A Look Back at 2017: Reflections and Lessons Learned

Posted By on Dec 28th 2017

This is my favorite letter of the year. Your inside look into our annual practice of reflecting and taking stock in what we accomplished, where we failed and and how we grew. Yes, 2016 feels like it ended just a few moments ago, but, actually, 2017 was long and full (practically bursting at the seams!).

Here’s a peak at a few of the most important lessons we’ve learned in 2017 that we’ll be taking into the new year. May they inspire your own reflection and give you some insights!

Happy New Year! Here’s to growth, success and eco progress in 2018.

1. We took a stand on what we mean by “eco-friendly”. We’ve always known we wanted to provide the most “eco-friendly” shipping solutions to conscious companies. But in 2017 we realized we needed a clear and ambitious standard for what we mean by “the most eco-friendly.”

We all notice how frequently terms like “green” and “eco” are bandied about in product description. Sometimes these are simply labels or terms, with no underlying green characteristics or practices to back them up. Often, the term might be referring to something that is recyclable (and if being recyclable is the only thing that qualifies something as being eco-friendly, most things in the world could be characterized that way!). In a small set of cases, the term might be referring to a product that has been thoughtfully produced with the environment in mind. This blurriness is not fair to customers, to the planet, to the businesses trying to truly make a positive environmental impact, or to the overall eco-conscious movement.

These realizations set us down the path of developing a research-based, comprehensive framework for sustainable packaging and (perhaps more importantly) making this framework transparent and easily accessible on our website. For example, we’ve determined that our top priority is to offer packaging with as much recycled content as possible and to ensure these products are recyclable as well. We’ve determined that while compostable packaging has its place, it is not our focus, both because it uses only virgin material and because most (nonrecyclable) compostable goods are landfilled where they have the same impact on the planet as a traditional item. The list goes on.

Our hope is that in 2018, these newly solidified standards will guide us through the exploration of new products and materials and refine our current offerings.

2. We - our company and each team member - need clarity to be effective. As our organization grew and expanded, we did not invest enough time to fully develop and communicate expectations, goals and responsibilities for our organization and employees. Thus, we became focused on one year or one quarter strategic plans that were not directly rooted in a our long term vision. Finally, we saw that too many organizational values can overwhelm and disconnect our colleagues.

What happened? Well, thankfully, our people are awesome so overall, nothing calamitous. But this lack of full clarity certainly led to more scrambling and “all hands on deck” situations than we probably needed (and certainly wanted). It also created a frustrating sense that we were running on a hamster wheel with nothing to show for all of our hard work.

It was clear that we needed Clarity! We set an inspiring 2030 vision related to our environmental impact and growth. This has provided our north star for planning, communicating and for working in the weeds day to day. We streamlined our organization’s cultural values to focus on just four - excellence, positivity, communication and leadership. And we are in the process of revisiting and writing out each team member’s responsibilities, goals and metrics.

It is always hard to find time to do this type of work. We’d much rather be working with our customers! But, we believe putting in the time (even when we don’t think we have it) will make everything go smoother and more efficiently - so we’ll actually be LESS busy in the future.

3. We made progress towards Zero Waste but have much more work to do, especially when we get extremely busy or are navigating friends and family. Imagine it being December 31st and you have just a single bag of landfill bound trash that you accumulated throughout the year. I can’t think of a cooler and more inspiring vision! Achieving it would mean buying less, using non-disposable goods wherever possible, and fully evaluating the recyclability or compostability of every purchase. In short, it would mean living and consuming more consciously.

We set out a personal intention to move forward zero waste in 2017 and we certainly didn’t get there. But we learned a ton.

We’ve learned so much from the EcoEnclose community on living Zero Waste. During our #EcoResolution competition, over a hundred companies put forth a resolution to eliminate waste through a myriad of strategies - reducing or eliminating packaging, using durable versions of things like straws and paper towels, making goods like cleaners or soaps at home instead of buying packaged versions of them. Several EcoEnclose companies are actually dedicated to providing innovative Zero Waste solutions. Think washable “forever-use” sponges, cloth diapers, and even cloth toilet paper (you read that right!). I’m personally obsessed with these shops and learn so much just from perusing their sites.

We’ve learned that managing families and friends, without being annoying or preachy, is hard (especially during the holidays!). They give us and our kids toys, clothes, treats - you name it. And it’s all out of love and affection, but it leads us to constant decisions around what to keep, what to return and how to not hurt anyone’s feelings.

We’ve learned that when you get busier than you ever thought possible, it is way too easy to go back to older - more wasteful - habits. Zero waste thinking does become an ingrained mindset overtime, but early on when you’re thinking through each decision, it takes time and effort.

Finally, we’ve seen that Zero Waste is an adventure for our family. We’ve learned how to make things like kombucha, energy bars, yogurt, bread, pickles and hummus at home. The kids loved learning how to garden and maintain our home compost bin this year. We even constructed our own wooden play structure for the kids (a lot of hardwon lessons on that one!) .

4. Inventory is tough. Shifting lead times, supplier delays, uncertain cash cycles and increasingly expensive Colorado real estate makes for a complex equation.  We need raw materials on hand to expeditiously fulfill customer orders which can vary considerably. But stocking up on raw materials requires a large outlay of cash and storage space. And while our materials suppliers have set lead times, they are subject to change at any time - without notice.

We experienced it all this year and got caught on the wrong side of this equation as we were stocked out of a small set of items for a few critical weeks. This was tough on our emotions, tough on our customers shipping, and tough on our team’s stress. Lesson learned!

