Students bring green supplies to Bookstore
 

Kerry Davis believes in the power of environmental awareness —and that change starts with a single, newspaper-wrapped pencil.

Davis, a 23-year-old environmental studies major at SF State, is the CEO of O’BON, a school supplies company that uses recycled materials to create everyday pencils, folders and notebooks, which are currently being sold in the SFSU Bookstore. Their new products, including two new lines of notebooks and the O’Bonanza fruit-printed notebooks and pencils, are available at the bookstore today.

Their pride is the reinvention of the ordinary wooden pencil, wrapping it in a mixture of old Chinese newspapers and non-toxic glue to make it both more ecologically-friendly and durable.

“We put an emphasis on making our products all-environmental,” Davis said.

The Malaysia-based company, founded five years ago by Davis’ dad and his business partner, has been so popular in Southeast Asia and Australia that last summer, they decided to expand their market to North America—and gave Davis the chance to run it.

“Unlike your typical business, this started with $5,000 and a few friends,” said Davis, who taught himself how to run the business from his Villas apartment with a staff of all-volunteer students.

Together they have successfully sold O’BON products to two dozen vendors around the United States and Canada, including the Bookstore last November.

“I love it,” said Amber Wilson, the bookstore’s general merchandise manager, of the O’BON products. An advocate of the environment and supporter of student entrepreneurship, Wilson said O’BON is the first student-run company to sell recycled products in the bookstore.

Their products are environmentally friendly as well as eye-catching, using vegetable oil-based ink to create vibrant designs ranging from wild animals to juicy fruit so realistic you can almost taste it.

“What sets us apart is the design,” Davis said.

The bookstore currently carries O’BON’s signature product, the newspaper-clad pencil in packs from the wildlife, original, and newsprint series.

Unlike the two pieces of incense-cedar wood glued together to make ordinary wooden pencils, O’BON uses old Chinese newspapers and a non-toxic, water-based glue to protect the graphite and hold the pencil together.

The paper is wrapped around the graphite 36 times and makes these pencils so durable they don’t break easily, whether you hit the pencil on a desk or continuously sharpen it. On average, an O’BON pencil lasts at least three times longer than a wooden pencil, according to the O’BON Web site, www.stationary-obon.com.

In addition, they carry the wildlife folders and fact books, colored pencils, soy-based ink pens, Whoops! erasers and packs of L’artiste drawing pencils, all priced under $11.

Despite the spring being a slower selling season, general merchandise coordinator and recent SF State graduate Dilshan Fernando said environmentally friendly products have been flying off the shelves.

“We usually sell more [school supplies] in the fall,” said Fernando, “but O’BON products have sold well this semester.”

The bookstore features products from several environmentally-conscious companies including Earthbound and EnviroTech, but Davis insists O’BON’s quality is unparalleled.

“There’s nothing similar,” Davis said. “We touch upon a niche market.”

Depending on where they’re selling their products, “we push the environmental or design aspects,” Davis said.

In Australia, the sustainability appeals to the green-conscious consumers, whereas the colorful designs are the draw for consumers in Malaysia. In San Francisco, Davis said the environmentally-friendly and progressive mentality of the city fit both strengths of O’BON products.

“I tell everyone to buy them,” said Sheryl Creer, 22, a biology major and bookstore sales clerk who is a fan of the original solid-colored pencil series.

“I love that I can sharpen these pencils and then dump the shavings into the recycling bin,” she said.

According to Wilson, the newspaper-printed pencils are among the top-selling O’BON items. She said the wildlife folders and triangular pencil packs have also been popular with students.

Fernando, who set up the O’BON display in the bookstore, said they plan to have a separate area designated for recycled products in the near future.

In order to spread their message of sustainability, the San Francisco-based O’BON staff attends conventions all over the United States to advertise O’BON products. In November, they attended the Green Festival and introduced their products to several vendors including Santa Clara’s Green Earth Office Supply, who later ordered the wildlife pencil series.

O’BON has been also garnering national attention. Sustainable Planet, a Platinum Broadcasting Co. TV series that promotes environmental sustainability through “green” business models, wants to include O’BON in their upcoming series about environmentally-friendly school supplies. The show will air twice nationally and 48 times regionally on ABC Family and Oxygen starting in mid-summer.

Davis said he hopes the series will “really appeal to wholesalers and office supply distributors” and give O’BON more name recognition in the industry.

To Davis, running this company isn’t solely about making money— it’s about the desire to make a great, sustainable product.

“From an environmental standpoint, business is a big problem because it’s so profit-driven,” said Davis, whose staff is willing to volunteer its time and skills for the experience, not a paycheck.

“This is why we’ve worked so hard,” said Adam “Sandy” Sandoval, 24, an SF State kinesiology major and customer relations director for O’BON. “We know it could eventually get big.”

In Asia, much of the money O’BON products brings in is used to hold demonstrations at elementary and middle schools. These presentations aim to educate students about the environment and the importance of choosing sustainably-made products.

The company is still new, but Davis said he hopes to start holding demonstrations here later this year.
“We [plan to] go into schools and say, ‘This is what we do, this is what we sell, [and] let us tell you why this is better [than the average product],’” Davis said. “We can educate the world and change the mindsets of people through kids.”

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PHOTO
Dani Vernon | staff photographer
Kerry Davis, 23, shows off O'BON pencils created from recycled newspaper Monday, Feb. 11, 2008.

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