Reflections and Lessons Learned From 2022
As EcoEnclose entered July, we took a step back to reflect on our vision and plan for the year, and acknowledged that 2022 has not unfolded as many people (ourselves included) had expected.
We (along with much the world) enthusiastically rang in 2022, looking forward to putting the pandemic behind us…only to be confronted with new and unexpected challenges - the Russia-Ukraine war, fires and heatwaves ravaging much of the globe, inflation, economic uncertainty, political decisions (and indecisions) that can feel like major setbacks to equality and progress.
It was a good reminder that half of life (and business) is about navigating the unexpected challenges that get thrown your way. The midpoint of the year is a great time to take stock of the events of 2022 thus far, and revisit our plan for 2022 (and beyond) in light of them.
Here, we share some what we discussed and how they are shaping our vision for our future.
1. The effects of climate change are here. The urgency to take action is undeniable.
Since 1906, the global average surface temperature has increased by more than 1.6 degrees. When the world initially started talking about climate change, its effects seemed to be ones that would be felt in the far off future, a perspective that gave everyone a false sense that we can “fix” and reverse the issue at some later date through some as-yet-unknown technology.
Recent years have shown us that the effects of climate change are already here. Regions in Europe, Asia and North America have recorded extended days and weeks with their hottest temperatures on record. Fires are raging on every continent. Glaciers are melting worldwide. The Colorado River, which brings water to over 40 million Americans, is one of a dozen rivers steadily drying up across the country. Living and running our business in Colorado, we are seeing many of these trends firsthand - drought, fires and heat.
Unfortunately, while voters as a whole recognize that climate change is pressing, they consider issue like the economy, health insurance, civil rights and gun control to be more urgent. This, coupled with the fact that the environment has become a bipartisan and highly polarizing issue, means that the US federal government is unlikely to be a powerful force in curbing and ultimately reversing emissions.
For us at EcoEnclose, these trends reinforce the fact that we - the business community - must act with an intense sense of urgency by:
- Rapidly improving the sustainability of our own offerings: Innovating and improving our offerings as quickly as possible towards our ultimate vision of circularity;
- Supporting our brands so we can collectively make ecommerce a regenerative force for the planet: Researching and sharing our research, to help our brands learn about sustainability and packaging so they can make decisions that are truly in support of positive environmental progress; and
- Helping Colorado be a climate leader: Advocating for policies and programs at the local and state level that will help Colorado become a nationwide and global leader in the environmental movement.
2. We have to act with climate optimism.
Fatalism is tempting. But it is a pathway to failure.
Curbing climate change requires immense investment and behavior change from existing businesses, entrepreneurs building new businesses, consumers, households, NGOs, financial institutions, and governments. Entirely new, cleaner industries must be established. Industries that don’t make ecological sense must be rebuilt or sunsetted altogether. These are major efforts and no one will make these investments if they believe the them to be futile.
This is why we’ve been buoyed to see a wave of climate optimism taking hold, an approach that acknowledges the severity and urgency of the crisis we are in, while also recognizing that the only way for achieve global goals - keeping temperatures from rising above 2 degrees and rebuilding to manage the unavoidable consequences of climate change based - is to first believe they can be achieved.
For us at EcoEnclose, this reflection has reinforced three things:
- We have to find time to learn about and get inspired by the fact that the world has historically made positive progress in seemingly intractable challenges - from human rights to civil rights to geopolitical conflict to human health to - yes - the environment. Sixty years ago, the nation’s cities lived in persistent smog. Chemicals were being released - unchecked - into our waterways, causing rivers to burn and entire species to decimate. Thirty years ago, acid rain fell across wide swaths of the US and the ozone layer was burning up.
- We have to believe that - despite our relatively small size compared to behemoth companies - EcoEnclose and the community of brands we work with - can have an outsized positive impact.
- We have to acknowledge and celebrate the climate wins and solutions happening around us. For example, renewable energy is now generally less expensive than fossil fuels, so a shift to clean energy can often save money.
