In some ways, Terry Omata is the classic social entrepreneur. He’s a businessman who cares deeply about people and the planet, and he believes we must act now to create a better world for today and the future. But in another way, Terry the entrepreneur is unique, and this is due in no small part to his broad experience in manufacturing. Any sustainable products developer you meet today knows we need to change the way we design products, from the raw materials we use, to our manufacturing processes, to planning how we’ll dispose of them. Terry not only knows this – he’s lived it. He spent nearly a decade living in China getting a wide variety of products manufactured for companies like Nintendo, Amazon, and Toyota. But there came a point in his career when Terry realized he needed to make a change and somehow apply all that experience to doing things differently – and that’s how Reveal was born. Here’s a transcript of a conversation I had with Terry, where I was home in Pacifica, California, and he was at his home in Seattle, Washington, right before moving with his family to Bali, Indonesia.
Kristen Stanton (KS): Great to talk with you Terry! I’m obviously a huge fan of your products – I’ve got a cork iPhone 7 case and a bamboo iPad Mini case by Reveal, and clumsy person that I am, I’ve dropped both a few times, and they’ve managed to survive just fine thanks to your cases. You have a background in manufacturing, and I’m sure you could have started a company that makes any kind of product you can imagine. But instead, you started one that develops products made from sustainable materials. What inspired this?
Terry Omata (TO): Great to talk with you too! A lot of my inspiration has to do with growing up in Seattle, in the Pacifica Northwest, where you’re surrounded by trees and mountains, clean air, and clean water. I think I took a lot of this for granted growing up. I just thought it was normal. After college, I taught middle school math and science in the Bay Area, and then I went to grad school and got my master’s degree in international affairs. All I knew in my mid-20s was that I loved travelling, I loved teaching, and I was open to new adventures. I met my wife in grad school and shortly thereafter, we ended up living in China. And that’s when I got introduced to the world of mass manufacturing. My job in China was to evaluate various factories – their working conditions and product quality – and to determine whether those factories were suitable for getting things made for my clients.
You can only imagine what it must have been like for a kid from Seattle to end up working in a city called Shenzhen, which is on the southern border near Hong Kong, and has nearly 12 million people in it. Then, across the border in Hong Kong, there are another seven million people. From there, you can take a 30-minute train ride to Guangzhou, which has 14 million people, and then another city that is just 20 minutes away, called Dongguan, which has another eight million people. You are in this mass of humanity! On the one hand, it’s very exciting and humbling, but on the other – it’s very different from Seattle. All those things I took for granted back home – clean air, clean water, trees – were suddenly the exception instead of the norm.
After a while, I had a mid-life crisis in my career. I had to ask myself, ‘What am I doing?’ I was making all of these products and had to ask, ‘What does it really mean?’ They were ending up in stores on shelves all over the world. But I would literally wake up in the middle of the night after having nightmares of massive landfills and oceans full of plastic. I was as a crossroads. I had learned how large scale manufacturing works, but I had to ask myself, ‘Am I going to just keep doing this, or am I going to do something different?’
That’s how I stumbled upon the idea of Reveal. It was pretty simple. I wanted to reveal a new way to design products. I wanted to reveal different materials, like recycled, organic, and eco-friendly. It was also about revealing the beauty of nature. This is why we have the four Rs in our logo. It’s close to the philosophy of reduce, re-use, and recycle. As a company, we also wanted to reveal organizations that are making a difference, and remind people of what’s important in life.
KS: I love that inspiration. I have found that with most mission-driven companies, like Reveal, there is a profound story behind their names, why they were founded, and how they got here. It’s never just about, ‘OK, what is going to make us the most money?’ It’s about, ‘This is a big problem. How do we fix it?’ With UniGuide, I was also at a complete impasse in my life right before I started it. I was totally overwhelmed by the problems in the world, and I literally prayed for a universal guide to show me the way to try to fix things.
In addition to making products from sustainable materials, you guys take it a step further and plant a tree for every product you sell. How did you decide to do that and how did you select American Forests to partner with?
TO: American Forests was established in 1875, and it’s the oldest reforestation service in the United States. They helped establish our National Parks system, and from day one, they were focused on crafting smarter environmental policies in the U.S. We were also inspired by companies like TOMS Shoes, which is making a difference in a very tangible way that is easy for shoppers to understand. We wanted to make it easy for people to understand that if they purchased from us, something good would happen. It was important for us to work with a trusted partner and not some fly-by-night organization. We wanted to work with a nonprofit that was very committed to doing good. So, for every product we sell, we donate one dollar to plant trees in endangered ecosystems.KS: That’s awesome and it clearly resonates with your customers. It resonated with me.
One of the first blog posts I wrote for UniGuide was about phone cases. I needed a new phone case, and I had my eye on a glittery plastic one. I admit I love sparkly things. But I was aware of the plastic problem we have that is literally killing life in our oceans, so I started doing research to see if I could find eco-friendly alternatives. This was a few years ago, and it took some time to find these products. That’s when I discovered Reveal. What is interesting is that, as I learned, my taste completely changed. The knowledge completely changed my sense of aesthetics! I didn’t want the plastic glittery one anymore.
