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Sustainability As The New Competitive Advantage: The Green By Design Conference

It’s not news that plastics are not environmentally friendly; if you’ve visited a science museum or nature center in the last decade you’ve most likely seen exhibits on how it can take hundreds or even thousands of years for plastic to break down.

By: Leah Kinthaert


But to many of us outside the sustainability field that has always seemed sort of a vague concern, not something urgent to worry about right now. Fast forward to 2019 and all the headlines are telling us that plastic is not just a problem for future generations, but something we need to deal with as a society immediately. This August National Geographic highlighted the crisis in their article “How the plastic container went from miracle container to hated garbage”: “A million plastic beverage bottles were purchased each minute as of 2017…By 2016 sales of bottled water surpassed soft drinks.” In the 1990s everywhere you looked people were touting drinking water, Americans suddenly became health conscious and water bottles were ubiquitous, like you were going to dry up and die if you weren’t hydrating all day every day. The sad irony is that all of these bottles are coming back to haunt us.

Plastic pollution of all kinds is most visible in emerging countries, where infrastructure is lacking and where wealthier countries like to sell their trash. However even in developed countries like the US, we are only managing to recycle 30% of our plastic bottles. And these single use bottles account for 40% of all plastic trash every year. National Geographic provides more sobering stats, such as: “Half of all plastics ever manufactured have been made in the last 15 years, production is expected to double by 2050… Every year, about 8 million tons of plastic waste escapes into the oceans from coastal nations. That’s the equivalent of setting five garbage bags full of trash on every foot of coastline around the world.”

The environmental organization Ocean Cleanup tells us that “it is estimated that 1.15 to 2.41 million tonnes of plastic are entering the ocean each year from rivers”. One of the most notorious examples of plastic pollution is the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP) …estimated to be approximately 80,000 tonnes, which is 4-16 times more than previous calculations. This weight is also equivalent to that of 500 Jumbo Jets (and has an) estimated surface area of 1.6 million square kilometers, an area twice the size of Texas or three times the size of France.”

Millions of marine and other animals are being killed by entanglement or starvation (plastics are seen as food and fill their bellies) or being injured by plastics; we also know that plastics are being broken down into microparticles, which are being ingested by fish and eventually humans in the food chain. Microplastics have been found in locations from Mt. Everest to the Mariana Trench. They can cause cell damage and disrupt reproductive systems, so already endangered populations of fish and animals will be threatened event further.

We know this plastic is coming from consumer packaged goods companies. As I learned this week in Atlanta at our inaugural Green By Design event, it’s a scary but exciting time of challenge and innovation for both large consumer packaged goods companies and startup entrepreneurs. On Tuesday November 19 LeadersIn attended the first day of Green By Design “Sustainability in Packaging, Brand and Design”. The themes for the day were “What It Means to Be a Sustainable Brand in Today’s World” and “Trends & Hot Topics Around Sustainability” and it was hosted by Laura Flusche, the Event Chair and Executive Director of the Museum of Design Atlanta (MODA).

greenbydesign event atlanta

It was really fitting that the first ever Green By Design event was held in Atlanta, because we learned from Flusche that the Museum of Design Atlanta is the only design museum in the United States which “defines design as a creative process”. Flusche explained: “We see the process of design as a tool for change. Most museums are full of artifacts, focused on aesthetics. Our programs look forwards, not backwards. We are interested in active participation. And we feel that designers are uniquely qualified to face the real challenges of 21st century. That includes the intersection between design and climate change.” Flusche’s introduction was a great starting point for the day’s events, which focused on sustainability as the new competitive advantage. A positive and compelling outlook for a critical time in our history, the idea that the challenges of the solving world’s problems are not only an ethical imperative, with the byproduct of profitability.

Flusche also discussed another reason why Atlanta was the perfect site for our Green By Design event: an Atlanta man named Ray C. Anderson, Founder and Chairman of Interface, Inc. was one of the first executives who was an evangelist for corporate sustainability. Back in the 1990s he had the goal to eliminate his company’s environmental impact by 2020. Then many years later he offered up a new goal of “climate takeback” or in other words reversing global warming. A radical industrialist, Flusche explained that “in 1994 people thought he was crazy.” His motto was “what’s good for the planet is good for business.”

