A month ago I wrote a post on how sustainability is a journey. The two main points I tried to get across were that (1) everyone defines sustainability differently and (2) sustainability isn’t something that happens overnight. I am continually reminded of this at Eco-Products.
The challenge I face is that with a name like Eco-Products, people expect us to be the absolute, most sustainable business in the world (oh, and did I mention that everyone defines sustainability differently?). We definitely want to be the most sustainable company possible, but it will take time. Sustainability is a journey.
When Eco-Products built our brand of environmental products, like most young companies, we started at a sales level of nil. We knew what we wanted to do – to green the packaging industry – but there was a long journey in front of us. We knew we couldn’t change an industry over night.
One of the first steps we had to take in launching our brand was to find factories who were willing to bet on us. They had to be willing to process new environmental materials on their multi-million dollar pieces of equipment. We couldn’t tell them how much we’d be ordering because we had no idea. Forecasting sales of a new product in a new market is nearly impossible.
These complexities narrowed down the field of potential factories very quickly. We couldn’t find one manufacturer in the U.S. who was willing to bet on us. The only companies who were willing to take a chance were in other parts of the world. As we dug into this, we found that a global supply chain had some major benefits.
First, the energy used in some of the places we chose to manufacture was as clean or cleaner than in the U.S. Second, we learned that the carbon emissions of shipping our products across the ocean was only 11% of the total carbon emissions of the product’s entire life cycle emissions. Upon learning that, we made the commitment to invest in carbon offsets to completely offset the emissions from the transportation of our products.
Third, manufacturing in the U.S. would only yield a 1.6% improvement to our carbon footprint. We hired BCS, Inc., an excellent independent environmental consulting firm, to do this analysis. I was shocked at this number, but the reason it is so low is because we would have to truck products further distances which has more of a carbon impact than shipping containers on a boat that carries thousands of other products.
At the time, we didn’t have the sales volume that justified investing millions of dollars into U.S.-based manufacturing equipment (nor did we have the money), and we had to start somewhere if we wanted to green an entire industry. Leveraging the technology and manufacturing capabilities overseas also gave us the opportunity to create nearly 50 jobs based in the U.S. at our headquarters doing sales, marketing, accounting, product development, and more.
All along, we have felt that if we could build enough critical mass we would be able to make even more meaningful changes to our carbon footprint when we could later afford to do so. We essentially had to compromise early on.
George Siemon, the C-I-E-I-O of Organic Valley, talked about this very point in a recent interview.
“My enlightenment was to not try to do everything at once, but to build a broad, solid foundation, and then we would be able to do more of what our mission was, instead of trying to do it all at once, and failing—so we have found the happy medium. Now that we’ve reached maturity, we’ve been able to turn back and do some of the idealistic things we always felt were important.
Compromise is a part of doing business. A simple example would be we’ve hauled milk into North Carolina from Ohio and built up a business. And then we started working with farmers in North Carolina so we could start a local business. You could say it was a compromise to haul milk that far but we had market realities to address.
We’ve now reached the point where we are looking throughout the company for more opportunities to do things and invest more in sustainability.”
Eco-Products seems to be at a similar place to Organic Valley in our company’s evolution. We have matured to the point that we are on the cusp of being able to make significant changes to our carbon footprint and invest more in sustainability. We have had to make compromises early on to get us to that point, but we are nearly there. And there’s no doubt that sustainability will continue to be a journey.