My name is Jon Berg and I’m the CEO of a tiny startup called Olive+Comet. Essentially, we sell sustainable, plastic free lifestyle gear. I wasn’t raised by hippies or born into a wealthy family with a head for business, so the way forward has been less than clear at times. A love of nature is part of my background, and it certainly factors into how I’ve tried to raise my daughters. And this is a wandering, abbreviated story of “how and why” we got started doing what we do.
In the Spring of 2020 I was doing exactly what most of my peers were doing: raising daughters, commuting daily to an office and checking the TV for updates on a new virus.
I had always had a distaste for plastic preferring instead the natural look and feel of wood and stone, but sustainability as a concept was only beginning to occupy space in my head. I was busy. Starting a business wasn’t really on my mind.
By late Spring, the schools were shuttered district-wide and workers in my office building were sent home to work remotely. Within a month or two, the “work from home” scenario was commonplace for many, and anecdotes about the new “remote work culture” permeated digital media. Like so many others, my fascination with online shopping was real. I’d sit in my makeshift “home office” and scan the walls, visualizing an internet and FedEx-fueled makeover that I certainly didn’t need.
I bought a new couch. I bought lamps. I bought tables to put lamps on and books to put on tables. There were new cleaning supplies, a new bar cart for the entry hall, artwork for the walls and antiques. This was all purchased from the relative comfort of that new couch, and in the coziness of a workday uniform consisting of a t-shirt and shorts. Blatant consumerism in complete comfort. Ignorance is truly bliss. Almost.
While I had, in fact, learned to love a lot about the “new normal” like quality time spent with my children and dog, the long hours at home in relative isolation left a lot of time to think. Sandwiched between reports of hospital admissions and first-responder burnout, the TV trumpeted metrics I could barely comprehend. There was an immense loss of life for which nobody was prepared for, nor the vast tons of plastic waste generated by a glut of medical safety equipment and a massive uptick in online purchasing.
It was the latter that I had the most direct experience with. Nearly everything I had ordered came wrapped in plastic, and I could see it piling up in rapid fashion. There were the ever-growing stack of Amazon Prime boxes and plastic mailers that stuffed the dumpsters in my community. The ubiquitous teal medical masks littered bushes in front of my home and were found floating in the surf at the beach. These are all reminders that the plastic pollution crisis had lurched into overdrive in which I am responsible for some of it. More than I’d like to admit.
Long conversations with my daughters during lockdown revealed a wealth of insight and I learned that the biggest stressor in their world wasn’t actually the pandemic, but rather the environmental crisis and climate change. They brought up the topic often and couldn’t understand why it seemed nothing was being done.
Despite their ages, just 10 & 13, they seemed keenly aware that their generation would be among the first to bear the full brunt of its effects. We talked about plastic too. Something we had barely noticed months before seemed to suddenly surround us. As a family, we learned that all the plastic that has ever been produced in the history of the world, is still here. It doesn’t ever really go away. It breaks down into harmful microplastics, and continues its journey. In lands in our oceans and waterways, into our food and finally into us.
By the time I was called back to my job to work on-site again, I had become a different person in so many ways. Many of us had, I think. We’d asked the same poignant questions, like: “what am I doing with my life?”, or “why do I have this job, I don’t even like it.” I questioned the “importance” of my job. It certainly didn’t make me happy. My values had shifted, and that little voice that had always lived deep down in my psyche was becoming louder and more purposeful.
These were the turbulent visions that pushed me in the direction of Olive+Comet. But this is not a story of doom and gloom. There’s another, even more powerful component, and probably THE thing that got me excited about sustainability in the first place—optimism.
Let’s be perfectly honest, never-ending stories centered on the climate crisis, plastic pollution and species on the brink are important to understand, but they leave most of us feeling powerless and banging our heads against the wall. We need something else to spur action and we need a more effective way of gaining advocates. Jane Goodall, the famous chimpanzee researcher and conservationist, had already come to understand this. I caught a few minutes of her on a radio program, and thought “yes, Jane!”. In her efforts to educate children and younger generations, her environmental messaging involves ample doses of optimism and hope.
I began to believe that business could have a fundamental role in doing things right and turning things around. The rise and success of Certified B Corporations (companies that voluntarily meet the highest standards for social and environmental performance) further stoked my view. My post-pandemic summary was clear: I wanted to do something meaningful and something I felt was important. I wanted to be a part of a solution instead of a problem. I wanted to have daily discussions with my daughters that left them feeling enriched, empowered and hopeful about their future. And I wanted to fight for something worth saving.
This is how Olive+Comet became my “midnight side hustle.” I never once envisioned it as a “get rich quick scheme.” It isn’t. But it did turn out to be a “get happy quick” plan. For perhaps the first time, I’m completely enamored with what I do. I still work my day job while Olive+Comet gets off the ground, and we’ve quite a ways to go until it realizes its full potential; but the journey is so worth it. We believe in what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.
We are Olive+Comet. For people. For planet. Forever.