Inspired by Canadian milk pouches and iPhone packaging, Julie Corbett designed one of the most innovative sustainable packaging products to date, founding Ecologic Brands in 2008. Ecologic has emerged as a major newcomer in the packaging industry by bringing to market a fully-recycled and fully-recyclable paper container, garnering the attention of major brands such as Coca-Cola, Pepsi and General Mills as well as an award from Pulp & Paper International for Advances in Innovation in Sustainable Packaging. After learning about Ecologic through our partnership with DBL Investors and hearing they wanted to open a factory in an area struggling with high unemployment, Heron seized the opportunity to pursue financial and mission goals simultaneously, and directly invested $1 million in 2012. We spoke with Julie, and asked a few questions about the her business:
Considering the recent growth of the sustainable packaging industry, how does Ecologic distinguish itself both as a product and a company?
Unlike anything on the market today, our bottle stands out and speaks to consumers. The molded fiber outer shell is both distinct and natural, clearly communicating our brand as sustainable and innovative. We aren’t just branding ourselves as “green”; the consumer can tell by the look and feel of our products that we are committed to reducing plastic waste in the packaging industry. We distinguish ourselves by continuing to be the leader in innovation, and commercialize products that are made from recycled and renewable materials.
Our business looks at the entire lifecycle when designing our products in order to truly minimize waste associated with plastic. Our bottles feature sustainability benefits in terms of source reduction, recycled content, recyclability, compostability, and shipping optimization that have all been substantiated by an Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) conducted by Franklin & Associates. Rather than addressing one component of sustainability, we are looking to revolutionize the packaging industry by confronting the entire lifecycle of our products while maintaining product quality and ergonomics.
What are some of the future plans and goals for the expansion of Ecologic? What is the company’s vision, and how does it look to transform the market it’s in?
The Ecologic concept is part of the bigger picture in the move to replace plastic and transition to the use of renewable and recycled materials in the sectors that are dominated by plastic. We are looking to replace plastic in every isle of the supermarket. Overall perception of our recyclable paper bottles in the US and internationally has been excellent, and there are now 15 brands using our paper bottle – up from two in 2012. We are also planning further expansion of our year-old manufacturing facility to meet future projected demand.
Our future strategy includes targeting new market segments and developing brands in new regions. Our most recent launch has been in the wine and spirits category, which has positioned the paper bottle in front of a new audience segment outside of the home cleaning category. We want to be able to break into different markets and show versatility across shapes and sizes.
Ultimately, we believe packaging is the vehicle that connects brands with their existing consumers, and the product allows them to engage with new more mindful consumers. Waste from packaging is a tangible problem around the world. People get it, brands get it and our technology places ecologic in a unique position to lead change. Ecologic is optimistic that our system could be universally adopted on supermarket shelves, replacing walls of plastic, glass, and laminated cartons with walls of recycled paper.
What, if any, are the foreseeable obstacles to expansion?
One of the greatest challenges in transitioning CPG packaging to a more sustainable model is the fear of disrupting the cost structure of existing infrastructure. That’s why our company has focused on innovation from the top-down – providing a turnkey solution that doesn’t necessitate an entirely new infrastructure. Our packaging can go on standard fill lines.
Businesses are only interested in sustainable packaging if they can be sure it won’t affect their product’s price, quality, function, or brand. If a package fails, or cannot operate on existing infrastructure, there is a tremendous amount of waste regardless of the environmental benefits of the bottle. Our products provide a sustainable solution to plastic while maintaining quality standards and minimizing the investment into new equipment.
Why did Ecologic decide to repatriate their production from Taiwan? What were some of the challenges in doing so? What have been the benefits?
Previously, we worked closely with molded pulp toolmakers in Asia, and therefore had to manage the international freight costs, lack of quality control and environmental issues associated with large shipments. Bringing production in-house was the natural next step to refining our technology internally while reducing costs for our customers and improving our quality and environmental footprint.
One challenge of bringing our molded fiber technology to the US was enhancing the technology to make it more automated and comply with North American safety standards. Fortunately, the benefits of domestic manufacturing far outweigh the challenges we’ve needed to overcome, with the benefit of controlling our IP and creating local skills and meaningful jobs.
What type of environment did Ecologic look for when it was considering a location for its production facility? The local labor market, or relevant regulations, or possibly tax environment?
The Manteca location was strategically selected given its proximity to partners who provide corrugated material that is then up-cycled into eco.bottles. This new operational setup allowed us to lower costs while improving quality and consistency in the production processes. Manteca is also ideally situated along core freight lanes with good port access. Essentially, this location allows us to better service the increasing demand for our products. We have strong partnerships with local post-consumer recycled paper suppliers and in some cases, customers like Safeway who actually send us some of their OCC [old corrugated containers] for upcycling into bottles.
How does Ecologic perceive its role in the Manteca community and does it have any special human capital policies? Does Ecologic collect data relevant to social impacts beyond their stated environmental goals?
The City of Manteca and the San Joaquin Economic Partnership have been very helpful and supportive during the build and set-up phase. They helped us navigate through the build, permitting and training stages. They also have provided the company with employee training grants and tax credits. This has been very useful in re-training our employees and providing them with the skills to help ecologic become more self-sustaining.
Yes, we do measure our social impact by using a set of matrices. Our goal is to provide job, skills and livable wage and benefits to our employees, as well as have a significant impact in reducing the carbon and waste in the manufacturing of packaging.
Read more of our Better Know A Deal series that offer opportunities to think about impacting society through different types of investments.