Online grocer and B Corp Thrive Market has set some ambitious goals for itself: to be Zero Waste by 2022, plastic neutral by 2023, and carbon 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 nudging forward. “Businesses need to take urgent action now and that means regularly examining and improving environmental behavior,” she says.
Ultimately, Thrive Market wants to become the world’s first climate positive grocery store.
Chhabra: Let’s start with zero waste. One of your facilities recently received a gold-level certification under the TRUE rating system. What does that mean for the business?
De Simone: We’re honored to earn the Zero Waste certification for our Hanover property, marking our third and final fulfillment center to achieve this prestigious designation. Earning this certification ladders up to our five-year sustainability goals, including achieving Zero Waste certification across our fulfillment network in 2022.
Chhabra: This is not just about reducing waste in a facility or office. It’s more comprehensive, correct? What does this certification entail?
It’s administered by the 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, ultimately contributing to positive environmental, health, and economic outcomes.
It goes beyond diversion numbers and drills down on the upstream policies and practices that make Zero Waste successful in any organization and beyond. A TRUE project’s goal is to divert all solid waste from the landfill, incineration (waste-to-energy), and the environment. Facilities achieve certification by meeting seven minimum program requirements and attaining at least 31 points on the TRUE Application. Each fulfillment center is required to submit their diversion percentage annually, requiring 90%+ to remain in good standing.
Chhabra: Your efforts to be Zero Waste are also connected with the goal to be plastic neutral. That’s not an easy task given packaging and shipping goods often does include some kind of plastics.
Thrive Market received a clear message from members asking to reduce our plastic usage, acknowledging that shipping grocery is delicate.
Yes, so this past August, we executed a full-scale packaging reduction effort to slash 70% of all plastic packaging, 25%+ of total Geaemi paper [the kraft packaging material used to keep fragile products safe] and nearly 100% of strapping tape.
Starting with assessing each SKU’s attribute needs, the Thrive Market fulfillment teams evaluated all 5,500 SKUs across the catalog including: drop testing, packaging quality checks, and tamper seal testing.
To provide a real world example, take Thrive Market’s Organic Fruit Spread, which was originally shipped with both Geami and a polybag. Through this audit, Thrive Market recognized that since it is wrapped in Geami, is a gel-like consistency, with a lock-seal tamper lid and packaged in a thick glass container — it passed the drop test with flying colors. So, they were able to pull the polybag addition, as it wasn’t truly needed.
Chhabra: That helps certainly reduce unnecessary plastic bags. But what defines plastic neutrality?
In layman’s terms, Plastic Neutrality indicates that we’re balancing 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 to direct investment in projects that fight the global plastic pollution crisis.
Thrive Market’s priority has always been to reduce packaging and shipping materials wherever possible, with a strong focus on plastic reduction. Where we’re not able to reduce, we offset our plastic footprint through the purchase of plastic collection credits (similar to measuring carbon emissions and purchasing carbon credits to offset). Our new partnership with rePurpose Global allows us to do that. We’ve gathered and measured all data related to plastic in both our owned brand products (any plastic packaging used) and shipping materials (any plastic bags sent in member orders) and provided those measurements to rePurpose.
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 these experiments you’ve had with alternative materials. You’ve been searching for more eco-friendly materials over the last few year. But it seems challenging to find materials that are both effective and affordable. What’s the process been like?
We tested multiple variations of compostable bags during the last three years, initially identifying that the majority of those tested did not hold liquids reliably over a long period of time, and weren’t effective vessels for shipping. The best performing bags were a higher cost, and we recognized that we had to address our overall bag usage prior to rolling out a more-costly packaging item.
This year, we addressed that plastic bag usage and were able to assess which products required bags altogether based on a newly-created drop test. As a result of this test, we reduced our plastic bag usage by nearly 70 percent.
We’ve also explored alternative materials for the insulated envelopes we use when shipping temperature-sensitive items like probiotics and chocolate in summer (Thermopods). Historically, we have either used recycled cardboard or recycled denim (with two-inch-thick insulation, one-inch-each side as it is shaped like an envelope), wrapped in plastic.
Our first process step change will be to remove the thick insulation and switch to an LDPE #4 alternative that is created from 30 percent post-consumer recycled content and is still curb-drop recyclable and enrolled in the H2R (How To Recycle) program. This change mitigates the amount of box upsizing that is required from the former solution and in turn, will reduce the need for larger boxes than intended, ultimately reducing the carbon emissions. This new alternative is also able to store more than six times the number of units per pallet position, requiring fewer trucks shipping to Thrive Market.
Chhabra: That sounds like progress. So what does Thrive Market still struggle with in terms of waste in the fulfillment centers? Is there anything that still poses a challenge?
As we continue to advance the full experience in making healthy living accessible for our members, we are marching toward our goal of being carbon negative by 2025 — all-the-while delivering a member-first experience. The reduction of use will be an ongoing challenge. Reducing package sizing and supply usage are always a continuous learning and improvement cycle that constantly advances year over year.
Composting will be paramount for us in our future. It’s a learning curve for our team, but a worthwhile investment as we begin to tackle the potential opportunities and wins when it comes to carbon footprint elimination.
Chhabra: You have a 5-year sustainability goal, working towards being carbon negative in 2025. Can you share a bit more about the journey and why it needed to happen over five years, and not faster?
Setting a 5-year sustainability goal is actually not the norm. Many businesses set far-away future goals for 2040 or 2050, with no short-term goals or accountability checks in the immediate.
At Thrive Market, we felt it was imperative to set short-term goals and consistently report out on our progress; we established Incremental goals that were ambitious, but also achievable (i.e. Zero Waste by 2022, plastic neutral by 2023, carbon negative by 2025).
Our team knew that it would be a herculean task to achieve TRUE Zero Waste Certification — certification is not solely based on the diversion percentage, and requires the full team’s efforts to quantify our performance and find additional ways to improve our progress toward Zero Waste.
Lastly, our most aggressive goal of all is to achieve carbon negativity. Thrive Market is working to become the world’s first climate-positive grocer, becoming a truly regenerative company by going beyond just neutralizing our impact — ultimately having a truly net-positive impact on our planet.