Online Grocery and B Corp Thrive Market has set itself a number of ambitious goals: to be Zero Waste by 2022, plastic neutral by 2023 and CO2 negative by 2025.
But what does it all mean? Senior Manager of Mission Kristin De Simone, who has been with the company since 2015, breaks down these terms to share more about their sustainability journey, arguing that it’s important to keep moving forward. “Companies need to take urgent action now and that means regularly examining and improving environmental behavior,” she says.
Ultimately, Thrive Market wants to become the first climate-positive supermarket in the world.
Chhabra: Let’s start with zero waste. One of your facilities recently received gold-level certification under the TRUE rating system. What does that mean for the company?
The Simone: We are honored to have achieved Zero Waste certification for our Hanover property, marking our third and final fulfillment center to achieve this prestigious title. Achieving this certification leads to our five-year sustainability goals, which include achieving Zero Waste certification across our entire fulfillment network by 2022.
Chhabra: This isn’t just about reducing waste in a facility or office. It’s more extensive, correct? What does this certification entail?
It is operated by Green Business Certification Inc. TRUE helps facilities measure, improve and recognize zero waste performance – this certification includes a) the adoption of sustainable waste management and b) general waste reduction practices, which drive ultimate and economic results.
It goes beyond redirect numbers and digs deeper into the upstream policies and practices that make Zero Waste successful in every organization and beyond. The goal of a REAL project is to direct all solid waste away from landfill, incineration (waste-to-energy) and the environment. Facilities earn certification by meeting seven minimum program requirements and earning at least 31 points on the TRUE application. Each fulfillment center must submit its redirect rate annually, with 90%+ required to maintain a good reputation.
Chhabra: Your efforts to be Zero Waste are also related to the goal of being plastic neutral. That is not an easy task, as packaging and shipping of goods often contain some kind of plastic.
Thrive Market received a strong message from members asking to reduce our plastic use, acknowledging that shipping groceries is a delicate business.
Yes, so last August we made a full effort to reduce packaging to reduce 70% of all plastic packaging, 25%+ of total Geaemi paper [the kraft packaging material used to keep fragile products safe] and almost 100% strapping.
Starting by assessing the attribute needs of each SKU, Thrive Market’s execution teams evaluated all 5,500 SKUs in the catalog, including: drop testing, packaging quality checks, and tamper testing.
To give a real world example, take Thrive Market’s Organic Fruit Spread, which originally shipped with both Geami and a polybag. Through this audit, Thrive Market acknowledged that as it is packaged in Geami, it has a gel-like consistency, with a tamper-evident lid and packaged in a thick glass container – it passed the drop test with flying colors. So they could pull the polybag addition since it wasn’t really necessary.
Chhabra: That definitely helps reduce unnecessary plastic bags. But what defines plastic neutrality?
In layman’s terms, Plastic Neutrality indicates that we balance our plastic footprint by funding the recovery of as much ocean-bound plastic waste as we use in our packaging and shipping – and being Plastic Neutral Certified through rePurpose Global marks our commitment to transparent progress on our footprint reduction and direct investment in projects that combat the global plastic pollution crisis.
Thrive Market’s priority has always been to reduce packaging and shipping materials where possible, with a strong focus on plastic reduction. Where we cannot reduce, we offset our plastic footprint by purchasing plastic collection credits (similar to measuring carbon emissions and buying carbon credits to offset). Our new collaboration with reuse worldwide allows us to do that. We collected and measured all data related to plastic in both our own brand products (all plastic packaging used) and shipping materials (all plastic bags shipped in member orders) and provided those measurements for reuse.
For every ounce of that plastic we ship to our members, we invest in projects that remove the same amount of plastic pollution from our oceans through our partnership with rePurpose.
Chhabra: Tell us about some of those experiments you’ve done with alternative materials. You’ve spent the past year looking for more eco-friendly materials. But it seems challenging to find materials that are both effective and affordable. How has the process been?
We have tested multiple variations of compostable bags over the past three years, initially finding that the majority of bags tested did not reliably retain liquids for long periods of time and were not effective vessels for shipping. The top-performing bags were more expensive, and we realized we needed to address our overall bag usage before rolling out a more expensive packaging item.
This year we tackled the use of plastic bags and were able to assess which products needed bags based on a new drop test. As a result of this test, we have reduced our use of plastic bags by almost 70 percent.
We’ve also explored alternative materials for the insulated envelopes we use when shipping temperature-sensitive items like probiotics and chocolate in the summer (Thermopods). We used to use recycled cardboard or recycled denim (with 5 cm thick insulation, 2.5 cm on each side because it is shaped like an envelope), wrapped in plastic.
Our first process change is to remove the bulky insulation and switch to an LDPE #4 alternative that is made from 30 percent post-consumer recycled content and is still recyclable and enrolled in the H2R program (How To Recycle). This change reduces the amount of box scaling required from the previous solution and will in turn reduce the need for larger boxes than intended, ultimately reducing carbon emissions. This new alternative can also store more than six times the number of units per pallet position, reducing the number of trucks required to ship to Thrive Market.
Chhabra: That sounds like progress. So what else is Thrive Market struggling with in terms of waste in the fulfillment centers? Is there anything else that poses a challenge?
As we continue to advance the full experience to make healthy living accessible to our members, we are marching towards our goal of being carbon negative by 2025 – while delivering an experience that puts members first. Reducing usage will be an ongoing challenge. Reducing package size and using supplies are always a continuous learning and improvement cycle that continues to progress year after year.
Composting will be of utmost importance to us in our future. It’s a learning curve for our team, but a worthwhile investment as we begin to address the potential opportunities and wins when it comes to eliminating the carbon footprint.
Chhabra: You have a 5-year sustainability goal and are working to be carbon negative by 2025. Can you talk a little bit more about the journey and why it had to happen in five years, not sooner?
Setting a sustainability goal of 5 years is actually not the norm. Many companies set far-future goals for 2040 or 2050, with no short-term goals or short-term accountability checks.
At Thrive Market, we felt it was imperative to set short-term goals and report consistently on our progress; we set incremental targets that were ambitious, but also achievable (i.e. zero waste by 2022, plastic neutral by 2023, carbon negative by 2025).
Our team knew it would be a huge task to achieve TRUE Zero Waste certification — certification is not based solely on diversion rate, and requires the entire team’s efforts to quantify our achievements and find additional ways to track our progress. to improve Zero Waste.
Finally, our most aggressive goal of all is to achieve carbon negativity. Thrive Market is working to become the world’s first climate positive grocer, become a truly regenerating company by going beyond just neutralizing our impact – eventually with a real net positive impact on our planet.