‘All Hands on Deck’: By Developing Sustainable Packaging and Supply Chains, B Corps ReCIRC and Numi Tea Prioritize People and Planet
June 23, 2021
B Corps Incorporate Climate Justice as They Reduce Their Environmental Impact
This article is part of a series of Founding B Corp interviews, where B The Change holds conversations between Certified B Corporations that helped establish the B Corp movement and newer businesses in the B Corp community. The series ties the reasons for the B Corp inception through to today’s discussions around business’s role in solving global and social issues.
The ongoing climate crisis has forward-thinking people and businesses increasingly looking to reduce their environmental footprint by reshaping their daily routines, and leaders at two Certified B Corporations started with the basics: product packaging. While B Corps ReCIRC and Numi Organic Tea have differing products and approaches to sustainable packaging, they both realize the importance of changing systems and policies — as well as people’s minds — to reshape business norms and ensure a resilient future for all people and the planet.
ReCIRC Co-Founder Sebastian Velmont says the company was founded in 2019 to help people get that last drop of cosmetics, condiments, and home care products out of a bottle and reduce their environmental impact. Its utility patented zero-waste, refillable, reusable, and last-resort-recyclable packaging incorporates a lock-hinge-seal system to preserve the product while reducing the use of plastic packaging — and the B Corp has bigger sustainability goals in mind.
“Our whole goal is for our packaging to have a long life so consumers can use refill pouches to fill up the bottles at home,” he says. “Then we’re working to establish partnerships to incorporate a reclaim-reuse system to ensure the pouches don’t end up in the landfill.”
Avoiding the landfill and displacing fossil fuels is also the goal at Numi Organic Tea, one of the first B Corps to gain certification in 2007 and a leader in environmental and social impact, with a focus on collaborations to develop sustainable packaging and practices. Jane Franch, Vice President of Strategic Sourcing and Sustainability at Numi, says the company is building an expectation among consumers for regenerative products and packaging — like the company’s plant-based tea wrappers — that raise the bar for businesses. Like other B Corps, Numi also looks to reduce extractive practices that typically mean the burden of climate change falls on those who are least responsible.
“We’re up against business as usual, and business as usual is incredibly optimized for capital extraction,” she says. “When we think deeply about the change we need to see in business, we recognize a sense of responsibility to our supply network partners, and then a deeper responsibility as the source of greenhouse gas emissions. And we have the human responsibility of taking care of one another through this great period of change.”
Velmont and Franch recently joined B The Change for a conversation on how their B Corps are developing sustainable packaging and looking to minimize their environmental impact on people around the world, but especially those who will be most affected by the consequences of the climate crisis. This article shares excerpts from their conversation.
As B Corps founded with environmental purposes, how do your companies also prioritize the human side of climate change? Why is it important for businesses to incorporate climate justice into their policies and practices?
Jane Franch: When we look at the data and we think about our path toward climate action. It started about five years ago with really looking and asking what this is going to look like for our supply chains — the people that are growing these beautiful teas and botanicals that we are bringing to our consumers. That’s where we have the most agency, in that commercial relationship within our supply network. When we started to dig into the data, the IPCC climate projections, and overlay that with our tea-growing regions, it was pretty startling.
In looking at India, we’ve worked with a Fair Trade garden there for years. We have a water project there. We’ve supported numerous social development projects with the local community. If we continue on the current path of emissions, that region is projected to be unsuitable for tea cultivation by 2050. So for all of those communities, that means no livelihood.
We’ve been thinking about our contribution to the supply chain, our deeper responsibility recognizing that the emissions are at this point largely coming from Western nations, from our country, and affecting these people. “When we think deeply about the change we need to see in business, we recognize a sense of responsibility to our supply network partners, and then a deeper responsibility as the source of greenhouse gas emissions. And we have the human responsibility of taking care of one another through this great period of change.”
We don’t have all the answers, and many of the solutions are beyond the scope of Numi. But what we’re trying to do is open our eyes and open our hearts to that truth and ask “How can we support livelihood diversification? How can we think forward and support these communities in this great transition?”
Sebastian Velmont: In a tie-on to what you mentioned, Jane, our effort is unique in the sense that once we received our utility patent for our zero-waste packaging, we were curious as to how many People of Color have obtained patents in general. Asian Americans, Native Americans, Latinos, and African Americans combined own less than 5% of the patents in the U.S., and African Americans have one of the most disparaging numbers, which is 0.3% of patents in the U.S.
So on top of focusing on sustainability, our goal is bringing more inclusive voices into that conversation. Because our climate crisis and our plastic crisis and just the general social impact crisis overall requires all hands on deck. But if people with underrepresented voices are not seeing themselves within that conversation, then they may not realize that it’s their problem and that it may impact them more in their community. That’s why we became a B Corp — to bring more voices and perspectives into the conversation.
The Climate Justice Playbook for Business
This practical guide from B Lab features information to help business leaders understand the intersection of climate action and social justice and advance a justice-centered approach to climate action.
