Saturday, April 27, 2013

Making Progress With Noah Johnson


Noah Johnson is part of a growing cadre of eco-conscious entrepreneurs who are trying to change the way consumer goods and global commerce are produced. He is an eco warrior of sorts, collecting anything from used banners to billboards for his Encinitas, Calif.-based company The Progress Project.  Noah launched the company in 2010 with his wife Jolene. Using recycled materials, The Progress Project makes everything from messenger bags to laptop sleeves, iPad wallets, surfboard bags, tote bags, and even custom orders. Below, Noah talks about the passion behind The Progress Project and how the family-run business is moving full-speed ahead.

Background Check: I grew up in La Mesa, Calif. As a kid, I was very passionate about athletics, including surfing, soccer and baseball. After high school, I served an apprenticeship with a commercial electrician and since have sold women’s shoes, waited tables, partied pretty hard, bartended, managed hotel food and beverage departments, and been an auditor/consultant for bar and  restaurant owners and their managers.
Age: 35 (Turns 36 in June)

Hobbies: Work, painting, ocean, and family.

What Fuels Me: Having a unique vision / idea and committing to do whatever necessary for the result.

 Favorite Quote: Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds.” ~Albert Einstein

Jolene & Noah Johnson

Picking a Passion: As I went through the process of deciding what to do, I noticed repeatedly that there was (and still is) a clear difference between many of the products on the market being labeled as “green” and actually being green.  I thought then that if I could get my hands on materials that had been used, but not recycled yet and make legit products with them, that would be the rad.

Fulltime Family Affair: Up until now, my wife and I have run The Progress Project. It’s just been the two of us doing literally everything unless one of our awesome neighbors lends a hand, which does happen (you know who you are and we love you).

 Materials Matter: We get our materials for The Progress Project from all over. We are grateful to have partnerships with Revolt in Style magazine, which has been donating its RSSS banners from the very beginning. Also a great relationship continues to be with Sustainable Surf, which has produced tens of thousands of square feet of signage from companies such as Rip Curl, REEF and Hurley. The list of businesses that donate their old signage is long. We also purchase used billboards. I  buy the rest of the materials from a distributor that carries American made products.

The Big Challenge: Because we are still pretty small, our many challenges have been mainly about fueling growth. It has always been our goal to compete with other brands that bring similar products to market. Finding resources to grow a business/brand that is well outside the mainstream is seemingly nearly impossible.  No rich uncles or trust funds here, so the main thing has just been staying focused, persistent and really stubborn long enough for the right opportunity for growth to come along.

Fueling & Inspiring Eco-Conscious Consumers: In some ways, I think it can be hard to educate people on the importance of buying organic, green products. In one bag, you’ve got a percentage of consumers that are already on the same eco page – they’re just a very small percentage of the total consumer population, and that’s where it becomes challenging. In a society riddled with thought processes holding cost and popularity as a higher priorities than quality and where a product was made, it’s a tough sell trying to convince Joe and Sally that spending three times as much money for an item that will last five times as long and was made by your neighbor (I’m still not sure why that’s a tough sell, but it is).

Eco Education: Unfortunately, I know there’s still a lot of green washing going on, so while consumers are becoming more conscious, it is becoming more challenging to decipher which products are actually eco-friendly, and even more, businesses that are actually owned and run by people who are eco-friendly themselves. For example, some companies promote themselves and their products as being eco-friendly, but unfortunately, it’s just marketing.

Making Progress: After three  years, on May 1, 2013, The Progress Project is evolving into Progress Brand Mfg. and moving into a space with our eco warrior pals *enjoy handplanes (congrats to them as well). We’ll have more than a dozen sewing machines along with other rad machines, and consequently it will increase our production capabilities by, well, 12. Also, look for lots of fun stuff like a new website, video series, eco blog and much more with our newest partner Album Agency. The Progress Project will live on; I just can’t say how in this moment. I can promise you that it’s going to be pretty epic.

Noah in The Progress Project workshop

The Progress Project Assistants-Noah and Jolene's twins

The Progress Project keeps it in the family (Noah & Jolene's teenage daughter)

*I originally wrote this article for the San Diego Surf Film Festival blog.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

The Hippy (Family)Tree

"Youth can not know how age thinks and feels. But old men are guilty if they forget what it was to be young.”
-- J.K. Rowling

The recent passing of my grandmother has brought a renewed longing for strong family ties. I did not have the opportunity (mainly due to distance) to spend a lot of time with my grandma Louise, but I was always inspired by her tenacity and zest for life. I can still hear her soft laughter as she tried to teach me how to square dance during a visit last year (she was 89 then!). (She and my late grandpa John were avid square dancers).
Louise was my last living blood-related grandmother, and during her last days, most of her eight children and some of their children came to her to pay respect to the root of their lineage.
My 11-year-old son never had a chance to meet his great grandma Louise, but I am so thankful that my parents have been a big and important part of his life. My mom and step dad have given my son a rich and nurturing family experience, one that only grandparents can provide.
My son has also had the blessing of spending time with his step, great grandma Margaret, who has also been an inspiration to me. Although she is 90 and has Alzheimer's, Margaret is as spritely and lively as ever.
I want my son to learn to appreciate his strong and loving family. As I hear the clicking of his computer keyboard in his room, I know that it is time to forget about the electronics for awhile and go outside to enjoy nature and each other.  He keeps me young and active, just the way I want to be as long as I can.

My late grandmother Louise and I (2012)

My dad and son on a nature walk (2013)

Four generations (2013)

My son and his grandma splashing around (2012) 

My son and I lounging by the pool during spring break (2013)