Entrepreneurs

Can Corporate America Go Plastic-Free? How 1 Business Is Eliminating Plastic Entirely

We’re familiar with the common edict to “reduce, reuse, and recycle” in order to help reduce the amount of waste we leave in the environment. And while we should all be looking for ways we as individuals can help keep our planet healthy, to truly address climate change, the greatest corporations must begin to truly and effectively address their environmentally harmful impacts. 

Take plastics, for example. Even when plastic is sent to be recycled, it often doesn’t actually get reused and much of it, in fact, is thrown away. And creating virgin plastics is actually cheaper for companies than using recycled plastics in their products. All of this has led to a huge plastic pollution problem, especially considering some plastics can take several hundreds of years to decompose. Many plastics end up in our oceans and waterways, the fish we eat, and the water we drink.

With rising awareness of the harmful nature of plastics, a growing number of companies have committed to reducing their plastic production and usage with some, like Grove Collaborative, going further and working to become plastic-free companies. 

“When you look at recycled plastic, is it better than what we have today? Absolutely, but it’s a false choice to say the options are today’s insane and unconscionable use of virgin plastic or just increasing plastic recycling,” Stuart Landesberg said. “Of course, it’s better to be recycling, but that’s not actually the choice that we, as an industry, have.”

Grove Collaborative is a company that sells cleaning and household products both created by the company itself and from other businesses. Recently, I spoke with Landesberg, co-founder and CEO of Grove Collaborative, as part of my research of purpose-driven companies to learn more about the process of becoming plastic free and for an update on the company’s Beyond Plastic initiative, launched just over a year ago.

Chris Marquis: It’s been more than a year since Grove Collaborative launched its Beyond Plastic initiative aimed at reducing and ultimately eliminating the company’s use of plastics. Can you share some highlights from the first year of the initiative.

Stuart Landesberg: Sure, our plastic-free products created as part of this initiative prevented nearly 2 million pounds of plastic from entering the landfill in 2020. Additionally, by choosing our plastic-free and plastic-reducing products, our customers avoided using more than 4 million pounds of plastic.

In the last year we have launched a partnerships with Plastic Bank and rePurpose Global, which has led to the collection and recycling of 5.3 million pounds of ocean-bound plastic. Through these partnerships, Grove pays a “tax” to Plastic Bank and rePurpose Global to compensate the cost of collecting this ocean-bound plastic, giving our company a financial incentive to reduce our plastic usage. We have encouraged others in our industry to follow this example as well.

Marquis: Part of Grove’s goal with the Beyond Plastic initiative is becoming plastic free by 2025. What work goes into becoming a plastic-free company?

Landesberg: Fundamentally, it’s about understanding what the true cost of your product is on society and trying to not just create a product that is positive for you and your company from a dollars and cents perspective but also takes into account the full cost of externalities.

For us, the biggest externality is plastic. So that was why we wanted to become plastic neutral and ultimately plastic free. As I mentioned earlier, we put a tax on ourselves and other companies to create an economic incentive for getting out of plastic, but obviously it can’t stop there. We do have efforts focusing on carbon and water and all the other pieces that matter from an impact perspective. When people ask me, “How do you get started in building an ESG program that’s impactful but also achievable?” To me, it’s really about addressing the biggest impact of your product. 

There’s an 80-20 rule from an impact perspective. How do you find whatever the 20% is that’s driving 80% of the impact? I think, for us, on the plastic side, it really is about how can we — not to sound like a kindergarten teacher — reduce, reuse, recycle? But like we all know, recycling plastic is not really working, so we offset. And offsetting is not a solution, but it’s something that at least prevents us from tipping the scale any worse than it is already tipped until we can solve the problems. But we much prefer to reduce the size of our vessels and pull water out of products, so we can avoid plastic packaging and make them less harmful to the environment. One example of this is Peach, a line of waterless, plastic-free hair and body products we developed.

We really do try to offset our impact, but neutrality is a last resort for the places where we can’t either reduce the overall footprint of the product or remove water entirely so we don’t need plastic.

Marquis: What are you doing to help your supply chain partners and other companies reduce their plastic usage and ideally go plastic free?

