Tucked away in a secret place, SaVonne Anderson keeps a collection of handwritten notes given to her over the years. Some are ‘just because’ cards. Others are sympathy cards from when her mom died in 2008. Anderson was 13 years old.
“At that time, at such a young age, those were the things that comforted me – to read these messages from people that really cared about my mother and about me. That was the first time I really understood how impactful it can be to write a card for someone. And that stuck with me,” Anderson said.
The supportive community she had around her half a life ago is baked into the inspiration that became Aya Paper Co., a line of sustainable stationery she started in 2019 that will be available at Whole Foods and Nordstrom locations nationwide come October.
“There’s power in spreading joy. The world is not always flowers and sunshine but even when it’s difficult you can find something to celebrate,” she said. “[Aya has] a lot of ‘just because’ cards, because we want people to find things to celebrate in the mundane, to give someone a card that’s says ‘you’re definitely one of my favorite people’ just because. Those are the things that help comfort people in difficult times.”
Creating a sustainable product line was important to Anderson, though she’s still sort of a nature newcomer. Growing up in Newark, she “wasn’t really a kid who liked to hang outside.” When her dad took her to parks, they were in nearby towns like South Orange rather than in her neighborhood.
“I think that when you grow up in urban poor Black neighborhoods, a lot of your concern is about day-to-day survival. … It wasn’t until college that felt like I had gained the leisure to think about what I wanted my life to be like. After I graduated, it was the first time I had to think ‘what do I want my life to be about, what businesses do I want to buy from, what do I want to [prioritize]?’ A lot of it was about connecting to nature,” she said. “I was very aware there was a disconnect.”
In the free time she had around her full-time job as a graphic designer, Anderson started to grow plants, to grow herbs, and to seek out other Black women with an interest in sustainability. She found Sustainable Brooklyn, a grassroots organization founded by Dominique Drakeford and Whitney McGuire that’s working to bridge gaps between the sustainability movement and communities of color through events and workshops. Drawing inspiration from them, she asked, “hey, I have this idea for a sustainable stationary line. Do you think this idea has legs?”
“The way they affirmed me and getting that kind of validation and support from people that were actually doing it, that made me feel like, OK, I’ve done my research, I have passion, I have care. I should go and do this,’” Anderson said.
Growth from the start
She started selling her stationery at pop-up shops. Immediately, her products were well received. After seven months of growing and creating as a side hustle, she stepped down from her full-time job and lined up months of planned pop-ups.
That was February 2020, though. So the pop-ups didn’t happen.
“I remember the first week when lockdown happened. I was saying before I wanted to make the website more shoppable, so I spent the next two weeks working on that,” she said.
Her efforts were crucial to the success that followed. With her social media active and her website shoppable, she increased her online following from 3,000 to 15,000 from March to June 2020. Her sales followed.
Anderson’s a numbers person. She attributes it to being a Capricorn—though it’s a pretty common attribute in the business world. She said her nose was stuck on the grindstone so consistently last year and she was so deep in the work, though, that she didn’t realize how fast Aya was growing. When she finally crunched the numbers, she saw her $5,000 revenue from 2019 turned into $120,000 in 2020. And this year, two-thirds in, she’s already more than doubled that.
“[Last year] was our first year of doing this full-time, first year of doing wholesale, and we did so successfully, just by being authentic. We were able to be prosperous and grow and bring people joy and reach new audiences with [our retail partnerships], and that felt good to me,” Anderson said.
Two years in, Aya has grown to a team of four, including a friend she’s had since girlhood, a pal from college, and a referral from someone she used to work for.
“I have a trusted closeness with my team. [We’re] all Black women, and most under 30. It feels really good to pay other Black women for their talents and to create this together.”
Everyone needs a ‘why’
A study published in the journal Nature Communications in May found that Black people are disproportionately affected by climate change.
Researchers in “Disproportionate exposure to urban heat island intensity across major US cities” found that Black people living in most U.S. cities are subject to double the heat stress as their white counterparts, not due to poverty but due to historic segregation that put more people of color in urban areas with fewer parks, more buildings, and more roads. These structures create what is dubbed the urban heat island effect.
In fact, research indicating that environmental justice and racial justice are intertwined, like the 2012 Coal-Blooded study by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People which found that communities of color breathe in 40% more polluted air than white communities, has been available for years.
“Growing up in Newark, where I saw pollution and lack of access to healthy food, it hit. Now that I was finding this language and realizing what environmental racism is, it made me think about how I can create this business in a way that doesn’t perpetuate those issues,” Anderson said.
Last year, a bill signed into law by Governor Murphy recognized and sought to rectify that by requiring the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection to evaluate the environmental and public health effects of certain facilities on overburdened communities—defined by the bill as communities where 35% of the households qualify as low-income, 40% of households are minority, or 40% of households have limited English proficiency—when reviewing certain permit applications; and by mandatory permit denials if an environmental justice analysis determines a new facility will have a disproportionately negative impact on overburdened communities.
But for years, these issues went unaddressed.
“That’s why it’s important to be a business that chooses to do the right thing environmentally. In the time when the government fails us, what can we do as a community for each other? That’s where I feel Aya Paper Co. is very important, and see us having an impact on the city going forward,” Anderson said.