“We set out to be an example of what business can look like when we put our people and planet above all else.”
That is what drives the founders of Sun & Swell Foods. They believe that they have a responsibility to create a business that takes action to be better for both people and the planet. That is why ingredient sourcing, environmental sustainability, employment practices, and philanthropy are an integral part of their daily work. It is a B-Corp business that offers organic, plant-based foods that are free from added sugars, preservatives or flavors.
We wanted to learn more, so we sat down with Kate Flynn, co-founder & CEO. Read on for her take on the merits (and challenges) of compostable packaging, how the brand made a successful pivot during the pandemic and more.
Your packaging is mostly plant-based. Could you tell me more about it?
Yes, we work with a few suppliers who make plant-based packaging. They all use slightly different materials, but the bags we use today can break down within three months. Some of the ones we’ve used in the past take up to six months. The speed of composting increases if the bags are cut up into tiny pieces, which makes them much easier to compost than something like compostable utensils, for example.
What percent of your company’s products use the compostable packaging?
Currently about 75% of what we sell is in compostable packaging. Our goal is to be at 90%+ by the end of the year.
You’ve stated that compostable packaging can be seen as less attractive. Can you elaborate on that?
In general, plastic packaging is sturdier and more durable. And with plastic, you can get a crystal clear window, or a beautiful matte finish. Compostable packaging is a bit more delicate, and the materials are more natural. This means that compostable shows wrinkles and crinkles after being handled. The windows on compostable packaging won’t ever be as crystal clear as plastic, and you can’t do the matte finish you can on plastic. While this is what makes compostable less beautiful, it’s also actually the beauty of it. Using natural compostable materials, you just can’t replicate the perfected look that you can with plastic.
Have you investigated other types of sustainable packaging?
After initially having challenges with compostable packaging a few years ago, we realized it was going to be a while before everything we sold was 100% compostable…so we decided if we were going to be carrying some plastic packaging, we at least wanted it to be recyclable #2 plastic. But honestly, even though it’s recyclable, it hardly gets recycled, because it’s not curbside recyclable and must be taken to special drop-off bins (which are available at grocery stores, etc.). So, we think that’s a better solution than conventional plastic, but it’s still not a great solution.
We also sell some things in glass jars (e.g., coconut oil, almond butter). We love glass jars because they’re reusable, and if we were doing a local-only model where customers could return jars to us, they’d be a great solution. But it’s just not practical for an online model.
From a marketing perspective, to what extent are you targeting customers who do not care how the packaging looks as long as it is good for the environment?
We target customers who care about food that’s healthy for them and the planet. A lot of our customers care about healthy food first, and the fact that it’s good for the planet is a cherry on top. Some of our other customers care first and foremost about sustainable packaging, so they buy us for the plastic-free packaging, and then the healthy and delicious food is just an added bonus.
And, when customers are shopping online, the packaging actually looks similar enough to plastic packaging, so it feels like they’re buying a package that they’re used to.
You have had a successful business pivot during COVID-19. Could you describe that?
Prior to COVID, we were only selling grab-and-go snacks, and we were primarily selling them through wholesale channels, in places like corporate offices, coffee shops, and fitness studios. We had begun the transition to compostable packaging about a year before COVID, and were running into some big challenges. Mainly, we were realizing compostable packaging wasn’t quite ready to go through wholesale channels, and we began to feel like we were trying to fit a square peg in a round hole.
When COVID hit, we lost a lot of our wholesale business overnight, as most of our revenue was coming from channels that had to close down. So, this gave us the time to pause and think about how we would make the packaging transition.
We thought: how can we have a maximum impact when it comes to getting the industry to shift away from single-use plastic? So we made two major changes in order to do that:
- Expanded our product portfolio, so we could offer customers a way to fill their entire pantry with plastic-free foods (as opposed to just the small assortment of snacks we were previously selling)
- Shifted to a direct-to-consumer online model, which is better suited for compostable packaging.
We made these changes in spring of 2020, and our business is stronger than ever. We now feel like the impact we can make on the industry is so much bigger than it was with our old model.
How have Sun & Swell’s sales changed since switching to the online model?
Our online sales have grown like crazy since we expanded our product assortment, and shifted our focus towards selling directly to customers.
And what we especially love is that we now have a direct line of communication with our customers. We can get feedback from them, in real time, about our packaging and products. This is so valuable as we make decisions about our company.
Has COVID-19 positively or negatively affected people’s view of sustainable packaging?
When it comes to sustainability during COVID, many people took a step back during COVID because they had no choice (e.g., bulk bins at grocery stores closed, coffee shops wouldn’t allow you to bring a reusable cup).
However, when people were forced to stay at home, people became much more aware of all the waste they were creating. You see piles of trash / recycling piling up, and realize – wow, that’s how much waste I’m contributing?? In that sense, it’s made consumers more aware of the importance of switching to more sustainable products.
You are currently working with White Buffalo Trust on a pilot program where customers can send packaging back to you to be composted. Can you tell us more about that?
When it comes to composting our bags, our philosophy is: we’ll do whatever it takes to find a solution. Right now, White Buffalo Land Trust is the perfect partner for the size company we are—but as we grow, we might need to find a partner who can take larger quantities. We’ve also tossed around the idea of opening our own compost facility.
Many brands have tried to use sustainable packaging and been derailed due to complications, expense and other challenges. Any advice for those folks who want to do better but are hitting bumps along the way?
My advice—especially to smaller, earlier stage brands—is to decide early on if sustainable packaging is a critical component of your value proposition. It’s not just a ‘check the box’ thing. Many people think the only challenge with sustainable packaging is that it’s more expensive, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. At Sun & Swell, part of our mission is ending single-use plastic in the grocery industry. So it is a battle worth fighting for us. But to be a pioneer in something, it’s challenging. Every brand needs to have an honest conversation about where sustainable packaging lives within their value proposition, and decide if it’s a top priority for them.