The SEC proposed a rule this year that would set ESG disclosure requirements for public companies, recognizing that climate risks can pose significant financial risks to companies, and investors need reliable information informed investment decisions. This is a major paradigm shift in the private sector, and the world has seen time and again that reporting and disclosures are an important step towards positive change.
We’ve also seen examples of activist investors changing the strategic direction of a company. Last year, climate activists and dissident investors executed a shareholder rebellion within ExxonMobil and Chevron, protesting the companies’ continued inaction toward meaningfully curbing carbon emissions. Three new directors were elected to Exxon’s board, with the hope of pushing the firm towards more environmentally sound practices and Chevron was pushed by their investors to implement tougher emissions targets.
Last year, Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador set a degree to phase out use of the herbicide glyphosate and the cultivation and import of genetically modified corn.
These are just three of the many, many examples of climate wins of the past twelve months - most of which have garnered far less airtime than the climate setbacks we are often reading about.
3. There are so many different facets of the environmental movement - some of which are intersectional and some of which can be in conflict. It is our collective responsibility to skip solutions that may seem more eco-friendly on the surface, but are actually more damaging to the planet when the full picture is analyzed.
Historically, the sustainability-minded community has tended to focus on one specific topic within a time period. Fifty years ago, we were talking about acid rain. Thirty years ago it was the growing hole in the ozone. Fifteen years ago, the focus was on global warming and carbon emissions. Ten years ago, there was a distinct focus on the impact of agricultural practices and food waste. Four years ago, plastic pollution became one of the most critical issues to address.
Today, environmental experts and eco-minded people and brands have a better understanding of the fact that ecological issues are varied, complex, intersectional and sometimes at odds with each other. People recognize that sustainability is interwoven but that at times, ecological progress (when approached without the right mindset) could run counter to the resolution of critical social justice and community development issues.
Conscious companies now need to consider carbon emissions, water pollution, water consumption, waste and plastic pollution, biodiversity preservation, air pollution, and how these issues are impacting (often disproportionately) under-resourced communities and countries.
That is a lot for a person and a brand to make sense of when making decisions. We are thrilled to see more and more consumers recognizing the interconnected nature of environmental issues, and expecting this from the brands they buy from. That said, we also recognize that this level of public scrutiny is extremely difficult for brands (particularly independent, self-funded brands) to navigate.
Unfortunately, given the sense of urgency (see #1) we cannot afford to get this wrong! Ultimately, EcoEnclose and the brands we work with have to jump in and wade through the nuance and complexity, to make sure the decisions being made are assessed holistically. If not, we run the very real risk of patting ourselves on the back for solving one issue, while inadvertently creating another - even worse - issue.
For us at EcoEnclose, this insight means:
- Getting smarter about how different issues intersect and conflict with each other - carbon, biodiversity, plastic, water, human rights - and looking for long-term solutions that are net positive benefits across all of them.
- Trying to be more transparent about the decisions we’re making, why we are making them, and welcoming feedback and criticism (yes, even when that feedback comes in the form of harsh social media comments!).
- Working as thought partners with our brands as we all weigh and analyze how decisions impact different facets of the environment, helping you avoid the wrong sustainable packaging decisions.
4. There are no sustainability silver bullets.
Many brands looking to eliminate plastic in their supply chain are switching to paper, thinking this material is a perfect solution. Some see reusable packaging as the optimal solution. Some are moving to dissolvable packaging, thinking this will enable packaging to disappear and solve our world’s waste problems. Still others are embracing packaging made with unique, renewable materials such as mushrooms or kelp, thinking these are regenerative and therefore the perfect long-term solution.
We all want simple, clear answers. We like to see some materials labeled as evil and to be avoided, and other materials labeled as universally green and better. But, while all innovations should be acknowledged and even celebrated, because every effort furthers our collective understanding of sustainable packaging solutions, we should also recognize that they are all imperfect. In fact, in some cases, solutions lauded as silver bullets are actually worse for the planet than the materials they are replacing.
