If you find yourself walking down Steinway Street in the Astoria neighborhood of Queens, N.Y., alongside a diverse array of restaurants and shops, it’s likely that you’ll stumble upon a shop with “Earth & Me” in bold letters on a clear glass wall. Step inside and you’ll be transported to a zero-waste mecca of handmade goods supplied by over 100 makers. You might peruse the collections of reusable water bottles and sustainable cleansers for the body and home, as well as locally made items such as cutting boards, pottery, earrings, and home decor — to name just a few. “It’s kind of like an Etsy, only in-person and with a sustainability angle,” describes Kayli Kunkel, founder and owner of this unique shop.
Keep walking past the carefully curated selection of goods and you’ll stop at an enticing Refillery, where you can reduce packaging waste by bringing your own jars to fill with household essentials. This is far more extensive than your typical bulk section. Items like Eucalyptus & Mint Body Wash, Lavender Face Scrub, Bergamot Dish Soap, and Peppermint Hand Sanitizer Spray sit ready to be pumped out of large glass containers. They even carry Tile & Grout Cleaner in bulk!
After you’ve filled your jars with soaps and cleaners, you can enjoy a freshly made gluten-free or vegan pastry in the backyard, which is open to the public. When Earth & Me is not hosting community events such as local artist showcases, plant propagation and upcycled planter workshops or community action gatherings, the backyard is a place for community members to relax and connect. Earth & Me is more than just a store. It has something for everyone, with a mission to support local makers, build community, and normalize zero-waste living.
Kayli uses the store to help community members learn how to start their zero-waste journey. Whether that means switching from toothpaste in a plastic tube to toothpaste tablets, trying out dry shampoo and conditioner bars, or buying reusable sandwich bags, Earth & Me has what anyone could ever need to reduce their waste production and landfill contribution.
To Kayli, every person who walks into the store is an opportunity for broader change. “Just yesterday … we had somebody come in and say, ‘I really want to start reducing my waste and I want you to show me the things that I don’t know exist yet.’ We walked through the store, we looked at different areas, like replacing paper towels with reusable ones and plastic with wooden toothbrushes, as well as composting. That person got very excited. They [bought] a little sustainable gift for their friend and some stuff for their home. It reminded me of why we do this. Every single person who gets exposed to [the idea of a low-waste lifestyle] creates a chain reaction and I do feel that individual action is very important … I believe that it starts with grassroots pressure and community.”
Beyond providing accessible options for people looking to make low-waste purchases, Kayli fosters a strong sense of community around Earth & Me’s mission. The shop’s backyard area is a place for the community to gather for workshops as well as events focused on advocacy, such as climate justice workshops, petition signings and educational meetings about local legislation. Earth & Me addresses sustainability issues on a personal level, by giving people somewhere welcoming to spend their dollars, and on the collective level, by advocating for group action and policy change. By doing so, they’re making sure everyone is equipped to work toward broader change.
Kayli’s arrival at the concept for Earth & Me was as much planned as it was kismet. After Kayli was let go from her marketing job during the pandemic, she made a list of everything she cared about. “It was sustainability. It was small business,” she says. “Both of my parents had small businesses when I was growing up. So that was always really close to me, close to my heart. I felt like I needed to make a change and do something that really mattered to me at that time, so that’s how Earth & Me was born. It’s been my whole world ever since.”
As someone who tirelessly reduces her own consumption and waste in commitment to sustainability, Kayli shops slow fashion and upcycles items. She has always enjoyed figuring out how to do things herself, which is a skill that has contributed to the success of Earth & Me, her first business. “I tell people (when they ask me) the only people you need to hire are a lawyer and an electrician,” Kayli shares. She’s becoming a DIY expert, learning how to do things on the fly by selecting what she needs from millions of how-to videos on YouTube or with support from friends and local community members. For example, Kayli has taken it upon herself to install a new deck in the backyard of Earth & Me.
In June 2020, Kayli began by purchasing $1,000 worth of products, selling at pop-up markets around the city to find out if her business venture was viable. She also used her marketing skills to develop a website. From the start, she had strong sales, proving Earth & Me could be a success. With low overhead from selling only at pop-up markets and online, working out of her apartment and hand-delivering packages, she was able to make a profit and a name for Earth & Me. In December 2020, she leased her first 700-square-foot brick-and-mortar store in Brooklyn. When Earth & Me outgrew that space in December 2021, the store moved to its current 1,400-square-foot space in Queens.
According to the Economic Innovation Group, while 2020 saw the deepest recession in modern history due to the pandemic, business applications increased by 24.3%. Like Kayli, many of these 4.4 million applicants lost their jobs during the pandemic. Those with more time on their hands were able to start the businesses they’d been dreaming of. Kayli hypothesizes the additional supply of empty stores made certain store locations more affordable for first-time business owners. She thinks that to lease a shop with similar attributes may have been far more difficult had the market conditions not been in her favor.
