Joe Brennan of Carpentersville displays biodegradable toothbrushes sold through his Smiles for the People organization. For every brush sold, the monetary equivalent is given to someone in need. Photos by Erin Sauder for Sun-Times Media
Updated: April 8, 2013 7:16AM
CARPENTERSVILLE — These days, a toothbrush can get people more than just clean teeth, thanks to a local entrepreneur.
For every biodegradable toothbrush purchased through Smiles for the People, an organization founded by Joe Brennan, 22, the monetary equivalent is given to someone in need.
A recent college graduate, Brennan started the Carpentersville-based business because he said he wants companies and consumers to realize their powerful role in the effort to eradicate global poverty. He said Smiles for the People’s mission is to sell the highest quality and most environmentally responsible dental supplies while helping improve the oral health of people who can’t access or afford the dentist.
Through his travels to developing countries, Brennan saw how overlooked the issue is.
“As I learned more about it, I learned how poor oral health can affect other areas of life in severe ways,” he said. “And when you’re poor, those effects are exacerbated and more detrimental to your development.”
Last May, armed with a bachelor’s degree in government from Georgetown College and a certificate in African Studies from the Walsh School of Foreign Service, Brennan began to think about his career path.
“There was nothing I really had my heart set on,” he said. “I really had very little idea of what exactly I wanted to do. I just knew what I was interested in. This idea of a company that could engage in this problem in a creative way kept coming back to me. So I came up with this model and kept running with it.”
The Smiles for the People premise differs from other buy-one-give-one business models. TOMS Shoes, for instance, donates one pair of shoes to a child with every shoe purchase.
“I think it’s a great model for them; but when it comes to toothbrushes, the oral health crisis is so broad, simply sending a toothbrush doesn’t solve the problem,” Brennan said.
“For instance, hypothetically, if we were to go to a rural community in the South Sudan with low oral health and hand out toothbrushes to kids who had never brushed their teeth before, it could cause other problems. It could cause their gums to bleed; or if they don’t have access to clean water, it could cause infection. So we would be causing more problems than we solve.”
Instead, Smiles for the People donates the manufacturing cost of a toothbrush.
“That enables our local partners to purchase local materials, which also reduces our environmental footprint,” he said. “Our whole model is relying on local giving partners.”
The company’s Original Adult Brush is made from bamboo and has a 100 percent biodegradable handle. Each brush is sold for $5.95, and discounts are taken for increased order quantities. When ordering in bulk, dentists can receive discounts of almost 20 percent. In addition, the company offers a 12-month subscription of its Original Adult Brush for $5.15 per brush. Finally, every shipment is carbon neutral and supports the development of renewable energy, he said
Currently, the toothbrushes are only sold online.
“My long-term vision is to get these on the shelves of socially conscious retailers,” Brennan said.
Since the recent launch of the company, business has been steady.
“It’s exciting,” he said. “I don’t really know where it’s going to go. I never thought I’d be an entrepreneur and start my own business. It kind of happened organically.”
He said the company’s name, Smiles for the People, “a rallying cry and a call to action.”
“It demands that each of us stand up and fight for the right of all people to smile, regardless of whether they can afford a dentist or a toothbrush,” he said.
In the next 12 months, Smiles for the People wants to donate the equivalent of 15,000 toothbrushes to people in need.
For more information about Brennan’s endeavor or to purchase a toothbrush, visit www.smilesforthepeople.com.