For us, this means that every new idea that comes along must be understood and analyzed along key questions:
- What environmental problem does my current packaging create that I am looking to solve?
- Does this new solution address this environmental problem? Can this positive impact be measured and verified?
- Does this new solution cause any other environmental problems - directly and indirectly - that I need to better understand? Are these environmental problems more or less pronounced with the new material than with the current packaging solution I am using?
- Having a full understanding of the eco impact of my different options, which one best moves me / my brand closer towards my long-term sustainability vision?
This insight has become a critical part of how EcoEnclose makes decisions. For example, in 2022, we have focused on tacking the clear poly bag - a major packaging challenge for apparel brands. As we’ve worked with brands to find a better solution, we’ve ended up with a variety of options, recognizing that no singular solution fixes all of the issues of the clear poly bag without creating a new set of environmental and / or functional issues to consider:
- 100% recycled, thin film recyclable clear poly bag: Low carbon footprint, low water consumption, but made from plastic - an inherently problematic material for many.
- 100% recycled kraft bag and seal: Highly circular (recycled and curbside recyclable) solution made from renewable and naturally biodegradable materials. Does not offer transparency and translucency. Higher carbon footprint and water consumption than a clear poly bag.
- Virgin, FSC® certified glassine bag: Paper-based, naturally biodegradable, curbside recyclable solution that offers translucency. Made with virgin paper, putting pressure on forests, which we need to preserve.
- 100% recycled EcoBand: Highly circular (recycled and curbside recyclable) solution that uses minimal source materials. Does not offer full product protection.
There are inherent tensions and pros and cons across each of these solutions, but we’ve worked hard to make each of them as eco-friendly and functional as possible, in alignment with our sustainability framework.
We also said "no" to potential replacements to the poly bag that our in-depth analysis has shown are backward steps for the planet, such as virgin, unsustainably sourced paper alternatives, compostable plastic or dissolvable plastic. And we've tried to be very upfront with our community as to why these are solutions to be avoided.
Finally, we've avoided touting any one of our offerings in this space as a silver bullet solution. We’ve learned from the brands we serve that we can be most helpful by offering all options and helping you choose between them based on their ecological priorities, functional needs and budget.
5. Brands are inspiring the hell out of us. They are thoughtful, willing to test and evolve, and give us feedback at every step.
We know that many brands we are working with are dealing with economic uncertainty, inflation, excessive inventory, slower than expected sales, difficulties hiring, and general exhaustion having managed a business through the last two years.
And yet most of you continue to be committed to sustainability.
Every day, innovative brands are calling us to figure out the right path forward. They are working with us to explore ideas and test new solutions. They are willing to fail, evolve, improve, and celebrate small wins. And they are giving us feedback at every step.
You are working with us on:
- Thoughtfully replacing single-use packaging with reusable alternatives.
- Making the leap to algae ink.
- Getting more recycled content into packaging.
- Using less material or create a refillable packaging model.
- How to better track and measure their carbon reduction.
And, you are doing so not simply because it is good marketing and that your customers are demanding it. You are doing so because this was core to why you went into business in the first place.
If ever we find ourselves losing energy at EcoEnclose, it only takes a tough question or curious request from one of our customers to light the fire back under us.
6. Your commitment has made it even easier to stick to our values (even when doing so may seem like “bad business”).
Earlier this year, we anticipated bringing in an automated box-making system into our fulfillment operations. These machines produce right-sized boxes on demand to make the order fulfillment process quicker and therefore more labor efficient.
One week before the machine was scheduled for installation, we learned that the manufacturer had discontinued their 99% recycled corrugate offering, and could provide only 40% recycled material with SFI certification.
We ship out hundreds of parcels each day and currently, every box we ship is right-sized and made out of 100% recycled (95%+ post-consumer waste) corrugate.
We could not reconcile our eco values with the reality of shipping out these orders (full of eco-friendly shipping supplies) in 60% virgin content, whose forest of origin is unverified, and whose trees are certified by a scheme that does not live up to our standards.