Even then, obtaining a lease for the space was not easy. “As a woman starting a new business for the first time, when the concept wasn’t proven, it was really hard to get [people,] especially landlords, to take me seriously,” Kayli says. “I had to be very scrappy with how I presented myself and got my foot in the door.” Kayli’s resilience is paying off. She recently hired her first full-time employee — a pivotal moment for a new business. “I have a goal to expand into more stores and more locations. It’s going to be really important to have that core, full-time team to help make decisions and be really involved in all the strategic goals of the store.”
Surprisingly, the pandemic may have been the perfect time to open a retail shop that meets personal and community needs. Supply chain issues and in-store shortages (remember when it was impossible to find toilet paper?) sent many shoppers to their most trusted stores locally-owned for necessities. Due to lockdowns and work-from-home orders, people spent more time at home and in their own neighborhoods than before the pandemic. “The people who stayed in New York and didn’t leave became very close and very committed to this city and their neighborhoods,” Kayli says. “My world became much smaller. I started to meet a lot of my neighbors, I started to shop much more locally [and] I wasn’t going out to the different boroughs. I was really exploring what was available right in front of me and I think that’s led to this really big surge in desire to support local — especially to support small, new and growing businesses.”
To add to pandemic-induced supply chain challenges, the United States been experiencing its highest inflation rate in 39 years — at 7% in 2021, where 2% is acceptable. This has affected retail everywhere, including Earth & Me, but Kayli is making the best of it. “We have items that are discretionary, like candles and home decor. We also have essentials like toothbrushes, toothpaste, deodorant, and food. Generally, if we know that we have to raise margins on something, or increase the prices, we’ll look at something that’s not essential because we don’t want to price people out of making those day-to-day decisions.” They also provide a 20% discount on the Refillery every Tuesday during the Refill Station Happy Hour. “That has been a hugely impactful program because I think people who are a little more cost conscious can come in on that day. This also helps our store on slower days to make sure we’re seeing that revenue and foot traffic. It’s [changed from] our slowest day to our busiest day of the week, after the weekend.”
Online orders have continued to flow in, but her brick-and-mortar shop provides the bulk of her business. That’s what Kayli prefers because being rooted in the community is pivotal to the store’s mission. “I’ve never really emphasized e-commerce for us because I really believe that this kind of solution needs to be hyperlocal, but when we do ship orders, we use 100% upcycled, recycled materials. We save packaging when it comes to us and repurpose it. We pack everything as small and light and minimal as we possibly can. There’s no plastic in anything we ship out, nothing like that.”
Kayli is focused on a branding redesign this year. “I want something that feels kind of fresh and fun, and that can last as well into the future. When I first designed our logo, it was just me sitting on my couch having no idea if anybody would ever see this thing. And so fast forward, almost two years, and it’s [already] time to refresh it.”
In addition to the rebrand, she’s looking to expand on the Refillery. “One of the things that I’d like to do with the store is figure out a smaller, leaner version of [the Refillery] called a ‘refill bar,’ or something that’s a micro version of the store that I could create … almost like a bodega kind of concept so we wouldn’t have to open a full store in every single place that we want to go to, but we could just do the refills. It’s all about making it easier, because there are people who will haul 20 glass bottles across the neighborhood on their bike — people do — but that is not feasible for everybody.”
While Kayli is eager to expand and knows that there is demand for this type of store in other vicinities, she is strategic about her plans. “Once I feel like we’ve gotten very close to the epitome of this store, I want to expand and hopefully in the next five years open a store a year, or two stores a year! Queens is kind of our wheelhouse in New York, but it would be awesome to open up in Manhattan. I’ve had a lot of requests for Harlem and Brooklyn. I think there’s a lot of potential.”
- O’Donnell, J., Newman, D. and Fikri, K. (2021, February 8). The Startup Surge? Unpacking 2020 Trends in Business Formation. Economic Innovation Group. https://eig.org/the-startup-surge-business-formation-trends-in-2020/
- Pickert, R. (2022, January 12). US Inflation Hits 39 Year High. Bloomberg. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2022-01-12/inflation-in-u-s-registers-biggest-annual-gain-since-1982
- What is an accceptable amount on inflation? (2011, July 25). Board of Governers of the Federal Reserve System. https://www.federalreserve.gov/faqs/5D58E72F066A4DBDA80BBA659C55F774.htm#:~:text=The%20Federal%20Reserve%20has%20not,percent%20or%20a%20bit%20below
Conversations with Abby Massey. Written by Abby Massey. Edited by Maya Quarker & Jess Lo.
Page design by Tye Johnson.