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Within the four walls of his childhood home in Hawaii, economics graduate Aidan Riehl embarked on an entrepreneurial journey, which is contributing to an environmental shift towards sustainability.
Sophomore year of college, Riehl wanted to create a business with a positive impact on the environment and society. However, he did not know what to address first.
One day, as Riehl walked along the beaches of his hometown, he realized the problem was right in front of his face. The issue he dealt with daily was the alarming amount of plastic pollution around him.
Growing up in Oahu, Hawaii, Riehl said he witnessed the effects of plastic pollution his whole life. Determined to make a difference, Riehl set his sights on tackling this issue and promoting a zero-waste lifestyle.
Riehl’s epiphany led him to ask the question, why don’t people shop sustainably or plastic-free? The answer became clear to him — the prices are too expensive.
That is when the idea for Riehl’s startup, Ecoternatives, formed.
Ecoternatives is an online marketplace that sells sustainable and plastic-free products at more affordable prices.
As a one-man team, Riehl took time off from school, stayed in Hawaii and operated his business from his room. He bought $3,000 worth of products and shipped packages by himself.
“I bought dressers from Craigslist and shoved soaps and lip balms in them,” Riehl said. “My mom would walk into my room and smell all the flora and sweet scents and think ‘This is not what a teenage boy’s room should smell like.’”
Ecoternatives started growing through word-of-mouth recommendations, Riehl said. Then, he started sharing his website through social media channels and reached out to zero-waste nonprofits to help promote his business.
Over time, Ecoternatives evolved into not only a basic e-commerce store but also a community, Riehl said.
“I’ve created such a cohort of people who are so passionate about this problem, who are very like-minded and who believe sustainability is too expensive,” Riehl explained.
Riehl said Ecoternatives is different from other zero-waste stores because of his commitment to sourcing products. Unlike other zero-waste stores, Riehl does not settle for pre-vetted options.
To find products for Ecoternatives, Riehl said he takes days researching the most affordable and sustainable options. He ensures that the product and its company follow strict social and environmental guidelines; for instance, energy-efficient sourcing, supply chain transparency and ethical labor practices. Finally, he tests the different products to see how they compare.
After working on Ecoternatives for two-and-a-half years, Riehl applied for the Cal Poly Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation (CIE) Summer Accelerator. The Summer Accelerator is a program for Cal Poly students that provides them with mentorship, $10,000 in funding and other resources to help build their business.
Ecoternatives was one of the eight teams accepted to the program.
Riehl described the Summer Accelerator as an “amazing opportunity.” He appreciates the ability to speak with experts in different industries who help him better understand the parts of his business, he said.
“The CIE has helped me grow Ecoternatives by connecting me with the right people at the right moments,” Riehl said.
Ecoternatives is currently running a fulfillment center in Texas that ships orders to the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia and Canada. He has made $110,000 in sales with nine months of active business. Ecoternatives is also donating a portion of its profits to other zero-waste nonprofits with each order.
Looking forward, Riehl wants to create his own sustainable products to sell on Ecoternatives for an even lower cost.
Riehl aims to extend Ecoternatives beyond commerce. He wants to organize beach cleanups and educational workshops for kids on how the consumption of goods can affect the environment.
“Working on Ecoternatives made me more optimistic about sustainability because I’ve learned all the positive things my business can do,” Riehl said. “I’m very excited to expand our overall environmental and societal impact and show people that we can make sustainability more affordable.”
Ecoternatives, along with the rest of the 2023 Summer Accelerator cohort, will pitch their startup and showcase their progress at Demo Day on Sept. 8 at 4 p.m. at SLO Brew Rock. Tickets are available here.