We’ve researched and written extensively about how critical it is that the sustainable packaging movement protect the world’s forests, help store carbon and mitigate climate change, and preserve biodiversity worldwide. Brands can do this by sourcing recycled content wherever possible, seeking ways to use next-gen fibers, and - when virgin tree fibers are absolutely required - looking for FSC® certified trees that are verified to not come from ancient and endangered forests.
Because of this, we decided to forego the installation of this equipment. We hope they may reintroduce their eco-friendly materials and are also looking for better and more sustainable, values-aligned solutions. This means we may have to wait months or even years before increasing the personnel efficiency of our fulfillment operations, but that is okay by us.
We’ve also navigated these types of tensions in working with current or potential customers.
This year, we’ve had brands come to us this year asking for virgin paper mailers, compostable poly bags, cornstarch-based void fill, and other novel packaging solutions that have been written about as great eco alternatives.
While these brands are very well-intentioned, and many have done their own research on why the options they are asking for are the right ones for their operations, we have - often after a very painful internal decision-making discussion - declined to pursue opportunities that don’t fit with our sustainable packaging framework.
It is always so disheartening to lose a great potential client and miss the chance to collaborate with an incredible brand, but the clarity and win we get from sticking with our framework and research have been worth these short-term disappointments.
7. Our people have never mattered more. And we have never been more excited about our team.
In 2020 and 2021, EcoEnclose (and ecommerce and packaging industries overall) were frenetically hiring, simply doing everything we could to manage a workload that spiked unnaturally when the pandemic hit.
Now, ecommerce is in “correcting” mode, which has brought on a phase of our business that is actually quite enjoyable - a deeper focus on our team and a recognition that our success (which is defined by how well we serve our customers and how rapidly we innovate towards truly circular packaging) almost entirely rests on the strength of our people.
This means ensuring that team members who are a great fit are well trained, well supported, see a pathway to career success, and feel that they have a community around them here at EcoEnclose. It means having more patience in filling our open positions, and making the right hires that will bring a passion for sustainability, a commitment to our customers, and camaraderie and care for teammates. It means getting feedback from team members on what we can do to be better.
8. The benefits of team togetherness are showing up in unexpected ways.
In 2021, EcoEnclose made the decision to establish a hybrid approach to virtual versus in office work for our administrative team, and look to provide as much flexibility as we can in our warehouse and production departments, and approach we thought would best balance:
- Flexibility in a way that makes sense for each position: Manufacturing and warehouse work can’t get done from home. But, we can offer flexibility in these roles in structuring shifts, providing the ability to make up hours when something unexpected is needed at home, and offering overtime whenever possible to help people meet financial goals.
- Equity: While some of our roles can technically be conducted entirely from home, we also recognize that moving our administrative teams to an entire at-home workforce is a bit of a blow to our commitment to equity in how we treat our team members across different departments.
- Culture and community: We also recognize that our team works much more effectively when they have a chance to connect personally. Our sales team members can do their jobs more effectively and joyfully when they can talk directly to the production team member who is manufacturing orders for their account. Our warehouse team is much happier when they know and have a personal connection to the customer service team member who is asking them to rush an order.
We know this hybrid approach isn’t perfect for everyone. We have lost one team member who was seeking a purely virtual position. And we may have lost out on excellent potential applicants as well with our policy.
But we continue to see the upside - for our business, our customers, and our team members.
For example, if a customer calls us needing a rush order we are well-equipped to simply walk to our warehouse floor, work with a fulfillment associate to pick the order and ensure it gets out right away.
We often take time as a team to read through packing slips to learn more about the amazing companies and organizations that are purchasing their packaging from us. At times we’re even able to write notes of appreciation to them.
We are able to have full-team training sessions on topics ranging from “waste sorting” to “navigating bioplastics” - sessions we hope help the entire team (including our warehouse departments) develop a strong connection to the environment and our mission.
