned riding a horse from Botswana to the Sudan border to raise money for nature conservation. (Tetley's odyssey became the subject of the movie "Ride for Sudan")
Late one night while clearing the table after a dinner party, Sean's wife, Mara, mentioned that it was a shame there was no further use for the attractive empty wine bottles they were about to toss in the refuse bin. As soon as she said it, inspiration struck turn the bottle upside down remove the base, twist the neck, flare the mouth ..and voila a drinking glass. And with the striking colors and shapes of many glass bottles, the result is unique stemware that combines environmental consciousness with exquisite taste.
Tetley, a biologist/conservationist and self-proclaimed "environmental nut" who has expanded the concept of business casual to exclude wearing shoes, was delighted by the idea of being involved with an anti-litter drive and soon took up the cause. The original plan was to simply make enough money to fill up the tank of a Land Rover for a trip to Mozambique, where the two friends dreamed of starting an aquaculture business. But the idea of converting bottles into glassware took hold quickly.
Former university chums laughed when they announced their plans to make a living out of old glass bottles. The laughter soon turned to hoots of derision as Penrith and Tetley took turns at the wheel of a battered old truck carting hundreds of empty bottles from local garbage dumps to the Tetley home.
Though the initial idea came in a flash, the first experiments weren't exactly what could be called a "smashing" success. The lip of each glass had to be smoothed and the neck had to be permanently sealed and flared without shattering the bottle.
"We thought it would be so easy, but it was a technical nightmare," said Penrith, who smashed literally thousands of bottles in attempting to develop a prototype. "It took us eight months to produce the first glass."
The challenge of creating such a goblet had big glass companies perplexed. But with the help of Tetley, they eventually developed a successful technique on their own and applied for a worldwide patent as soon as they were sure it would work.
"The secret now looks likely to be worth millions," Tetley said.
"We started with a $100 investment each," Penrith said. "We collected bottles and constructed glasses during the week, then took them to Johannesburg to sell on the weekends. We'd used the proceeds to buy more materials and make more glasses."
A company on the rise
Word of mouth quickly created greater demand that surprised the small company.
Then, just two years after developing the concept, Green won the coveted "Business of the Year" award in 1994 and was voted one of the four best new businesses in South Africa. It also earned 'Recycled Product of the Year 2000' in the UK.
The company soon moved from its makeshift garage workshop into a large factory stocked with sophisticated equipment Penrith and Tetley had to design and build themselves. Machines separate the bottles into two components, after which they are polished, joined and sandblasted. Green is capable of sandblasting designs and logos on the glasses to create exclusivity.
"We went from handling 12 bottles a day to one every 10 seconds," Penrith said.
Even with state-of-the-art equipment, Green has had trouble keeping up with the demand for its products.
"From the start, demand has outstripped supply and the popularity of the glasses has grown consistently," Tetley said. "The concept was perfectly timed and in tune with growing environmental concern."
A global market
The larger facility has helped the company better meet the demand, which was first created largely by Cape wine producers, who jumped at the idea of having their own bottles refashioned into wine goblets decorated with their logos. Next came champagne glasses, sherry glasses, beer tumblers, juice glasses, water glasses and a variety of other products. Glasses are available in both clear and frosted finishes and in a variety of colors.
"As a promotional product, our glasses enhance a company's image as they are both exclusive and 'green,'" Penrith said. "Glasses made from a company's own bottles have excellent advertising merit and offer unmatchable retention value."
Green has been supplying retailers mostly in the United States and Europe, including countries like Germany and Italy, which are well known for quality glass.
"We started with small orders and held off on exports, except for the occasional box of glasses," Tetley said. "Now that we have the larger factory, we have started exporting container loads."
The new plant in Central Wisconsin will relieve the need to export to the United States, but will concentrate mainly on consumer, wholesale, and corporate accounts for beverage and non-beverage companies and the upscale retail market.
Helping companies leverage their beverage
Beverage companies often spend millions designing and developing trademark bottles that become the essence of their brand. Green can extend that powerful brand image created through the bottles by fashioning them into trademark glasses. Each glass retains the original shape and contour of the product, providing an image consumers will immediately recognize.
Logos and brand names reinforce the message and also make the glasses attractive to non-beverage companies. The glassware can provide limitless marketing opportunities. They make ideal corporate gifts, trade show items, recognition and award incentives as well as merchandising gifts.
"They're functional, so people will pick them up several times a day for years to come," Penrith said. "The glasses also connote a positive corporate commitment to environmental stewardship."
Green customers have included companies such as DuPont, BMW, Microsoft, SmithKline Beecham, Perrier America, Minolta, Valpre Spring Water, South African Breweries and Seattle Coffee Co.
"It certainly helps that people know the glasses they are purchasing are recycled items and that they are doing something positive for the environment," Penrith said.
The products are endorsed by the Endangered Wildlife Trust (SA), with a portion of the proceeds from each sale going to the cause.
With Green popularity continuing to spread through collectors, consumers and corporations around the world, Tetley doesn't envision business tapering off any time soon.
"As developed countries legislate stricter recycling controls," Tetley said. "Green will continue to offer a resourceful, beautiful solution to an important concern."
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