Like squeeze packs.
I’ve surely tossed away hundreds, maybe thousands, of the little silvery plastic packs of ketchup, Gu and Power Bar gels, but I’d never thought much about the environmental impact of squeeze packs.
Then I was introduced to Justin Gold, the founder and CEO of Justin’s Nut Butter, a small but fast-growing company that sells gourmet, organic peanut, almond and hazelnut butters in 1.15 ounce on-the-go squeeze packs that retail for $0.69 to $0.99. These packs were great for business at the Boulder, Colorado-based company, which now gets about 80% of its revenues from single servings. But squeeze packs are a blight, albeit a small one, on the environment because they are made out of several layers of different materials that are welded together and can’t be recycled or composted.
Most small-company CEOs would have shrugged their shoulders at this problem and moved on. Not Justin.
A 20o0 graduate of Dickinson College who majored in environmental studies, Justin, 33, is an outdoor enthusiast who enjoys backpacking, back country skiing and mountain biking. “My mom, God bless her, fed me lots of natural products as a kid,” he told me, when we talked over Skype. “I believe that what you put in your body is very important, and where it comes from is important.”
“It comes from petroleum. It doesn’t compost,” he says. “It’s kind of silly to have a wonderful, organic product inside this non-sustainable crappy packaging.”
With the help of the aptly-named Catherine Greener, a top-notch sustainability consultant (who introduced me to Justin), and Alex Bogusky, a Boulder neighbor and investor in Justin’s (who formerly led Crispin + Bogusky, the cutting-edge Miami ad agency), Justin looked for help tacking the packaging problem.
Last fall, he organized the word’s first ever “sustainable squeeze pack summit” to figure out how to address the problem. He invited everyone in the squeeze pack industry and, surprisingly, a bunch of them showed up, including packaging firms, the people who make GU, big companies like General Mills and Cargill, and retailers including Walmart. (One conspicuous no-show was industry giant Heinz, which sells about 11 billion squeeze packs of ketchup a year, about which more in a moment.)
I’ll spare you the details about the complexity of devising a sustainable squeeze pack; suffice it to say that Justin and his colleagues have got manufacturers, film converters, and resin suppliers working on the problem. (If you want to know more, he’s chronicling his progress in mind-numbing detail here.) Justin’s has also created a website called The Least You Can Do to muster consumer support for the cause–check it out here. Meanwhile, the company has pledged to source one third of its packaging from renewable energy sources by Earth Day 2011. The goal is to devise a pack that’s sourced from renewable sources (probably plants) and 100% compostable.
Now–let’s be clear–squeeze packs are not coal plants. They’re not a threat to the planet. But the entrepreneurial spirit–and willingness to take responsibility–that Justin is showing is what we’ll need to deal with the big problems of energy, climate and waste. Maybe that comes naturally to someone like Justin, who started his company in 2002 after playing around in his apartment in Boulder with flavored peanut butter and finding that his roommates loved it. He took a few jars to local natural food outlets, they sold well and the rest, as they say, is history. Justin’s Nut Butter now has about two dozen employees and sales of between $5 and $10 million, he told me.
How does he hope to compete against the likes of giants Skippy and Jif? “We’re positioning ourselves as the first premium peanut butter ever,” he said. “We’re trying to create a whole new category.”
The squeeze packs help introduce consumers to Justin’s products at an entry-level price. Sixteen-ounce jars of the nut butters cost up to $10, but they’re selling nicely at retailers including Whole Foods, Starbucks and REI, where Justin used to work as a sales clerk . “How many products do you know that can sell in a grocery store, a coffee shop and the premiere camping store?” he asks. People seem to like the product–at the end of this blogpost, I’ve uploaded an adorable love song to Justin (who’s happily married) from one of his fans.
As for Heinz, the company didn’t show up at Justin’s summit but it’s working on sustainable packaging of its own–a good thing since the company sells 11 billion (!!!) single serve packs a year. In an email, Michael Mullen, Vice President of Corporate & Government Affairs at Heinz, tells me:
Heinz is committed to being a leader in sustainable packaging that protects the planet and its natural resources for future generations. Our company is taking a holistic approach, evaluating every brand and product for opportunities to enhance sustainability through innovation.
For example, Heinz has just launched a more sustainable alternative to the traditional foodservice packets — squeeze packs of Simply Heinz foodservice condiments, including ketchup. The Simply Heinz foodservice packets are made of 30% renewable material. The renewable content in the film structure comes from the structural component of plants. Trees and cotton pulps are also used in the converting process. These raw materials are naturally grown and more readily available in the supply chain compared to petroleum based films.
Overall, Heinz is accelerating packaging innovations that will substantially reduce waste and our carbon footprint, as we are doing with Heinz Ketchup through the U.S. launch of the PlantBottle™ in partnership with the Coca-Cola Company. Developed by Coca-Cola, the PlantBottle is more sustainable because up to 30% of its packaging material comes from plants while traditional PET bottles are made from non-renewable fossil fuels. Using Coca-Cola’s proprietary technology, Heinz Ketchup is going to convert globally to the PlantBottle globally over time, starting with a U.S. rollout of more than 120 million retail and foodservice bottles this spring, in our best-selling 20-ounce variety.
Heinz deserves credit for supporting the PlantBottle, a large-scale effort. The Simply Heinz foodservice packs are, for now, an alternative to the conventional packs, so they are a step in the right direction but far from a solution.
Here’s the video, as promised. How many brands inspire fans to write songs?