We Make Yogurt, But Our Business Is Wellness

 

The first speaker of the day was Nate Shepley Streed, Director of Sustainability & Public Affairs, Chobani. I am a huge fan of Chobani yogurt, especially their Flips® which are an indulgent healthy snack. I knew that Chobani was a popular, newish brand, what I didn’t know was how committed they were to sustainability. Streed gave us a history of the company which gave some incredible insight to why they do what they do.

My hunch was right about Chobani being relatively new. They shipped their first order in 2007 and by 2010 were the number one Greek yogurt in America. Although Streed did not mention this, I would say as an American consumer they were my first exposure to Greek yogurt, which I found to be far tastier and better quality than the other yogurts on the market. Chobani’s founder is a Kurdish immigrant named Hamdi Ulukaya, who came from a family of dairy farmers. He decided to start a company because he simply couldn’t find yogurt he liked in the United States, so he made his own. He purchased a defunct yogurt factory in upstate New York in 2005.

As an immigrant and someone who started with very little, Ulukaya has a strong commitment to his employees and society at large. He is an incredible innovator who only sees the sky as the limit. It makes sense, Ulukaya overcame incredible challenges as an individual starting his own company – so his attitude is one of incredible positivity and determination. He certainly keeps his employees on their toes, as Streed described something Ulukaya would say: ”Whenever I see a problem, the solution is always the same – Chobani. How can our company tackle the challenges?” Streed explained how the company works to tackle challenges: “We build strong cross functional teams to improve environmental and social company performance. We make yogurt, but our business is wellness. We want to make universal wellness happen sooner. “

 

During his talk, Streed listed some of their goals and achievements. “We have nine North Star goals for our future, goals which range from 100% renewable energy to zero waste to landfill. We know some will take 3-4 years, others are decades away.” He explained how they work towards those goals using “materiality assessments, life cycle assessments, SWOT analysis and benchmarks of the competition”.

Streed showed several slides showing their 2022 goals, many of which they had already met this year. They want to decrease their energy use by 15%, water use by 25%, more logistics efficiency by 20%. He discussed details, for example, how their whey produced by creating yogurt is 100% recycled as fertilizer and animal feed, how they are partnering with the recharge NY program to increase their use of renewable energy and partnering with WWF for sustainable sourcing of 6 of their high priority commodities.

Streed emanated positivity with the declaration that he knew he might not reach some of his goals, but “if we get 80% there, we are 80% better than we would have been. We’re looking at the big vision and tangibility.”

The reason that goals are not always achieved are many. Streed elaborated on some of the many obstacles he faced, and I quickly began to see this emerge as a theme throughout Green By Design and the Greenbuild conferences – not all of the solutions put out there end up being green or sustainable in the end. Sustainable efforts are still in their infancy, it’s still a learning process. For example, Streed talked about getting rid of plastic cups by replacing them with plant-based cups or using recycled plastics. But there are obstacles. Some recycled plastics might not be approved by the FDA for use with food, or plant-based cups might not be as functional as they need to be. So, they are continuously on the lookout for solutions.

Lastly, Streed brought up the people aspect in the goal towards being a company that’s concerned about “People, Planet and Profits”. Chobani is partnering with the WWF to work towards soil health, biodiversity and environmentally sound land use. They also work with Fair Trade USA to focus on worker wellbeing, and 100% of the farms they source from are participating in highest industry standard for animal care. They do what he described as “hyper local sourcing” to “minimize their diesel footprint and invest in agricultural communities where we live and work. Community impact.” They are also working to support and educate next gen of farmers with scholarships and $200K startup money to help fuel creative ideas for future of agricultural communities as well as promote female farmers.

Sustainability without Sacrifice

Jon Bostock, Co-Founder and CEO of Truman’s was the second speaker of the day. Passionate about the environment, he was equally passionate about driving the message home that the household cleaning products industry is not only causing pollution – it’s also a big money loser that’s “broken”.

Bostock’s company Truman’s makes household cleaning products where the customers supply the water and reuse the bottle.  Bostock explained why his company was so ingenious: “Big cleaning companies create billions of pounds of plastic every year to ship you products that are 98% water. We just sell what people need, our product goes from a factory to a home using existing infrastructure. Every single one of you can disrupt and change the world. The entire system is broken. Plastic itself isn’t the issue from a manufacturing standpoint, plastic (has less environmental impact) than glass. We as a culture are not using products the way we’re supposed to. Stand up and fight, if you see someone who is not behaving properly stand up. Plastic is not the issue, it’s human behavior, companies and individuals are responsible.” Bostock also pointed out that change is coming, regardless of a lack of concern about the environment, to large CPG and FMCG companies in the form of how consumers are purchasing products: “Ecommerce is growing 50% year over year, companies can’t make money shipping water.”

