Real Leaders

For Plastic-Free to take Hold, Businesses Need to Form Strong Partnerships, Compete with Conventional Products

As the impacts of plastic pollution have received greater attention in recent years, many companies have begun committing to reduce their plastic usage and production. Plastic pollution is such a major issue for many reasons. It doesn’t decompose quickly, there is not sufficient infrastructure to recycle it, and its production often involves oil, natural gas, or coal. Plastic waste usually ends up in landfills and our waterways if it is not incinerated — a process that is harmful to the environment and toxic to nearby communities as well.

Some more ambitious companies, like Grove Collaborative, have gone even further by setting a goal to become completely plastic-free. In Grove Collaborative’s case, the company aims to be plastic-free by 2025 and is already plastic neutral. Grove Collaborative is a leading sustainable household and cleaning goods company that creates products and sells products from other companies through its online store. It also recently began selling a collection of signature cleaning products from Grove Co.’s plastic-free cleaning line at Target stores nationwide. This industry relies heavily on plastic, meaning innovation is key to going plastic-free.

“I’ve had the idea of plastic neutral for a long time,” said Stuart Landesberg, co-founder and CEO of Grove Collaborative (pictured above) and member of the SF Bay YPO Chapter. “I felt like I was just some sort of crazy hippie guy banging pots and pans at the industry like, ‘Hey, we should really be paying attention.’ And now I feel like, ‘oh, you big companies are actually starting to really follow in our footsteps.’ And, on a personal level, when I started the company, I wasn’t thinking, ‘I want to make half a billion dollars or a billion dollars.’ I wanted to change this industry.”

As part of my research of purpose-driven businesses, I spoke with Landesberg to learn about what the company is doing to become plastic-free and what it will take to change the industry as a whole.

What do you think is the key to creating an achievable plastic-free goal for a company?

Having a super close goal, timewise, is key. That’s why we made the ambitious goal for Grove to become 100% plastic-free by 2025. You can’t be shooting for 20 or 50 years because your successor may not continue pursuing the goal. A shorter timeline puts the heat on me, it puts the heat on the whole executive team, and it really makes our goal clear to all of the decision-makers, down to people who started working at Grove yesterday. They all understand that our goal is to change this industry for the better and that plastic is one of the huge problems in the industry.

So say someone has a project on their desk to work on deodorant. You have to think, how should we approach that problem? Do we want to make a deodorant with a recycled plastic case? Do we want to make a deodorant in a single-use aluminum case? What are our first principles? Do we want the ones that have the highest profit margin? Or do we want the ones with the best design? Do we want to copy the market leader? In our case, it’s really clear that we want to be zero plastic. We want as much waste reduction as possible. So, having a clear goal with a close timeline is the second half of the equation for driving real change — the first is you don’t have to accept incremental change. The second being the timeline is short enough that everybody has to work on it every day.

I also think it starts with talent. Any success or growth we’ve had has been because we’ve had a fantastic team. And the only reason we’ve been able to attract this team is our mission. If you believe — which I deeply do — that the companies that will win are the companies that can attract the best talent, and the companies with the best purpose will attract the best talent, then the companies that have the best results will be purpose-driven.

There’s a big generation of people for whom this idea and environmental issues were not as important. I grew up thinking, “Oh man. Climate change and environmental devastation are problems we totally need to solve. And I need to work to solve them every day.” But for someone who grew up during a different time, you probably didn’t grow up with that orientation. Anybody graduating from college now who’s paying attention, they’re interested in solving these issues. So I think the talent advantage is where it all starts. Across industries, organizations that have aligned themselves towards a values-driven approach to the future will outperform others in their industry.

Could you share some examples of partnerships you have made in your efforts to become plastic-free?

One person I work closely with is Joey Bergstein, the CEO of Seventh Generation. One of the amazing things about working in our space is it is collaborative because people genuinely care. I’ve known Joey for a decade now, and he wants to do the right thing. Joey is a fantastic collaborator. And it’s not just Joey. We have great relationships across the space because people genuinely want to do right.
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One of the other great things is that we have a stake in the ground since we’ve stated where we believe the industry is going, so players and partners will bring us their zero plastic innovation ideas. We get them data that they can’t possibly get anywhere else, and they can watch the data with us first. We’ll feed them back data about what consumers like and what consumers didn’t like, which allows them to drive faster innovation than they would otherwise be able to drive.

