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Overcoming 3 Tough Challenges with Compostable Packaging

Written by Kate Flynn, Co-founder & CEO

In March of 2018, we launched some of our products in compostable packaging for the very first time. Here’s a blog I wrote 6 months after with some early lessons that I learned.  Now that we’ve been working with compostable packaging on the market for a year and a half, I figured it was time to reflect on some additional lessons I’ve learned, and what we’ve done to overcome them. 

Despite these tough lessons, we are now, more than ever, committed to being a pioneer in transitioning the packaged food industry over to compostable packaging. Compostable, after all, unlocks the ability for us to go from a linear packaged food system to a circular system, where the packaging turns back into soil and goes back to farms. Imagine a world where you walk into a grocery store and instead of seeing aisles filled with plastic, the aisles are filled with packaging that returns to the earth.  That’s the world we want to help create.

Challenge #1: Compostable packaging isn’t really ready for traditional distribution. 

Compostable packaging has a shelf-life and eventually starts to degrade on the shelf.  For us, this didn’t create an issue with freshness, but the packaging started to look old and wrinkly. This is what’s cool about compostable packaging, right? It’s degrading! It’s doing just what it should do! But the problem is, consumers aren’t yet trained on what compostable packaging looks like. So when they see compostable packaging on the shelf, they don’t think - “amazing! This is eco-friendly!”… they think “this looks old, I don’t want it.” We learned this lesson the hard way. 

This realization was oddly conflicting for me. On one hand, I was so passionate about compostable. The thought of pioneering it in the packaged foods industry energized me, and I found a passion around it that I’d never had before as an entrepreneur. I literally cried happy tears the first time I held our compostable packaging in my hands. 

But on the other hand, compostable packaging was hurting our sales. After we launched our products in compostable packaging last summer, our velocities declined, we lost shelf-space, and we even lost some accounts. I would get photos from friends who found us out and about, and I was embarrassed of what our packaging looked like. I found myself regretting our decision to move into compostable.

Our original thought was - we need to pull back on our efforts towards selling our products in compostable packaging. We’ll keep one or two SKUs in compostable, but transition the rest back to plastic. And while that was the plan for a while, it never sat right with me. My heart wanted to get away from plastic, and I knew there had to be a way.

So this spring, we made a decision. We decided that instead of trying to force compostable packaging into a system that wasn’t ready for it, we decided to switch our strategy and focus more on selling DTC, which is a channel it works really well in.  We switched our growth efforts to  focus on DTC instead of wholesale, and expanded our product portfolio so we now offer 30+ SKUs in compostable packaging. This strategy shift has allowed us to go from 10% of sales in compostable packaging to 75% in just a matter of 6 months. 

Challenge #2: You have to compromise on your “perfect” package

This was something that was really hard for me to accept. When I started our company, I was so focused on creating a package that was beautiful above anything else. In fact, we even intentionally found a designer outside of the food world, because we wanted our packaging to look more like a work of art than a typical food package. And when we launched several years ago, we quickly got recognized for our beautiful packaging. But that beautiful packaging was thick plastic, with many layers of ink, a clear window, and a matte finish.

With compostable packaging, there are some limitations:

  1. Windows are never as clear as plastic windows
  2. Colors are more dull 
  3. There is no matte printing

So when we launched in compostable, there was a bit of a brand misalignment for us. We went from having stunning, crisp, colorful packaging, to kind of dull, wrinkly (see tough lesson #1) packaging. For a brand that was known for it’s beautiful packaging, this was hard. And again, the dilemma for me - do we want eco-friendly packaging??? Or beautiful packaging??

Today, we’re still using plastic ‘pretty’ packaging for the products we sell through wholesale. We will continue to do this for now, although the ultimate goal is to sell 100% of products in compostable. But this is a journey, and for now, we feel good knowing the majority of our sales are coming from compostable packaged products.

Challenge #3: The end of life infrastructure is worse than I thought

When we first launched in compostable, I thought that as long as someone had access to industrial composting, they could take our compostable flexible film. Shortly after, I learned that that while some compost facilities will do this, others (like my local facility) will only take food scraps, etc.

This was unsettling for me. I wanted to be able to tell our customers exactly where they could compost our bags… and I felt like I had no idea.  Once I realized no one is really taking responsibility for the end-of-life of these bags, I felt like it was my responsibility to do so. I personally didn’t see how we could go on selling compostable packaging without figuring out some sort of end-of-life solution.

My original idea was - let's come up with a database of facilities around the country that would take our bags, and tell customers they could send them there if they wanted.  I quickly realized this won't work, as most facilities wouldn't really be stoked to be receiving random packages with bags from customers outside of their city! 

So this summer, we launched a pilot compostable bag ‘send-back’ program. With our program, customers can send their bags back to us, and we will compost the bags for them. To do this, we’ve partnered with several compost facilities around the country to test the pilot program. I know it's not the perfect solution... but at least it's a solution. We have some bigger ideas in the works too. No idea is off the table.

I want to pause here here and say - even with this challenge, I still truly believe compostable packaging is a better solution than plastic packaging. Our recycling system is totally broken, so that's not the answer at all. But that's a story for another day...

So… what now?  

Transitioning to compostable has been one of the most challenging things we’ve done as a business, but also most rewarding. This summer, we’ve shifted our business model to accommodate compostable, because we view it as our role to help the industry transition. I’m excited to see where the next year takes us.