Bostock continued: “Sustainability is something we strive for. We think it’s a better way of doing business, using less material creates more margin opportunity. A billion-dollar company invested in us because they realized they were broken. Our products are sustainable, easy to use, and inspires people to actually use them.”

This whole discussion was really interesting, the idea that what companies are doing right now is not only unsustainable, it’s downright silly. They’re spending a lot of money shipping products that are 98% water, and we go and buy them. As passionate as he was about the environment, he was just as passionate about how he markets his products; his marketing messaging has nothing to do with sustainability or the environment.  It focusses on value and a sense of fun. “Our customer has no idea that we’re sustainable. The consumers don’t hear that narrative.” Bostock is active on Twitter, he Tweets himself, not leaving this valuable work to an intern (As someone who uses Twitter, I think engagement and authenticity on Twitter is important too!) Bostock described his persona on Twitter as a “middle of the road approach” and proceeded to explain why. Bostock:“40% of our consumers don’t know they’re buying a sustainable product. We are truthful about where you get value in the marketplace. If we took a poll everyone would agree, less material, less transportation costs is smart. However, if you Tweet that you have a business that reduces plastic by 80% people will say: ‘You have a liberal agenda. Next you will take away my air conditioning.”

Bostock explained some of the challenges he’s had with his seven-month-old company: “We get criticized for using plastic, but accessibility is key. Using plastic (instead of glass) reduces the supply chain by 80%. If we are really going to shift the industry the product has to be accessible and affordable. I started a company to make money. We’re not going to get it perfect in year one, we’ll change it in year two when we can afford to be more sustainable.

Bostock ended his pragmatic discussion with an emotional plea for the audience to consider two takeaways – the importance of kindness and the need for us to take risks. “Being kind includes the idea of diversity of thought. It’s our job to introduce individuals to diverse perspectives. If we surround ourselves with people who look and think like us, we will fail. Take a step back and be kind. It’s that simple. I am simply asking you to do good. Ultimately it leads to the right choice and sustainable future. I challenge you to be nice.”

Bostock continued: “Dream big. The path most of us take is a secure and comfortable path, but now we have a duty to fix. The battle cry is we came from people who fought like hell to make their lives work; stand up and do something different.”

A Whole New Way to Recycle

Molly Morse, CEO of Mango Materials has a PhD in civil and environmental engineering. She apologized for sounding like a biology lecturer, but everyone thoroughly enjoyed the talk from this scientist turned entrepreneur. She opened her talk with the shockingly sad statistic that many in room already seemed to be aware of: “there may be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050.”

Mango Materials creates what Morse described as “High performance biodegradable materials. She explained: “Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, we find it in landfills, wastewater treatment, agriculture. Waste methane doesn’t have a lot of practical uses. Some turn it into fuel, but this cannot be done at a cost advantage. At Mango we take methane emissions, we feed it to naturally occurring bacteria, they turn it into PHA biopolymer, you can heat it to make every day plastic goods.  This closes the loop from cradle to cradle.”

Mango’s role is to transform the methane, they don’t make the actual materials: “We focus on making PHA pellets that get melted down by someone else.”

Morse discussed some of the details around what they do: “Is there enough methane? The answer is yes, we can make 7 billion pounds of PHA from the methane provided by US landfills. We sequester greenhouse gases. We control them to create PHA inside their cell walls. This is the secret sauce of our technology.”

Earlier in this article I quoted the statistic that only about 30% of plastics are recycled in the US. Morse addressed that problem: “Mrfs (materials recovery facilities) are shutting down left and right, they’re not making economic sense. Water bottles are the most successful product recycle, but that number is not very high…. The infrastructure already exists to recycle (methane). (Our) materials can be food for something else.”