So, I guess the golden question is, once your path is clear – you know what you want to do with your products and your company, you know your mission – now how do you get more people on board? I mean, you can walk into any mall, possibly anywhere in the developed world, and finds kiosks selling plastic phone cases. How do we get people to change their sense of aesthetics and select products made from natural and sustainable materials so they become mainstream?
TO: Well, the way you discovered it – I think that’s how change is going to happen. It’s got to be up to people – consumers; not retailers. I went through this process when selling our products. When I was working in manufacturing in China, we were producing products that would be sold in the big brick and mortar retail stores. But calling on these retailers and trying to convince them to put something different on their shelves was an uphill battle. Large brick and mortar retailers are averse to change and anything perceived to be risky. They don’t feel it’s their job to change consumer attitudes; they are more focused on meeting immediate demand.
KS: Big retailers are like giant battleships – not known to be maneuverable or quick!
TO: Yes, so you can imagine it was very frustrating to be talking to these gatekeepers about something we were so passionate about and they just didn’t get it. What we’ve come to realize is that they will not be the change makers. Everyday consumers will be.
KS: I totally agree. I think when people know the story behind products, they make better choices. So, it’s a matter of getting those stories out. We like to feel good about what we’re buying, wearing, and using, and if there is a positive story behind it – it’s more enjoyable to own it. Social media and the digital age we live in has made it easier than ever for people to know the stories behind products. And you see you how powerful Facebook has become, with 16% of the world’s population using it – it’s easier than ever for consumers to get the full story behind what they’re buying and consuming.
TO: It’s incredible, and this is why it’s so critical right now to make changes and use more sustainable products. I mean, you look at the population of China, with 1.4 billion people, it’s staggering. Then, you look at India, with over 1.3 billion people, and then South America, with another half a billion people – and all of these people wear shoes and clothes and many have sunglasses and cell phones. They are consuming products every day, day after day. If we don’t change the products we’re consuming and the way we are consuming, it will have devastating effects. In fact, it already is.
KS: I think about this a lot, especially as it relates to smaller durable products, like wallets, clothing, shoes, and other items. We promote hemp dog collars on UniGuide, as well as those made from other sustainable materials. And I’ve often found myself asking, ‘Is a dog collar really going to change the world?’ But if you think about all of the small products we use every day, many of which are not going to be family heirlooms, right? Most will be used for a few years and then discarded. But if you look at it on a global scale – it really adds up! I know the nonprofit 5 Gyres has an initiative to get people to stop using plastic straws. You might think – It’s a little plastic straw. What’s the problem? Well, we use more than 500 million per day. Straws! So, the little things matter – when we all use them, they add up!
TO: I know, you multiply that by seven billion people, using these things day after day, and it’s a problem. This is why we need innovation everywhere – even with the seemingly simplest products we use. Imagine if every straw ever made was sustainable and biodegradable?
KS: I hope we’re moving closer to that. We can’t do it fast enough. But, let’s talk about that a little more – actually making sustainable products, and making sure they’re good quality. On UniGuide, we promote a variety of eco-friendly and vegan products, and whenever possible, I like to test the products out. I once ordered a bamboo iPad case made by another company, and after about a week, I dropped it, and the case broke. Luckily, it didn’t damage my iPad. So, I emailed the company, and to their credit, they sent me a new one. Then, within a week, I set it down, and the second case broke. This was especially upsetting for me because for anyone who is trying to promote sustainable products, if the quality is bad for one, it’s like the bad apple that makes all the others look bad. It will feed a belief system among consumers that products made from new, eco, natural, or recycled materials just can’t compete on a quality level with what is now the mainstream. One of the things I really like about Reveal is that your products are incredibly well-designed and well-made. How do ensure consistent quality and that your products can compete with anything else out there?
TO: It’s really true that you don’t want to get into a situation where consumers get an impression that, for example, products made from sustainable bamboo are just not as durable, because it’s simply not true. And if products are not well made and they fall apart, you’re only contributing to the waste problem because they have to be thrown away. Quality has to be number one. You can have a great message and story, but if your products are not built to last, then you’re not going to make it. Because of our history and experience in manufacturing, making products for companies like Toyota, Starbucks, and even the American Cancer Society, we have a lot of experience with this and we take quality very seriously.
Companies have to be responsible no matter where their products are produced. Whether they get made in Los Angeles or Honduras or Bangladesh – you are responsible for all of it. There is a stigma about getting things made in China. People have preconceived notions of what that means. But you can pick any country, whether it’s the U.S. or Vietnam – and it is still your responsibility as the product creator and the brand to know how your products are being produced. You need to know if it’s a good facility, if workers are treated fairly, if the conditions are environmentally responsible. These products are not made by Santa Claus and his elves in the North Pole! They’re made by real people who have families, dreams, and fears.
We started Reveal to impact change on a global scale. We wanted to plant millions of trees. We knew we would not be able to do this with poor quality or by getting things made in factories that did not meet our high social, environmental, and quality standards.
KS: I applaud you for doing that! So, what is next for Reveal?
TO: Thanks! Just as you said, we want to keep getting our story out so people know what is behind our products. And we will continue working on product development, which is what we are passionate about. You’ll be seeing more tech accessories from Reveal, including more solar-related products. We have our hands full, but we are excited about the future.
KS: Awesome. Keep up the good work! Thanks again for sharing your story with us.
TO: Thank you!