In addition to our combination of packaging and ingredient advocacy, our direct-to-consumer business model allows for faster innovation than has ever been possible in this space before. The amount of data that I have at my fingertips massively differentiates from what even the biggest consumer packaged goods (CPG) executive has because of the direct relationships with the consumer. If I want to take a product to market, I can get that product to market in a day on my site. We will launch 100 plus products this year.

The ability to iterate and innovate with a low cost of failure and a super quick feedback cycle in a way that’s just never been present in the CPG space is huge. Typically in the CPG space, you go incrementally, where you learn, you double down, you learn a little more, and you double down again. But the pace of learning in a direct-to-consumer environment is so accelerated. I view the combination of low cost of failure and fast iteration speed as a little bit of the secret sauce to why we’ll succeed in creating products that people really love. It allows us to outcompete traditional CPG firms which don’t have that speed or data.

In that way, Grove benefits because we get the zero plastic products first, and we get to see their innovation, which feeds our own innovation. So it’s great for our consumers and Seventh Generation or whoever the partner is. You get to help push their roadmap.

But I think the thing that’s been most surprising to me is that since we went plastic neutral by partnering with a couple of smaller companies, the larger companies that bring in are starting to go plastic neutral. There have been giant companies that just announced these initiatives.

We have a lot of changing left to do, but I am totally blown away when I see giant companies copy us. It’s just an amazing feeling. I feel so lucky to have my job. I love my job. And I really feel like we’re lucky to have the wind at our back in terms of the way the industry is moving.

How do you ensure that the innovative, plastic-free products you are selling from other companies through your site meet your sustainability standards and are compelling products?

I think efficacy has to come first from the consumer perspective. And I think one of the big challenges in the natural products category is that people have a perception that the product doesn’t work. So we hold ourselves to the same bar as the highest performing conventional brands and products. How do we do that? The same way we do anything else: good people, clear goals, good data. That’s how it happens: people, culture, data. And that’s how innovation gets created.

But I do think there are companies that have been willing to compromise on efficacy for the sake of sustainability or product innovation. I view that as very short-term thinking because you may be able to get a consumer to try a sustainable format with some hook or nifty design, but if the product doesn’t work, they’re going back to the conventional option. The company might have gotten one purchase, but will the customer make a second purchase if the performance is not there. That’s why we’ve always been focused on top-tier efficacy since the very, very beginning. It all starts with products that consumers love, and it can’t just be because the products have zero waste. It has to be a product that performs to the absolute highest standard while also not being harmful to the person or the environment.

One exciting thing happening right now in our industry that I think is creating momentum for Grove and the sustainable CPG space is that natural chemistry is catching up to conventional product chemistry. Our laundry detergent pods perform just as well as the leading brand. Our dish soaps perform as well as the leading brand.

Natural chemistry has really caught up from an efficacy perspective. At the same time, there’s a super visible transition away from wasteful packaging, so people are trying the category again or for the first time, and they’re staying because the product really performs. I think that the natural products industry — and really companies like Grove that are on the leading edge of sustainability and high-performance plant-based products — are the ones that will win. We may not always win the PR game, but we’ll win in the long term because it’s all about creating products that customers love and will buy again and again.

Author

  • Chris Marquis is the Samuel C. Johnson Professor in Sustainable Global Enterprise and Professor of Management at the Cornell University Johnson College of Business. Prior to joining Cornell, he worked for 10 years at Harvard Business School and has held visiting positions at Harvard Kennedy School, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, Peking University, Fudan University, and Shanghai Jiaotong University. His book, "Better Business: How the B Corp Movement Is Remaking Capitalism," focuses on the potential for stakeholder governance models to reform capitalism.

About The Author

Christopher Marquis

Christopher Marquis

Chris Marquis is the Samuel C. Johnson Professor in Sustainable Global Enterprise and Professor of Management at the Cornell University Johnson College of Business. Prior to joining Cornell, he worked for 10 years at Harvard Business School and has held visiting positions at Harvard Kennedy School, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, Peking University, Fudan University, and Shanghai Jiaotong University. His book, "Better Business: How the B Corp Movement Is Remaking Capitalism," focuses on the potential for stakeholder governance models to reform capitalism.
  • Chris Marquis is the Samuel C. Johnson Professor in Sustainable Global Enterprise and Professor of Management at the Cornell University Johnson College of Business. Prior to joining Cornell, he worked for 10 years at Harvard Business School and has held visiting positions at Harvard Kennedy School, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, Peking University, Fudan University, and Shanghai Jiaotong University. His book, "Better Business: How the B Corp Movement Is Remaking Capitalism," focuses on the potential for stakeholder governance models to reform capitalism.

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