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Award category: Environment

3253 Santa Rosa Ave., Santa Rosa 95407

www.sonoma-usa.com

Imagine a world where virtually all “disposable” items are reborn as new, useful products people of all ages can enjoy -- and are willing to pay for.

Founded in January, Sonoma-USA is a new business with the mission to divert used materials from the landfill – such as vinyl billboards and banners – and transform them into unique and purposeful products, like tote and duffle bags, wine bottle carriers, laptop sleeves, messenger bags and a host of other consumer apparel accessories made locally.

Growing up in a small, 900-resident community near Cologne, Germany, Steffen Kuehr, founder and CEO of Sonoma-USA, was surrounded by neighbors passionately dedicated to recycling as a way of life.

“We bundled and tied old newspapers and put them outside to be picked up, and separated glass by color into white, green and brown bins. Everyone participated in a host of diversion projects. It was not only natural, but the right thing to do for the environment.”

He said Americans put far too many things in the trash that can have a useful, second life. “Our goal is to show how this can be done commercially,” Kuehr explained, “while also creating popular demand beginning with the cache of owning a piece of raceway history, such as a commemorative reminder of an Indy or classic car event, that can serve as one-of-a-kind conversation starter evoking the material’s previous purpose.”

Sonoma-USA recently entered into a partnership with Sonoma Raceway to repurpose their used textile signage.

The startup has already received more than 2,000 lbs. of these items -- enough to partially fill its warehouse located at 3253 Santa Rosa Avenue, where banners are cut, lined, and sewn into a variety of zipper pouches, light-weight shoulder bags and other “wearables” with straps so people can carry them when shopping, traveling, at work or play.

The company is working on a plan to insulate bags to make them even more desirable. A large tote sells for $49 (prices are lower for smaller items). These bags are both attractive and more durable than similar products on the market today, since they are made from thicker, water resistant material. Each is cut from a different part of a banner, making them all unique.

“It’s a win-win for Sonoma Raceway and us as well, since they get rid of wasted banners and avoid paying hauling and landfill fees, while we obtain raw material free of charge. This partnership enables the raceway to message its role as an environmentally friendly and sustainable organization co-sponsoring a recycling project that benefits nonprofit groups, such as the Speedway Children’s Foundation and other charities. Our products are made in Santa Rosa, and Sonoma-USA gives back 5% of all sales proceeds to charitable causes.”

The firm is entering into a similar partnership with the City of Santa Rosa for its outdated banners and is looking for additional suppliers, such as Kendall Jackson, who has also expressed an interest in this program.

The company just finished a 30-day “Kickstarter crowd-fundraising campaign to raise money for operations and expansion. “With Kickstarter, you have to meet a set dollar goal or lose everything. We set a target of $30,000 and received $$31,231.”

Sonoma-USA is a for profit benefit corporation, working to become a certified B-Corp. Since they are a new start-up, they are operating under “B-Corp pending” status for the first year.

Award category: Environment

3253 Santa Rosa Ave., Santa Rosa 95407

www.sonoma-usa.com

“We’re striving to gain widespread consumer attention through our website (www.Sonoma-USA.com) and social media, while looking for retail partnerships, online platforms, and ways to offer our products in local boutique stores.”

He said there is also lots of corporate interest. “Many firms buy gifts for their employees or important customers and business partners. One customer dropped off their old banners to have them turned into custom designed over-the-shoulder bags for each employee, as a souvenir commemorating the company’s 20th anniversary.”

Kuehr said Sonoma-USA is also creating local jobs for seamstresses, designers and warehouse workers. The firm has six employees now, and with Kickstarter funds, is planning to ramp up production and will need more help. More pallets of banners are ready to be picked up.

“We also have an end-of-life product policy. When our bags eventually wear out, we offer customers who return them a coupon for a discount towards a new upcycled product – and we’ll see how we can give the material from the returned product another life. We want to see a merger between marketing and environmental awareness that reduces our manufacturing waste stream by finding a fresh purpose for material scraps that can become new products, while cleaning and processing these materials using non-toxic cleaning supplies and limited amounts of water,” Kuehr added.