Franch: Another element of bringing in more perspectives through climate justice that we’ve looked at in the U.S. is that one of our largest impacts on our local community is the trucking of our product to and from the port. Those trucking routes are often going through primarily Black and brown communities where kids are suffering more from asthma and there are higher concentrations of particulates in the air. We’re looking at how to use our voice in local policy making and advocacy.
That’s really about putting the human back in everything that we’re doing, and that ties back into why we’re a B Corp. So often the traditional capitalistic model is one of extraction, it’s one of optimization, it’s a linear model. There are a few humans that are benefiting, but there are a whole lot of humans who are being optimized or extracted from. It’s about considering how we put humans back in everything that we’re doing — and that is at the heart of our mission, our climate action, and our packaging decisions.
Velmont: That’s a great point. We’re also looking at distribution, and how to hold our third-party suppliers accountable, which you really can’t do directly. However, you can hold whatever supply line or wherever they’re traveling through accountable; you can hold policy makers accountable for ensuring that our suppliers have certain practices within their supply chain.
Our efforts are really going to be directed at policies that can be changed within communities to set a higher standard for everybody as opposed to one specific supplier.
How does your company continue to pursue broader positive impact and innovation through industry collaborations or business partnerships? How has your business collaborated with others in the B Corp community?
Velmont: One of the things that ReCIRC is doing right now is finding the B Corps that actually can be a part of our supply chain base. In a sense we are not in-house manufacturers; our core is the utility patent and its functionality. We are looking to align ourselves with other B Corps in manufacturing, like Cascade Engineering, and others who can provide backyard compostable pouches. ReCIRC’s B Keeper, CMO, and Co-Founder Cherlika Brown is tirelessly searching on how to connect all these dots with suppliers in the B Corp community to be able to fulfill our product development. Through B Lab we’ve also connected with Preserve to explore how we can align our brands to produce something amazing. So we appreciate having these B Corp outlets to connect.
Franch: A sense of connection is at the heart of Numi Tea, and reflected in the way that we approach industry collaboration. About 12 years ago we started a packaging collaborative, realizing that the challenge of flexible film packaging was beyond the scope of our company, and we needed others on board to get the attention of the packaging industry and to move that forward.
We’re also working across industries through the Climate Collaborative, getting 500-plus brands on board to make climate commitments and move forward on a policy agenda to lend our voices now to legislation in the public sphere — to let our government know that we’re here and we care about these things.
Earlier this week I was on a call with a working group including composters, other CPG brands, and NGOs, really thinking through how we go from having these plant-based industrial compostable packages to manifesting the whole circularity infrastructure. Because, as you know Sebastian, there’s the product that we’re putting forth, but there’s this whole ecosystem that we’re plugging ourselves into. And as you said, it’s all hands on deck — so whatever we can do to help. Whether it’s to collect the product that then either gets reused or composted, or to determine what pieces of infrastructure don’t currently exist that need to exist, and how do we best kind of show up and make that happen given our particular position in the materials cycle.
Some of the work in building a truly circular materials economy is recognizing where we don’t have overlap. That’s been some really interesting work that I’ve seen play out through some of these industry collaborations — people honestly coming to the table and recognizing that there are places where we’re not aligned and to be able to move forward, respectfully.
What elements of sustainable packaging remain the most challenging for your businesses? What role does consumer education and engagement play for your business?
Franch: We’re up against business as usual, and business as usual is incredibly optimized. One of our initial goals with our tea wrapper packaging was to be compostable. But the challenge we have is that the standards that are available to brands for evaluating the compostability of their structure is not aligned with the commercial reality at a compost facility. The standard that we have to meet is an 84-day disintegration trial, whereas at the municipal compost facility they’re not making money unless they turn their piles in 45 days or less. So that’s a fundamental mismatch.
That gets back to this consumer awareness piece. We have this plant-based structure, if you put it in your backyard compost heap and you manage that heap appropriately, it will break down, it won’t leave any toxins. What we’re missing goes back to that circular materials economy infrastructure piece — where the pieces aren’t there.
We’re working with the industry on how to influence policy interventions that expand infrastructure access and remove subsidies for petrochemical-derived materials. It’s about being straightforward with consumers and empowering them with the information we have, but trying to do it in bite-sized chunks and meeting people where they’re at.
Velmont: That aligns with the things that we’re looking at as well, because it’s not about just creating a product and saying, “Oh, we found a solution to sustainability.” We also have to look at what the consumers do to potentially make ReCIRC’s packaging unsustainable. Our goals were to reuse, but what if they put it in the trash? What materials do we use to make sure that it’s recyclable, or if it does happen to end up in the landfill, does it decompose over a certain period of time?
So those are the things that we’re looking at: Do you look at a point system? Do you look at more education systems? Do you look at how to make it more engaging, even entertaining, to consumers? We are exploring refill pouches and are finding some of the challenges that you’re looking at, Jane. How do we make it backyard compostable? On top of that, if we have liquid content in there, how do we make it not decompose while it’s on the shelf? Then if you want to test it to make sure that it works, now you’re waiting six months to a year.
So those are the challenges that we constantly have to look at as opposed to “Let’s put this on the market and see what happens.”
ReCIRC’s Zero Waste Packaging
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