A Plastic Water Bottle is an Environmental Cigarette

Rich “Raz” Razgaitis, CEO & Co-Founder of FloWater, showed the audience these compelling statistics to begin his presentation: “Cigarettes have over 7,000 known chemicals. Plastic bottles have over 10,000 known chemicals”. Razgaitis then made the statement: “a plastic water bottle is an environmental cigarette.” He explained that he sees plastic water bottles going the way of the cigarette, pointing out: “Single use water bottles are exactly like the cigarette industry. 46% of the population smoked cigarettes. Then came the social stigma. Megatrends decimate incumbent businesses that cannot see it happening.”

The current story around how we consume water is similar to the Truman’s story: having millions of bottles of cleaning products is not a necessity, but has become habit for consumers, just like bottled water. Razgaitis explains: “There are 5.5 million 5-gallon jugs. Access to water is not a problem.” He continued: “ We are literally drinking our plastic, over 90% of tap water and single use plastic contain 300 microplastic per liter.”

Razgaitis sees the world of water transforming: “’Unpackaging’ will start to evolve.” As with bottled cleaners, it’s very expensive to ship water – and consumers are starting to reject the idea of plastic bottles, so companies are going to start to figure out how to make the switch.

Razgaitis continued: “We know (the switch away from plastic) is happening, we don’t quite know what to do. (Companies are saying) Let’s at least have it moved to cardboard or aluminum. The problem with some of these solutions is that they photodegrade.”

Razgaitis understands why Americans, for example, don’t like tap water. He cites the statistic that: “63% of Americans are worried a great deal about their drinking water. (Drinking water can contain pollutants such as) Glyphosate which is found in the weed killer Roundup. The WHO declared glyphosate “probably carcinogenic to humans” in 2015.

Razgaitis made it clear that he didn’t want his talk to be a sales pitch for his product, but it’s important to describe it in the context of this article. FloWater uses a: “7x purification that takes municipal tap water and removes contaminants like lead, fluoride, chlorine, pharmaceuticals, herbicides, and pesticides while enhancing it with oxygenation, electrolytes, and alkalinity and making it taste amazing with a coconut carbon filter.” He described several case studies of his purification systems being used by schools and businesses; there were cost savings and major health benefits to the participants of these studies. He closed his talk with this appeal: “Recycling is greenwashing. Its only gone up 2%, single digit percentages. We need to work towards driving better behaviors from consumers.”

Purpose Driven Brands

The day closed with a panel discussion on “Purpose Driven Brands” that included Rich Razgaitis, Dr. Felicia Philips CEO & Master Business Strategist, PPICW, Inc., & Strategic Partner, Delta Airlines and Betsy Holland, Leader, Contributions & partnerships, Warner Media. The panel was moderated by Jennifer Dorian, EVP and General Manager, Turner Classic Movies.

The focus of the talk was diversity and disrupting the status quo, whether it is with an airline or Hollywood. Felicia Philips suggested this tactic: “Find a brand you fall in love with and align with them. My mission is to hire diverse companies. In a bold move we want to spend $1 Billion on diverse companies, we want you to help us do that. It is about shared values, it’s not just culture but the core of who you are. They were investing in community, 80K employees live in those communities.

Jennifer Dorian pointed out: “Film restoration great place to merge purpose and profit.” On that theme, Betsy Holland talked about one of her company’s projects, the film “Wonder Woman”: “I had never seen myself reflected on a screen that way. It is not a coincidence there was a female director and writer. We made a commitment, we’re investing in programs saying we are creating access for women and people of color. You have to make a proactive stance to pay fairly. It will not happen naturally. Over at Marvel and Disney black panther would not have been made.” She added: “that will impact our bottom line in a positive way”. These movies performed very well at the box office.

Holland talked about how things have come far, but it took a long time. “ You may know it’s the 50th anniversary of Sesame Street. In 1969 they made a point of showing white people and people of color hanging out together on the stoop. It was so radical, it was hated and reviled. The state of Mississippi banned Sesame Street from the state’s PBS member station, that’s when they realized they needed private funding.”

A question came from an audience member about how they are trying to promote underrepresented communities in sustainability space: Razgaitis explained that for him, NYC had representation of diverse communities, in Denver that didn’t happen. “Organizationally it’s the right thing to do, executing is difficult.” But at the same time he said: “It’s important not to check boxes.”

Dr. Philips gave some concrete examples on how to ensure diversity hiring: “Delta said ‘we’re going to make a concerted effort to have women and people of color in leadership’. You have to have legs out on the community who can find good talent. You may have to reach outside of your organization, chambers of commerce. I also try to serve on different boards.”