Sustainability is a core value that Deb Singer has spent most of her life championing. In the early 2000s when the concept of eco-consciousness began to be embraced on a wider societal level and businesses began to look for ways to reduce their impact on the natural world, Singer found herself in the unique position to have a profound impact on the future of the planet.
In 2007 while working for organic grocery chain Whole Foods Market, Singer introduced the first-ever reusable shopping bag made from recycled bottles to the company’s executive leadership and convinced Whole Foods to support a pilot program to stop the use of plastic bags in their Austin and Toronto locations.
“It just seemed crazy to me,” she said. “They were selling organic food, developing these beautiful products for the home that were sustainable and people were leaving the grocery store with plastic bags.”
The program was so successful that within four months plastic bags were banned chainwide. The national rollout took place on Earth Day in 2008.
“It was a huge win,” Singer said. And it changed the course of her life. Between her product development work and the success of the reusable bag program she was hooked.
“I got bit by the sustainability bug,” she said. “I wanted to take that work out into the world.”
Singer was born in New York City and grew up in Westchester County in New York. Her father was an executive for the Alexander’s Department Store chain and her mother was a school teacher, but in many ways she takes after her grandfather.
According to Singer, Leo Greenberg was a Jewish immigrant whose parents sent him to the United States in the 1940s to avoid the growing unrest in his native Germany. After a career in the textile industry in New York, he and Singer’s grandmother moved to South Carolina where he opened a hotel. Inspired by one of South Carolina’s most beloved desserts, he developed a machine to make miniature pecan pies and built a small factory behind the hotel.
Greenberg was a natural at marketing. He began sending samples to the White House every Thanksgiving and developed quite a following. Singer said the family still has the letters from Mamie Eisenhower and J. Edgar Hoover expressing their appreciation for her grandfather’s pies.
Singer studied art and design at the Rochester Institute of Technology and earned her BFA in graphic design and interior architecture from the University of Massachusetts in Amherst before spending the next 40 years of her life in Boston.
At the age of 26 she left the design world and, like her grandfather, became an entrepreneur.
“I saw an opportunity,” she said. “I believe that my secret sauce, my superpower, is understanding products that will take hold.
She saw a niche for a wholesale bakery that could produce high-end individual desserts for restaurants, caterers, and gourmet stores.
“I never have been and never will be a baker,” she said. Despite that, she opened Piece of Cake and hired a fourth generation Italian baker to help create her vision.
The company crafted miniature Bundt cakes in flavors like amaretto fudge or Grand Marnier orange. Singer even used her grandfather’s recipe to craft individual pecan pies. She relied on her design background to elevate the aesthetics of the products produced and the business was a success. Ultimately Singer decided to sell it and find a new challenge.
In the interim Singer took a job in the baking department of Whole Foods Market.
“I was very resistant to working in a grocery store,” she said. But Whole Foods turned into a “very rewarding, very successful” 15-year career.
Singer moved into leadership with Whole Foods and in 2005 she became part of a private label team that developed branded products for the company. She was instrumental in the Whole Living program, which was tasked with developing sustainable products for the home, including bamboo cutting boards and items made with recycled plastics or organic cotton. One of those items was the reusable bag that placed her on the forefront of the burgeoning sustainability movement.
Singer left Whole Foods the following year and founded her own company, Singer Sustainability, with Whole Foods Market as her largest customer.
Singer worked with the grocery chain for the next seven or eight years expanding its reusable bag programs to include produce bags, bulk bags, insulated bags, and even a shopper trolley.
She helped design and launch the Allegro on the Go product line for organic coffee roaster Allegro Coffee.
She worked with Green Market, a New York-based farmers market nonprofit with more than 50 locations focused on supporting farmers and local produce.
Singer credits her time at Whole Foods with driving her focus on sustainability.
“It cemented my commitment to it,” she said. “Everyone there ‘drank the Kool-Aid.’ You’d be hard pressed to find somebody in management or on the leadership team that wasn’t … eating organic, using natural products on their body. I think it made a big impact on me.”
Starting in 2014 Singer spent three years traveling through upstate New York helping bring reusable bags to breweries, wineries, and regional farms.
“It was just so beautiful there. I think that’s what locked it in for me,” she said of her continuing commitment to sustainability. “I fell in love with the land.”
Singer met California entrepreneur Karin Heck in 2020. The two women shared a passion to reduce reliance on single use produce bags. While consumers had begun to make the shift to reusable grocery totes, Singer said more than 66 billion plastic produce bags are wasted annually.
“Consumer behavior wasn’t changing,” she said.
Singer and Heck formed BringIt Bags using wood fibers from sustainable beech wood and eucalyptus to create a grocery shopping bag system that could be reused and at the end of its life could be composted back into the earth. Singer became inspired by that circular economy.
Timing, however, was not in their favor. The COVID-19 pandemic was taking off, supply chains were disrupted, the economy was struggling, and the business had trouble finding investors. It was shuttered in 2022.
“We had terrible headwinds,” Singer said. “It was impossible to sustain ourselves.”
Singer continues to work in the sustainability space as a consultant helping bring new products to market.
“I’m a product person through and through,” she said.
She focuses most on companies that have the resources to scale up their efforts to reduce reliance on single use packaging.
“That’s where I feel like I can make the biggest impact,” she said.
Singer moved to Maine in September 2021 because she wanted to live closer to nature. By that time Singer had met her partner, who works for Schooner Cove, LincolnHealth’s assisted living facility.
“We feel very blessed to have found each other,” she said. The couple lives in Nobleboro in a house surrounded by forest.
“I wake up every morning and out of every window all you see is woods,” she said. “It’s beautiful.”
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