Landesberg: This is such a good question because the supply chain is invisible to so many people. We have the opportunity to be influential across the supply chain in a host of ways. We’re a small player today, but for many of our partners on the supply chain side, we are one of their larger customers. So we can push them to improve their impact. 

When we work with factories, we do audits. If we have a red flag come up in an audit, rather than ditching that factory and saying, “Okay, cool. Someone else can use this factory that is polluting,” we will incentivize them to fix the problems, which we think is significantly better than just allowing the problem to continue and now it’s someone else’s problem. We want to actually fix it, so we invest real resources to both factory audit and remediation where we see issues. 

Probably more exciting than that is how we work across the supply chain to build the infrastructure that’s going to allow a new generation of product and that’s twofold. Number one, we advocate with our supplier base for new formats and new forms that are more environmentally friendly, for example moving from plastic to aluminum when possible.

Number two, we lead a plastic working group, which is made up of over 60 companies from across the industry. Some companies are much bigger than us, some companies are much smaller than us, and some companies are about the same size. All of these people bring their best ideas. And we’re all businesses, but it’s not a business-oriented group, it is a solutions-oriented group. That allows us, and I think other players in the industry, to put our efforts together and be able to feel like we’re not going to be on an island or the only person rowing the oars. We then can share good ideas and good innovation. 

So I think, from a supply chain perspective, there’s both the blocking and tackling work, which is really important, and then there’s collaborative innovation. Collaborative is the second word in our company name because I believe in that deeply. I’ve said it many times, and it’s totally true, if Grove were to suffer because every product from the world’s largest consumer packaged goods (CPG) company went zero plastic, then that would be an awesome outcome. But it is really hard to get out of plastic, so I am inspired by the collaboration that we have with other companies and am amazed and humbled that Grove organizes it.

Marquis: What are some of the product innovations that you see being able to replace plastics in the future? And what will it take to make those products mainstream?

Landesberg: We don’t know which plastic-free products will become mainstream winners with the consumers, because plastic free consumer products are still a very new concept. This is one of the places where I feel that Grove is so differentiated from many because we can have an active dialogue with our consumers to help us get plastic-free CPG products mainstream. Maybe in 20 years, we’ll all be using dissolvable hand soap sheets where there’s no water in them, you can ship them in paper really easily. Or maybe if liquid hand soap is still popular we’ll be using liquid hand soap that’s in aluminum-based containers. Or maybe everybody will move to bar soap, so we’ll see where consumer preferences go.

One of the beautiful things about Grove is it was built to be able to participate in all parts of that transition and to be able to meet the consumer where he or she or they are. And not say, “Hey it’s our way or the highway,” in terms of using this next generation product. We really want to meet consumers wherever they are in their sustainability journey and celebrate the fact that they’re putting their finger on the scale for better.

Probably at some point, that will mean we’re using all water free substrates in one form or another, but liquid hand soap is still far and away the preferred form, for better or worse. In bringing consumers on the journey from single-use plastic to zero waste, we don’t know what the endpoints are going to look like. We are willing to meet the consumers where they are on that journey.

When you look at recycled plastic, is it better than what we have today? Absolutely, but it’s a false choice to say the options are today’s insane and unconscionable use of virgin plastic or just increasing plastic recycling. Of course, it’s better to be recycling, but that’s not actually the choice that we, as an industry, have. The choice that we, as an industry, have is, “Do we want to be using a material that is so environmentally destructive or do we want to try to reduce the overall amount of packaging and choose materials that can be as close to a closed loop in recycling as possible, like aluminum and paper?” 

I think plastic recycling is such a wonderful distraction for consumers. About 9% of plastic is actually recycled. I see that everywhere now. But it’s just a really wonderful distraction that allows the consumer to distance him or her or themselves from the negative impact of the single-use product that they’re consuming. So I think you have to reject the false choice of recycled versus virgin plastic.

In addition to all of this, there’s a lot of talk right now around how some of the largest CPG companies are putting the onus on consumers to recycle or change their behaviors to drive sustainable change, and that they are responsible for the sustainable future that we’re all trying to create. It obscures the companies’ responsibilities.

Ask the question in a different way, which is, “If we believe that we’re on the brink of a number of environmental crises, what’s the business model that’s going to allow this industry to not add to this mounting environmental crisis that the world is facing?” And the solution to that question is zero plastic and as little packaging as possible as fast as possible.

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