Dancing with the Devil

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.

Tom Szaky is the Founder and CEO of TerraCycle, Inc. a company that makes eco-revolutionary products entirely from garbage! TerraCycle, since its humble beginnings in a Princeton University dorm room, is committed to being a triple bottom line company. Tom at the ancient age of 19 learned about composting with worms. The concept of using tiny little worms to turn food waste into a powerful, organic fertilizer fascinated Tom, who was appalled by the amount of food discarded by his campus's cafeteria. Tom started TerraCycle with no investors from a friend's garage by building a Worm Gin where he could house millions of worms in a small area. He all but bankrupted himself and maxed out all his credit cards to build the machine. With the help of friends he would shovel pounds of rotten, maggot-infested food from the Princeton cafeterias. Without any money left over, Tom could not afford to buy bottles to package his fertilizer. That's when the sustainability gods smiled on Tom, who was up one night wandering the streets Princeton in search of an answer to his packaging dilemma. It just happened to be recycling night and Tom realized that millions of homes were putting billions of free bottles out on the curb once a week! That serendipitous moment set everything to follow into motion. Slowly he began to finance his infantile start up by winning business plan contests. Finally he hit the pay dirt! He won the million dollar grand prize at the Carrot Capital Business plan contest. However, the financiers of the contest wanted to move TerraCycle away from used bottles and away from it's environmental focus. Despite being on the verge of bankruptcy, Tom turned down the money. In the six years since then TerraCycle has grown to a multi-million dollar company that doubles in size every year. Still we are committed to our triple bottom line beginnings. Still making our products from other's people waste. Still based in an Urban Enterprise Zone in Trenton, NJ. Still a second chance employer. Find out how and why, here at triplepundit.com

One response

  1. 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.

Leave a Reply