These are all business upsides. But the personal upside for the team is as - if not more - important. According to a study commissioned by Cigna, 58% of American adults are considered lonely, a trend that accelerated during the pandemic. Young adults are disproportionately feeling this, particularly in communities of color. Many of our team members are “transplants” into Colorado, living away from their families and loved ones. Having a culture with so much in-person time has helped people forge personal connections that extend well beyond our walls. Team members are running marathons together, officiating a fellow employee’s wedding, and cheering each other on in their performances or personal hobbies. Seeing this type of cohesion is a reminder that a strong work team can be a wonderful place to establish the types of connections that can be so hard to find in our digitally-focused world.
9. Reading the news can be a terrible (and depressing) way to learn about a topic.
I thought I spent 2020 and 2021 glued to my go-to news sources, tracking pandemic-related information closely.
But the political, economic, and climate challenges of 2022 have increased my time on news apps even more (and unsurprisingly also increased my anxiety and frustration)…
Until a good friend gave me two important reminders:
(1) Even journalists and news sources with the utmost integrity are motivated to maximize readership, which they do by adding a touch of emotion and sensationalism to every story; and
(2) Journalists cannot be expected to become deep experts in any one topic.
Because of this, the news we all read is only portions of the entire story.
This important (and much-needed) reminder has impacted EcoEnclose (and me personally) in a few ways.
First, I simply reduced by time on news apps - which has increased by ability to be present in the moment significantly!
Second, when it is absolutely critical that I get a comprehensive understanding of an issue, I skip traditional news sources altogether in favor of a variety of different research articles put forth by non-partisan think tanks, nonprofits, universities and other subject matter experts. This has always been our approach when it comes to sustainability, having recognized that the news cycle isn’t the place to understand the nuances and complexities of environmental issues.
This year, it became our approach to understanding the uncertain economic times as well, to help EcoEnclose (and our customers) better plan for the next few months and years. News headlines about the economy are so confusing! “Inflation, labor shortages, high consumer spending, low consumer confidence, we are in a recession today, we’ll be in a recession in 2023”…the messages are varied and unnerving. But turning to analysis by professional economic researchers tells a more complete, nuanced, and rational picture. For example, ITR Economics has helped put the confusing economic time period in context, concluding that markets that benefited from the COVID-Surge [such as retail and ecommerce in particular], which stemmed from the influx of cash and the need to stay home, will be adversely impacted in 2022 and likely the first half of 2023 in some instances. The ascent was unnatural, and inventory ordering was aggressive. Now that the consumer has “backed off” from the torrid pace, there is too much inventory. Excess inventory will lead to a decline in orders in those markets. The weakness will last for as long as it takes for the inventory to clear out.” (source)
When it comes to issues EcoEnclose needs to understand deeply in order to run our business effectively, we’ve begun turning away from day-to-day news stories and opt instead for analysis from subject matter experts.
And it probably goes without saying, but we only turn to social media for “news” because sometimes, it helps bring some much needed levity!
10. No one has time to read *all* of the words we write.
If you’ve spent time on our site, you may have found lengthy, research-heavy articles that aim to go in-depth on topics related to sustainable packaging.
Research, analysis, and then writing it all up for ourselves and our EcoAlly community is core to who we are.
But…I’ve finally come to terms with the fact that it is impossible to expect many people to read any website in detail to process and come to their own conclusions about what is right for their business. Most people go to websites for quick hits of input, not to read a novel!
This recognition hasn’t necessarily stopped EcoEnclose from writing (which you know if you’ve read this far).
But recognizing that different people take in and process information differently, we tried to diversify HOW we communicate:
- Extended YouTube videos on in-depth packaging and sustainability topics
- 1-1 consultations that can be easily scheduled on our website
- Social media videos to help illustrate small but important concept
- Social media slide shows that distill the key points of our (often very long) white papers
We’re still figuring out the right balance here but hope that we’re headed in the right direction (feedback always welcome!).