By Published: Dec. 1, 2015

Water bottle

Sarah Kauss’ S’well water bottles have style.

Sarah Kauss

With about 200 billion plastic water bottles consumed and trashed in landfills worldwide each year, there’s ample opportunity — and growing competition — to provide reusable alternatives. Sarah Kauss (Acct’97) embraced the challenge and has shown that her company, S’well, can elevate the ordinary in an appealing way.

“I’m trying to make the most fashionable water bottle,” she says.

In just five years, S’well has struck gold with a sleek, chic line of more than 100 bottle designs, selling more than four million units since 2010. Last year the New York-based firm generated more than $10 million in revenues.

“Every one of our sales channels are exploding in demand,” says Kauss, 40, who attended Harvard Business School after CU.

When she launched S’well in 2010, Kauss avoided the sporty or functional looks of bottles made by other companies in favor of self-consciously stylish bottles. She started with an old-fashioned milk bottle design in Ocean Blue.

The stainless steel S’well bottles are priced at $25-$45, depending on size, and consumers use them for more than water, Kauss says. Some people store wine for picnics, others use them to keep their children’s hot chocolate warm. Even the 9 ounce bottle, originally made for children, is gaining popularity because it fits inside a woman’s clutch.

“S’well merges style and function with environmental and social consciousness,” says Kauss. “We base our designs the same way the fashion industry works, looking at seasonal Pantones and prints and applying them to our bottles.”

The approach has struck a chord with fashionable people and retailers. S’well bottles have appeared in two Guy Pearce movies and on Ellen DeGeneres’ talk show. Facebook ordered 500 bottles for employees and clients. Starbucks, Nordstrom, J. Crew, Whole Foods and Neiman Marcus all sell S’well bottles.

Kauss came to entrepreneurship well prepared, with business school training and experience working with entrepreneurs as an Ernst & Young accountant in Los Angeles. A few years after business school, a job took her to New York City, where the abundant resources made starting a company seem feasible to her.

She settled on a water bottle company after attending a panel talk about the global water crisis.

“I had carried the idea for S’well internally for some time,” says Kauss, whose environmentally conscious attitude dates to her CU-Boulder days, when she usually carried a giant reusable cup or bottle around campus and into the mountains. “Once I learned of the scale of the water crisis, I was inspired to create a product that could give back to these communities around the world that did not have access to clean drinking water, while eliminating the need for plastic bottles.”

Within a year of S’well’s first sale, the world — and Oprah — took notice. O, the Oprah Magazine featured S’well bottles in its 2011 “O List” of summer products. Soon afterward Kauss landed her first big clients, Crate & Barrel and J. Crew. By 2012, S’well had about 300 accounts, including Starbucks. Sales boomed further after Kauss appeared in a 2014 Fortune magazine article.

Today she presides over a company with more than 40 employees and ambitious plans to introduce new products and enter new markets, especially in Asia. Canada and Brazil are already hot markets.

Commercial success has allowed Kauss to expand her commitment to environmental and humanitarian causes. This year, S’well donated $100,000 to UNICEF’s efforts to provide children with clean drinking water, and proceeds from some S’well bottles support the planting of trees in American forests.

“I’m not a tree-hugger, but am an environmentalist,” she says. “The message for me is trying to replace plastic in an elegant way.”

Photography © Patrick James Miller via S’well (Sara Kauss); Glenn Asakawa (water bottle)