News & Events

UI Small Business Client Makes Customized Reusable Canvas Bags for Major Grocery Clients

An Iowa City business owner is helping bring canvas shopping bags to retail stores with help from The University of Iowa's Small Business Development Center.

Cart by Cart, LLC manufactures and distributes reusable canvas bags to replace the paper and plastic bags used by consumers every day. The company supplies 51 grocery stores in Iowa, including chains like Hy-Vee and Fareway and small stores like John's Grocery in Iowa City.

Organizations are buying bags to give away as promotional items, schools have used the bags as fundraisers, and libraries are using them for book bags.

Owner Joan Burns started the business to help people make a difference in the world, if in no other way than by reducing the number of plastic and paper bags sent to landfills. Each year, she said, 100 billion plastic bags end up in landfills, where they take 500 to 1,000 years to decompose. Using reusable shopping bags is an easy and convenient way to become more responsible consumers.

Burns started researching her business concept in early 2007, motivated in part by early childhood lessons on cleaning up thoroughly after family camping trips, and her father's philosophy that a plastic bottle or bag left in the woods would be there forever. She found that some cities and states have adopted ordinances against the use of disposable shopping bags and her goal is to make Iowa a leader in consumer use of reusable shopping bags.

A long-time teacher and school administrator, Burns had never started a business before so she came to the Small Business Development Center (SBDC) for business counseling. She knew what she wanted to accomplish but was not aware of all the tasks and risks between the start-up phase and becoming a successful business. Burns met with SBDC regional director Paul Heath and discussed many start-up topics, including finding potential vendors for her bags, marketing, sales taxes, and accounting. Heath encouraged her to move ahead with the business and gave her knowledgeable, timely advice.

Burns took advantage of the center's individualized counseling, its FastTrac" class for community entrepreneurs, and other Center workshops, such as tax classes co-sponsored by the Iowa Department of Revenue. She said the FastTrac class emphasized networking with other businesspersons and that she has followed this advice by frequently inviting potential customers out for coffee, leading to several major sales. She admits she has developed a much better understanding of what business is about now and her transition from education to business is working well.

"The Small Business Development Center is an invaluable resource for small business owners," said Burns. "They really listened to me speak about my goals and the questions I had. They provided support, advice, and focus each step of the way. I will always be grateful for the assistance and programs they offer to entrepreneurs."

Sales continue to increase and the company's market has expanded beyond grocery and food stores. New and different designs, including Iowa-themed and environmentally friendly patterns, are continually offered. Burns hopes that by making the bags hip, more people will use them and reduce the burden on the environment. Burns' business has grown to the point now where she no longer has to reach out to clients to make sales because businesses are calling her.

"It is a great sense of accomplishment the first time a customer calls you based on a word-of-mouth referral," she said.


Return to top of page