Sustainable Apparel and Gear
What do zoology, eighth-grade science, construction management, graphic design, parenthood, water bottles, T-shirts, and a broken box all have in common?
Kellie Sorel Ducharme ’95 and David Ducharme ’95 connected the dots among these seemingly disparate subjects to create Think Outside, a company whose mission is to create sustainable, environmentally safe, colorful, and fun products for children and families.
The story of Think Outside, the company, is closely intertwined with the Ducharmes’ personal journey as a couple and as parents. It is also a University of Rhode Island story.
While their first official date was dinner in Butterfield Dining Hall, the Ducharmes actually met earlier that same day, playing basketball. “She let me win,” says Dave, who then goes on to explain that Kellie mistook him for his identical twin, Chris, when she saw him several hours after the game, exclaiming, “I just played basketball with your brother!” Dave, a consumer affairs major who grew up in Cranston, R.I., and New Hartford, Conn., native Kellie, who studied zoology, dated throughout their undergraduate years and married in 1998.
The Ducharme twins, who had enthusiastically followed in their parents’ (Francis “Duke” Ducharme ’62 and Barbara Ducharme ‘62) footsteps by attending URI, also continued a tradition by entering the 118-year-old family business, E. Turgeon Construction Corporation. “We started at Turgeon the minute we graduated,” says Dave. “As we were receiving our respective diplomas, our dad said, ‘Here’s a shovel, see you in five!’” (The renovation of Swan Hall, formerly Independence Hall, was a Turgeon project.)
Kellie and Dave plunged into their jobs and pursued their passions. Dave continued his education at Roger Williams University with classes including architecture and structural engineering. For a creative outlet, he donned the additional hat of graphic designer for Turgeon. In the meantime, Kellie returned to URI for her teaching certificate and began teaching science, first at Westerly High School, then at Middletown High School, and finally at Gaudet Middle School in Middletown, where she found her niche teaching eighth graders. The Ducharmes settled in Richmond, R.I. Their lives seemed to be moving on a steady trajectory.
And then, inspiration struck.
In 2007, during her February school break, Kellie traveled with their three-year-old daughter, Mia, to Santa Barbara, where her sister, a professional photographer, lives with her family. Dave was airborne, on his way to meet them, when he was seized with an idea. On a cocktail napkin, he sketched a broken box. When he showed it to Kellie, she saw beyond a napkin doodle to a logo— for a company that they should start, together, to address the needs of environmentally conscious families.
“Like so many new parents, we wanted only the best for our baby,” says Kellie, “including soft clothing that wore well, without itchy tags, designed for easy-on and easy-off. It was tough to find. So-called natural or organic fabrics were only available in blah beige. And trying to figure out bottles and sippy cups was also challenging. So many were either not BPA free or not dishwasher safe. Dave’s broken box set something in motion for me.”
Kellie points out that when she and Dave were undergraduates, recycling was just coming into its own at URI. “Studying zoology led me naturally to an interest in ecology,” she notes. “Teaching science only reinforced that interest. I would see water bottles piled high and think about the landfill.”
The broken box became the first graphic for Think Outside’s logo, and appeared on the company’s first T-shirts and onesies, which sold out on the first day of the Charlestown Seafood Festival in 2008.
A big break came when Think Outside caught the interest of Gary Peck, chairman of the S-Group in Portland, Oregon, a company that works with athletic brands like Lululemon, Life is Good, Looptworks, and New Balance on design, innovation, product commercialization, sourcing, production, and quality assurance. Think Outside’s environmentally friendly approach is well aligned with the S-Group’s philosophy, and Peck serves as an adviser to the company.
So how have the Ducharmes broken the box? The company uses upcycled materials—remnants from already produced garments—as well as recycled materials that are re-dyed and re-sewn. The company’s products, including clothing, baby backpacks, hooded towels, and their best-selling water bottle kits, are pesticide and contaminant free, and their brightly colored designs feature low-impact ink and vegetable dyes. The Ducharmes continue to explore ways to keep as much production as possible within Rhode Island. The Gob Shop in Bristol does their silk screening. Mills Creek Natural Market in Charlestown is one of their local distributors.
And Think Outside is a family affair. Mia, now nine, and younger sister Siena, who has just turned five, are actively involved.
“When we were developing the water bottle kit (designed to fit the needs of children as they grow from infants to toddlers to big kids), Siena was the chief market tester. Sourcing the right sippy top was a long and challenging task. If she threw it across the room, we knew that top wasn’t going to work,” says Dave. It may be some time, however, before the girls understand that Think Outside is a real company selling real products. Recently, while walking on the beach on Block Island, Mia observed the broken box logo on a passerby. “Daddy,” she said, “someone must have taken our backpack!”
The Ducharmes have thoughts of expanding into sports gear with a possible focus on surfing. For now, however, they are happy to produce, in Dave’s words, “a cool line that is also a sustainable line and vice versa. We want people to embrace it, use it, live with it.”