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Dancing with the Devil

Tom Szaky | Friday October 17th, 2008 | 1 Comment

Over the last few years I’ve heard a lot of talk in the environmental and social entrepreneurship communities about the importance of ‚Äòscalability’ in social ventures. Simply put, scalability is basically the ability for a system to expand. It’s one of the key indicators for grant or investor funding…but it often clashes with “green” values.
For example, the last few years have seen the vast majority of typical “green” products offered primarily in niche markets – co-ops, natural food stores, smaller chains and, of course Whole Foods Market. Now most supermarkets have at least a small organic offering (an aisle, maybe two…and a small section in the produce department).
But to effect real, fundamental change, don’t we have to be focusing on the mainstream? Isn’t it more effective to put those eco-friendly products in Target and The Home Depot and *gasp* Wal-Mart, where the vast majority of American Consumers actually shop?

I founded and continue to operate TerraCycle based on the assumption that this is exactly what needs to happen – I want to make better, greener, more affordable products available to the masses, and that means working with corporations and retailers big and small, because at the end of the day if you want to change America’s behaviors and practices you can’t do it at the local simply at the co-op.
Don’t get me wrong. I not only support co-ops and locally owned businesses, but also patron them almost exclusively. Yet, if you only sell your sustainable or organic products at co-ops then you are preaching to the choir. Am I the only one who feels a lingering resentment in the broader green community against those mega-retailers and corporate partners? It reminds me a little bit of an aging rocker muttering “I was punk before you were punk”…and it misses the point entirely. Let’s transcend the typical arguments and effect real change.
Adam Werback, former president of the Sierra Club, joined Wal-Mart as an environmental consultant. TerraCycle is working with both our beloved environmental companies (Honest Tea, Clif Bar, Stonyfield and Bear Naked) AND some major corporate partners (Capri Sun, Nabisco, and Kraft) to make legitimate change.
Or take Honest Tea for example. Honest Tea is getting HUGE distribution now that they are distributing through Coke. The product is the same high quality, all-natural teas and juices, their production model and CSR efforts are, if anything, stronger now and most importantly more and more people now have the choice of a better juice or tea at their local retailer.
What do you think? Is it time to strap up and get on board with those big players ? Does that end up diluting the green movement?

Tom Szaky is CEO of TerraCycle, named by Inc. Magazine as the “Coolest Startup in America — The ultimate growth company, built on garbage, run by a kid, loved by investors.” Tom writes about his experiences as a social entrepreneur and visions for business and technology that leave the world better off on 3p.

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  • Stephanee

    Since TerraCycle is essentially a service provider helping manufacturers reduce landfill load, and a manufacturer working to expand consumer access to affordable green products, working with big companies and retailers seems like a positive. Especially since you also work with the smaller guys.
    To ensure you are not an accomplice to related activities that might “dillute the green movement,” just make sure your PR (releases, quotes, etc) remains honest …focusing on how the brand is reducing the amount of packaging send to landfills. Don’t paint them as “sustainability leaders” based on their partnership with you, and clarify which brands are involved if you’re working w/ a diversified company like Kraft so people understand their level of investment/impact.
    Likewise, ensure that any PR your partners do accurately represents the partnership/what Terracycle does, and the environmental impact.