Girl Boss

How S'well Is Ridding the World of Plastic ... 1 Million Bottles at a Time

Aspen Sojourner caught up with founder Sarah Kauss at the Sundance Film Festival to talk about her Colorado roots, new "1 Million Bottle Project," and hiking her way to a multimillion-dollar idea.

By Katie Shapiro February 7, 2017

In a town like Aspen—one of a handful of American cities run on 100 percent renewable energy—it’s an understood no-no to buy bottled water (let alone be seen with it in public). Whether you put a Nalgene in your pack, carry a CamelBak, or have an ALEX bottle on your desk, reusable water bottles are a necessary accessory for life in the mountains. But the one that truly stands out in our too-big-to-admit collection? A S’well ... in the “Aspen” design from the new Destination Collection, of course. 

Since its launch in 2010 as the first-ever self-described “hydration fashion accessory,” S’well has skyrocketed to success for its high style and patented technology, which keeps drinks cold for 24 hours and hot for 12 in a sleek, triple-insulated, stainless-steel vessel.

Originally from Florida and now New York City–based, Sarah Kauss gets "Colorado girl" credit with an undergraduate degree in accounting from the University of Colorado at Boulder and a CPA stint in Denver before packing up for Harvard Business School (HBS) in 2001. 

“There’s something about Colorado and living in that beauty and environment—you can’t not think about recycling. I first learned that mentality on campus and have always carried a water bottle with me ever since,” says Kauss. “As I moved through my career, my handbags got nicer and nicer, but my water bottle didn’t.”

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S'well founder & CEO Sarah Kauss

Kauss, now 41, went on to work in commercial real estate, but when she attended her five-year HBS reunion in 2009, inspiration struck after a panel on the global clean-water crisis. That set the wheels in motion to add style-conscious to eco-conscious in water bottle design, but the real epiphany came while Kauss was on a much-needed weekend getaway with her mother at Miraval Resort in Arizona. 

“I was at this weird point in my career, just really burnt out," she recalls. "Here I was at Miraval during what was supposed to be this relaxing weekend to recharge and celebrate life [her mother had just received news she was in remission], but I had my Blackberry in my robe pocket the entire time. And when I had to step out of my massage  to get on a conference call, I knew I had to change my course.”

When the mother-daughter duo set out for a hike under the typical blazing desert sun, Kauss took a sip from her water bottle and it was too hot to even drink. In that moment she decided to trade in her career to fully focus on building a company that would “become the water bottle of New York Fashion Week” and help “change the world by ridding it of plastic bottles.”

Seven years later, Kauss has checked both off of the list, and so much more. As a one-woman-show for those first few years, she still owns 100 percent of the now $100 million company, and S’well is, well, swelling more than everWith a full team of 100 employees at its new Flatiron Building headquarters in Manhattan, S'well is also steadfast in supporting its environmental non-profit partners UNICEF and American Forests. 

When Kauss learned that the 2017 Sundance Film Festival's theme was climate change, S'well packed bags and bottles for Park City—the perfect opportunity to help Sundance's ongoing mission of creating a plastic-free event. While in residence at the official Sundance Film Festival Co-op, S'well gave out 6,000 limited-edition bottles to attendees who signed its pledge to go plastic-free (and waited in long lines down Main Street). 

"This is the first time as a company we've done an event like this, and I've never experienced a community like Sundance before," says Kauss. "Everyone is so engaged in sharing ideas and committed to taking action. With the 1 Million Bottle Project, our hope is to eliminate 1 million single-use plastic bottles from entering the environment. We can make a big change in the world, just by making small changes ourselves...and look good doing it."

Last year, more than 50 billion plastic water bottles were used in the US—most of which will eventually end up in landfills and waterways, creating a significant threat to our environment (in addition to those other major threats who shall remain nameless). For the love of Mother Earth, please think again before buying a bottled beverage of any kind. 

Shop S’well locally at Pitkin County Dry Goods, ink! Coffee, and Pure Barre, or online at

[Editor's rant: As much as I loved having SoulCycle in town for the holidays, a little part of me died inside during every ride when I grabbed for the plastic bottle of SmartWater that is already on the bike upon arrival ... whether you want it or not.]

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