Get to know...Amy Barnouw, Fairfield entrepreneur, environmentalist, and mom
WESTPORT — A gypsy moth infestation plagued Connecticut in the late 1970s and ‘80s when Amy Barnouw was a teenager growing up in Darien. Her dad hired someone to spray the trees around her their home to protect the trees from the moths and as the smell seeped into her room, Barnouw grew concerned.
“I was thinking this can’t be good for anybody. If it’s toxic and killing these moths and I have to close my windows, what about when it rains and gets into our well water?,” Barnouw said. She contacted the Center for Alternatives to Pesticides in Oregon and, because this was in a pre-internet time, called up the organization and asked them to send her information about the spray.
Armed with the scientific information provided by Alternatives to Pesticides, Barnouw approached her dad and said, “I want to encourage you to stop spraying and here’s the reasons I’m worried.” After their talk, Barnouw’s dad stopped spraying their yard. “I was very motivated by common sense and fairness, especially with animals. I was really worried about the impact of the sprays on the birds and our pets,” Barnouw, 48, said.
While at Wittenberg University, a small liberal arts college in Ohio, Barnouw started an animal rights organization and, by graduation, knew environmentalism was her life’s work. Post-grad, Barnouw worked as a park ranger in Texas’ Big Bend National Park with the Student Conservation Association, which then hired her to travel around the country promoting the association’s volunteer program. After her work with the association, Barnouw worked for environmental groups in Vermont and New Hampshire, including a gig organizing a statewide environmental volunteer day in New Hampshire attended by then-Vice President Al Gore.
Barnouw’s path took a cross-country shift after she attended an environmental conference at Tufts and saw a movie about old growth forests produced by LightHawk, an organization that brings people into the sky and sharing aerial images of planet Earth in order to promote conservation.
“I was watching this film, looking at these thousand-year-old cedar trees and I was moved by this irrational thought that we are clear cutting these beautiful, majestic, giants for phone books and toilet paper. So I called up (LightHawk) and said I’d like to come work for you and they said fine, but we don’t have a job. I said no worries, I’ll just volunteer,” Barnouw said.
To LightHawk’s surprise, Barnouw was serious, and drove across the country to Seattle to volunteer for the organization, while working a paid job at nights. A few months later, she earned a full-time job at LightHawk and stayed at the organization for six years.“The Earth doesn’t lie when you get up from the air and look at what’s really going on,” Barnouw said. It was during those years Barnouw also met her husband, Tom, a fellow Connecticut area native, in an ultimate frisbee league in Seattle.
After leaving LightHawk, Barnouw went to work for the Wilderness Society on public land projects funded by a public-private partnership between Starbucks, a local radio station and the Wilderness Society. The radio station produced a CD sold at Starbucks, and all the CD’s proceeds went to fund Wilderness Fund projects. Nearly a decade after the initiative began, the CD’s made around 1.2 million. “That to me was such a profound lesson in the opportunity for smart, mission-driven businesses and smart enterprise to really move the needle on social issues, and in that case, it was contributing to the environment,” Barnouw said.
In 2004, Barnouw moved with her husband and three young kids to Fairfield because they appreciated the town’s vibe and proximity to the young culture and diversity of the universities.
When her kids were younger, Barnouw said it was easier to ensure they ate healthy and organic foods, but as they got older, she saw it was difficult to find simple, organic drinks they could purchase at grab and go stores. “It was really just a very simple question of where is a product that is just organic juice and water. That’s what I make at home for my kids, where is it on the shelf?” Barnouw said.
With the desire to start a mission-driven business, Barnouw and her husband founded Planet Fuel, a beverage company with three flavors of organic drinks--cherry lemonade, apple grape, and mango pear lime, that came to market in 2014. Except for mangoes, which are not grown organically in the U.S., Planet Fuel’s ingredients all come from organic farms in the U.S. and are packaged in Indiana. “We vote with our money day in and day out and when we support brands committed to doing good, collectively we have great influence,” Barnouw said.
Two years ago, Planet Fuel established a charitable fund to fulfill Barnouw’s dream of a mission-driven business that also fuels environmental conservation. Over the last year, the charitable fund, made up of donor money and Planet Fuel drink sales, gave away $135,000 in grant money to local, national and global environmental initiatives, including $50,000 grants to both the Ocean Conservancy and the Connecticut Fund for the Environment.
Because Barnouw believes young people need a way to engage in the environmental movement now and not have to wait until they’re adults, she started a teen advisory board made up of local high school students to choose the charitable fund grantees. Barnouw and the advisory board also collaborate with grantee organizations on projects, such as the Ocean Conservancy’s skip the straw initiative to reduce single-use plastics. So far, the advisory board has convinced several area restaurants, including Colony Grill, to eliminate plastic straws and give paper straws only upon request.
Although Barnouw is the company’s only full-time employee, she said her husband, and the company’s co-founder, Tom, has been 180 percent supportive of the work and picks up the pieces at home when she’s busy with the company.
“Through all the challenges, it was always just a matter of pushing a little further. I don’t know where a lot of that will power comes from, but it’s there. It’s a belief we have a really good product and a belief the charitable fund and the work we’re doing needs to be done. That fuels me,” Barnouw said.
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