|OFFICE POLITICS: Dolphin Blue CEO Thomas Kemper wants to change the way people live—and work. photography by Doug Davis|
Thomas Kemper was living green long before it was a popular PR strategy. Nearly 20 years ago, back when tree-hugger was a Texas epithet, Kemper was trying to spread awareness about responsible living. He started small, campaigning outside Tom Thumb stores to bring curbside recycling to the grocery chain. In 1992, he organized the first public recycling event in Dallas. But when he noticed his recycled items were being taken straight to the landfill, he realized there had to be a demand for his supply to matter.
“We can all put stuff in bins and feel like we’re doing our worldly deed,” he says. “But if we’re not buying products made from the materials we’re putting in the bins, it’s never going to do any good.”
So in 1993 Kemper founded Dolphin Blue, a Dallas-based online seller of environmentally responsible office supplies. Today his Web site carries more than 3,000 commonly used products, from envelopes to toner cartridges to file cabinets, all made of at least 20 percent “post-consumer recycled” material.
The company wasn’t an overnight success—it just marked its first million-dollar year in 2006. A price point that’s typically 15 to 20 percent higher than its big-box competitors hasn’t helped. But Kemper says Dolphin Blue’s quality service, speedy turnaround time (often months faster than larger suppliers), and willingness to work with customers to create new products to meet their needs all make up for the cost differential, not to mention the obvious environmental benefits. “We’re never going to be the cheapest,” he acknowledges. “But [society has] gotten into this Wal-Mart mentality, and it’s digging us a deep hole.”
Kemper is also striving to make it easier for other entrepreneurs to follow his eco-friendly lead with Sustainable Dallas, a group he co-founded in 1999 that spotlights local green companies at annual conferences. He says his own business has been looking brighter as global awareness of environmental issues has grown in recent years. Dolphin Blue customers now include the U.S. Postal Service, the Social Security Administration, and hundreds of small- to medium-sized businesses nationwide.
“It’s like the world’s finally awakened,” Kemper says. “But are we doing enough, and are we doing it fast enough? I don’t know. We’ve been doing a lot of things wrong for a long time.”