Hello CICLO readers! Melisa here again, writing our blog today introducing another local company from Tokyo called Just Smile. Just Smile is a small, start-up company selling bamboo toothbrushes founded by Helena Andre and Kazuna Yamamoto, both young, passionate woman studying at the International Christian University in Tokyo. Both ladies love to travel and exploring remote, small cities around the world. Through their travels they realized our negative impact on natural habitats caused by pollution and plastic waste. From these experiences they decided they wanted to take action rather than wait for someone else to do something about it. From this idea, Just Smile was born! Today, I would like to talk about my meeting with Helena Andre, one of the co-founders of Just Smile. We took some time to talk about spreading more sustainable ideas here in Japan, how Europe is taking the lead in comparison and how this influenced her to take action. Read my interview with her down below.
CICLO Interview with Just Smile co-founder, Helena Andre
Hello Helena! It’s a pleasure to meet you! First of all, thank you for taking the time to meet me today. Let’s start out by talking about when you first learned about the term “sustainability”?
No, thank you for taking the time to reach out to me! I am glad I could be a part of your exciting new project! Well, I grew up knowing about the general idea of sustainability since I was very young. Growing up in Belgium, this is something that is introduced to us at a very early age. At school, they teach kids to save resources like electricity, water, ect. But it wasn’t until two years ago that I really understood what the term “sustainability” and “being sustainable” truly meant. I became vegan and I started to gain more awareness about the natural resources we use on a daily basis. I began to cut my use of plastic, increased the amount of reusable or recyclable items and decreased my amount of food waste.
After I came to Japan as an International Business exchange student at the International Christian University (ICU), I was appalled by the immense amounts of plastic used here. During this time, I also met Kazuna at ICU and we both thought the same about this plastic issue in Japan. We had both traveled to different parts of the world and we wanted to launch something that was fun, affordable and easy for everyone to grasp. So the idea of selling bamboo toothbrushes came to our minds! We think that changing to a sustainable lifestyle doesn’t have to mean breaking your budget. We wanted to create something that is economically accessible for anyone, especially here in Japan where this idea is still relatively new. Our toothbrushes colorful, cute and easy to use. We have also included a travel case make it easy for anyone to take their sustainable toothbrush wherever they go!
When did you begin working on Just Smile and why did you guys decide on the name “Just Smile”?
Well, we wanted something that was easy to pronounce in any language, a name that gives the feeling of something fun, nice, easy and enjoyable to do, so what better name than “Just Smile”? With the help of my dad’s best friend, who is a graphic designer in Europe, he was able to design our company logo finalizing our brand image, Just Smile.
We began talking about this idea in the middle of September 2018. We did our first pitch talk about our Just Smile toothbrushes on September 27th, 2018 at the Tokyo Tech Startups event held at Venture Cafe Tokyo. Most of the money to create our business idea came from our own pocket as well as from our crowdfunding page. We wanted to avoid dealing with investors since we wanted this business idea to solely be managed by us.
I see! So what roles does each member take at Just Smile?
Well, I am in charge of logistics, management, contacting our product producers, media and our connections in Europe. Meanwhile, Kazuna deals with the development of our market here in Japan as well as the general design and marketing of our product. We are currently trying to establish our Business to Business (B to B) relations here in Japan. Kazuna has been doing her best to establish connections with local retailers and small shops in Japan. We also have a third member, Niklas Jehle, in Europe. He manages the overall finances of our company and also fulfills our sales in the Netherlands and Germany. My brother in Belgium also helps us from time to time to get our name out in Europe by participating in events on behalf of us there.
Why did you guys decide to sell bamboo toothbrushes?
