I had the pleasure of meeting Reem Rahim, Numi Organic Tea co-founder at the Sustainable Brands conference recently. We got into an interesting conversation about tea bags, sustainable packaging and corn-based compostable products. I followed up with her and her Director of Operations to learn more about their efforts to develop more sustainable packaging.
First comes the tea
First full disclosure. As I write this morning, I am sipping on my Numi Jasmine Green tea. Honestly, I fell in love with this tea for the taste and knew little about the company nor their commitment to sustainability. But a closer look at the box tells a clear story. The tea itself is certified organic with no added flavor. I have always admired the wonderful aroma of their jasmine tea, which in part comes from the fact that it is scented with organic white Jasmine flowers!
It is Fair Trade Certified, ensuring that workers were provided a fair wage.
Next comes the tea bag
I haven’t given much thought to tea bags. But Reem has. Numi’s commitment to organics and sustainability runs deep. And while other tea companies use “silky” bags that let you see the contents of the tea, these bags are often nylon and not biodegradable. Or, they are made of a biodegradable nylon (polylactic acid or PLA) that is usually made with genetically modified corn.
Numi’s tea bags are made of GMO-free natural filter paper.
Then comes the packaging: the outer pack
Numi’s outer package is currently made of different layers, including paper, foil and a polyester-based material, so it is neither recyclable nor compostable, but must be tossed into the trash.
An obvious option is NatureWorks’ new Ingeo biopolymer, the same film SunChips has started to use in their packaging. However, this material is made of PLA, and most likely contains GMO corn. While the GMO molecules themselves do not survive the fermentation process, there is concern over PLA’s potential to support conventional corn production.
As Brian Durkee, Director of Operations explained, “We have not gone with PLA because there is no guarantee that it is GMO-free and being an organic company we do not want to support an industry that is supporting GMO.”
Not to get sidetracked, but this situation highlights two key challenges of committing to be a sustainable company – tradeoffs and the “devil is in the details” dilemma. I was impressed with Brian’s commitment to authentically work through the issues and find a solution that is consistent with their brand.
An additional challenge is the fact that few jurisdictions have an active commercial composting facility, making the zero-waste, biodegradable claim difficult to fulfill.
So what is a responsible company to do? Numi’s immediate answer is to focus on reducing the waste upfront in their packaging and making much of it recyclable. And to eventually find an alternative that will seal in freshness, yet also be clearly recyclable or compostable.
For now, they have switched the paper on the overwrap material to 100% post consumer waste. And by October, the total basis weight of the overwrap will be reduced by 22%, saving them over $100,000/year due to a reduction in the amount of materials used.
And finally the box
The Numi retail carton is made of 100% recycled material, with a minimum of 85% post-consumer waste, conserving annually over 2,000 trees and reducing landfill by 184,000 pounds, as well as saving energy and reducing net greenhouse gas emissions. And their shipping boxes are also 85% recycled material, saving over 9,000 trees annually.
Offset what is left
A few weeks ago Numi announced their latest initiative, to go carbon neutral in 2009 by purchasing renewable energy certificates (RECs) and carbon offsets from Big Tree Climate Fund, a new carbon offset company from the creators of Dagoba Chocolate. Big Tree Climate Fund gives a percentage of profits to local communities to promote environmental education and is also the first B Corporation in its sector.
Big Tree assisted Numi in conducting an annual emissions audit through calculations of carbon output in electricity and natural gas usage, employee air travel, use of company car, pounds of landfill use and overall shipping for 2008. Numi has purchased enough carbon offsets and Renewable Energy Certificates to offset its total estimated emissions for 2009.
According to the press release, Numi has purchased 515 metric tons of CO2 equivalent and 24 Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs) to offset its emissions for 1 year from May 1, 2009.
The REC purchases support the Wilton Wind Energy Center, a wind farm in North Dakota that generates enough electricity to power 15,000 homes.
The carbon offset purchases support the Brazilian Methane Avoidance/Clean Water Initiative, which is certified under the Voluntary Carbon Standard (VCS) and has been selected by the Environmental Defense Fund as a model project for global carbon reductions.
I offer the following tips for other companies struggling with the details of sustainable packaging:
1. Go back to the basics: While the new-fangled products are coming to market, a back-to-basic strategy that makes sense, and can save you money, is reduce all waste in your packaging upfront and utilize the highest recycled content possible.
2. Compostable might not be the answer right now: Until we have more commerical composting facilities in the US, and the GMO-issue is resolved with PLA, jumping on the compostable bandwagon might not make sense. ABCNews just ran a story on all the different companies using PLA called Green your packaging, but until the infrastructure is in place, PLA is not the answer to a zero waste system.
3. Inbed into your operations: One thing that struck me about Numi is that they don’t have a Sustainability Jedi running the green program, but their Director of Operations is fully committed to integrating sustainability throughout the value chain.
4. Find an appropriate offset partner: If you are going to offset, be sure to use a partner with third party verification to ensure the quality of offsets and to verify that the projects are for real and making an impact.
Deborah Fleischer is the founder and president of Green Impact, providing strategic environmental consulting services to mid-sized companies and NGOs who want to launch a new green initiative or cross-sector collaboration, but lack the in-house capacity to get it up and running. She brings expertise in sustainability strategy, program development, stakeholder partnerships and written communications.