First of all, changing to bamboo is very sustainable. Our Just Smile toothbrushes are made our of Moso certified organic bamboo from China. This bamboo plant takes 3 to 5 years to mature and the same time period to regenerate and mature again. When a bamboo tree is cut, it regenerates on its own. Out of a single bamboo tree, 450-650 Just Smile toothbrushes can be produced. Since our raw material comes from China, our toothbrushes are produced there as well to reduce our carbon footprint. When our producers ship our material out to us in Japan, we make sure that no plastic packaging is used. However, we are currently working on locally producing the products which are solely sold in Japan. Now, we offer two kinds of toothbrushes: a round handle toothbrush in either blue or pink with the option of a small or normal-sized brush head and the other is a flat handle toothbrush with charcoal-infused bristles and normal brush heads only. We also offer a toothbrush plus travel case set. Each toothbrush is 400 yen while the set with the travel case is 750 yen!
That’s so affordable! I know even college students on a budget would be able to afford your toothbrushes at this great price! So, could you tell our readers what merit is there to buying your Just Smile toothbrushes specifically? How many have you sold in Japan so far?
Kazuna and I believe that it’s not only important to create a business which is sustainable but also to give back to society as well. We collaborate with the NGO which Kazuna is the founder for called Educate For. They aim to fight against education inequality globally. For every toothbrush sold, one pencil is given to children in South America. So when you buy our products, not only are you making a positive change for our environment, you are also contributing to these children’s education! We have sold a total of around 1000 toothbrushes solely in Japan equaling to the same amount of pencils given to kids in South America. Kazuna makes sure to personally visit the kids in South America, buys the pencils there and delivers it to them with a smile!
Wow, that’s amazing! Not also can I feel good about doing my part for our environment, I can also feel good about giving to children in need! So, what has been the most challenging thing about running a sustainable start-up business here in Japan?
I think the hardest thing so far has been making sure our customers understand the reason why we are selling this product. Many still don’t understand why we need to change our mentality about reducing our plastic use. I think Japan is still lacking a lot of the awareness about living a sustainable life in comparison to back home in Belgium. We hope that if we continue to spread the word, more and more people will know why we are doing what we are doing. Of course, being an exchange student, language is a huge barrier for me here so I am really glad to have been able to team up with Kazuna on this project!
I think you guys make a great team and are a huge inspiration for so many other young university students trying to do what’s best for our planet! So finally, what are your future plans for Just Smile?
Thank you! I am glad to hear that! So, currently, we are running a Business to Consumer (B to C) idea by selling our products online and reaching our consumers directly. However, we want to be as sustainable as we possibly can so we would like to switch over to B to B relations with local shops and retailers here in Japan. We are also trying to get in touch with hotels and airlines, in order to get them to introduce sustainable amenities at their business establishments. We are also currently working on two or more products to create a complete sustainable kit for anyone to easily make the switch to non-plastic products!
That’s great! I wish you the best of luck in your future endeavors. So, do you any final words you would like to give to our CICLO readers?
I would like to say that sustainability is not a huge, overwhelming mountain that you have to overcome. Making the change to a sustainable lifestyle can be easy, simple, affordable and done step-by-step. We know that most of the time, people may be aware of our current environmental issues but don’t know how to get started or can’t give up their budget to be more “earth-friendly”. This is why we believe anyone can start to make small changes to become more sustainable. Whether you buy our products or not, you can start making small changes now like reducing the amount of energy you use, decide to walk, bike or use public transportation instead of driving, lower your amount of food waste and switch to a zero-waste lifestyle. We can all start now and one simple bamboo toothbrush can make a huge difference globally if we all made the switch today! Thank you for reading about our Just Smile story and hope you learned something new today!
Go learn more about and support Just Smile!
This wraps up my interview with Helena Andre from Just Smile. I want to thank Helena for taking the time to speak with me (even though this was our first time meeting face-to-face) she is a super sweet and passionate woman ready to create changes not only in Europe but in Japan as well. If you would like to support her cause, please purchase a bamboo toothbrush from the Just Smile website below. We also bought our own and fell in love with the design and quality of their products! Be sure to check them out on a feature video from Kai Today (raising awareness about single-use plastic) down below as well! See you next time!
Labeled photography provided by Mayu Ono