We’ll definitely be more conservative going forward, erring on the side of ordering more and ordering way ahead of time!

5. Vetting supply chains for values alignment and eco practices is a critical part of meeting our vision. It is not easy, and will require a structured audit and persistence to gather the information we need. During our #EcoResolution competition we were excited to hear from many companies who were going to spend time this year selecting values-aligned suppliers or holding their suppliers to high standards. I’ve also been so impressed by companies who are helping their community of earth-minded businesses learn which suppliers do and don’t support their way of thinking. Researching our Sustainable Packaging Framework was also an important reminder as to how critical the practices (such as waste management and resource consumption) of our suppliers are in the “eco-friendliness” of the products we offer.

In 2017 we’ve started digging in and learning more. Sometimes we’ve hit some frustrating obstacles, such as our attempts to deeply understand the formulas and ingredients in our printing inks. Sometimes we’ve been so impressed by suppliers who are going above and beyond when it comes to environmental actions. But most of all, we’ve learned that this cannot be a one off exercise. We can’t simply react negatively when we happen to learn about misalignment of a vendor. To truly assess our supply chain, we must be clear about what matters to us, and work with our suppliers to understand how they line up (and be open to continuing to work with them if they are willing to make adjustments over time!).

6. Saying “yes” to a customer request when we really mean “we’ve never done that before but we’ll give it a shot” is rewarding (and yes, very stressful) and we want to keep doing it. This year we’ve had a chance to design some exceptional custom shipping boxes. We’ve taken custom printed boxes to the next level, with inside and outside of the box print jobs and even two color prints! We’ve taken print jobs that were larger and smaller than we’ve tried before.

Each one of these strides came when a company came to us with a unique design vision and a commitment to packaging their products sustainably. These companies were willing to take a chance on us, and we in turn were ready to “say yes” to projects we hadn’t done before.

The results varied but collectively they taught us (1) how fun it is to work with customers on something new and exciting and (2) how well our team comes to together to take on new challenges like these. Perhaps this means we should take a page from the Shonda Rhimes playbook and make 2018 “the year of yes!?”

7. When we are stuck on a decision, we can put the question to our community of eco-minded companies that are generous and insightful with their feedback. A few times this year we were trying to make a decision on something and thought - what would our customers want? So then we just asked them. And quickly got detailed, thoughtful, actionable feedback. Amazing! Not just because we could make better decisions, but also because it helped us know our customers better - what they value, how they think, and what resonates with them. Going forward, we’ll skip a lot of the arduous, often rootless, internal decision making (“this color scheme or that” or “do we need to add this size mailer”) and put these questions forth to the people they will impact most directly.

8. We can (and shall) maintain positivity in the face of a depressing year of environmental policy, because the sustainability and renewable train have (thankfully) left the station. We should channel frustrations into a stronger commitment to eco practices in our business, home and community. Practically every week this year some US environmental regulation or policy was rolled back, postponed or weakened. Many of our federal leaders are climate change skeptics or, even if they recognize climate change, are such huge supporters of traditional chemical and energy industries that they are unwilling to pursue progressive environmental policies. Often, this has been really deflating.

In pulling together our 2017 Environmental Year in Review, however, I was both depressed AND hopeful. In fact, ultimately, I felt somewhat positive and inspired by the citizens, states, countries, companies and consumers who have doubled down on their commitment to reduced carbon emissions, improved waste management and green technology. While the current federal government’s lack of focus on climate policies will certainly be a setback, it does not have to and will not reverse the trends in favor of a much greener world going forward.

For EcoEnclose, the current political landscape has strengthened our own resolve related to the environmental progress and fueled our desire to hold ourselves to ambitious sustainable packaging standards, to help educate our community about these issued, and to set a 2030 goal to be a net positive environmental operation.

9. Becoming a sustainable and ultimately net positive operation requires a methodical approach (and I highly recommend Ray Anderson's Confessions of a Radical Industrialist for anyone taking on this task) This year I read Ray Anderson’s exceptional book, Confessions of a Radical Industrialist. In 1994, Interface founder and chairman Ray Anderson set an audacious goal for his commercial carpet company: to take nothing from the earth that can't be replaced by the earth. Fifteen years after this goal was set, Interface had:

  • Cut greenhouse gas emissions by 82%
  • Cut fossil fuel consumption by 60%
  • Cut waste by 66%
  • Cut water use by 75%
  • Invented and patented new machines, materials, and manufacturing processes
  • Increased sales by 66%, doubled earnings, and raised profit margins

The book was not just a “we did it!” story.

It provides any business with the tools to achieve ecological improvements and innovations across its entire organizations.

We have partnered with EcoCycle, as one of its Green Star Businesses, and received a consultation from PACE, Boulder County Business Sustainability Consulting Service. These organizations have helped us evaluate all aspects of our organization - from our lighting to our waste to the cleaners we use.

Taken together, these three resources have demonstrated that the way to becoming a sustainable organization is to be methodical and, to be honest, somewhat boring. We have to do an audit, map out opportunities for and impact of improvements, and then take each step on one by one. Sometimes this leads to something “cool” like investing in a new piece of machinery that will significantly decrease our waste or shipping footprint. Sometimes it is insanely tedious, like tracking our junkmail and unsubscribing from every mailing list we are on.

Finally, one of our most important lessons is the importance of a “sustainability metric.” For us, this will be a “waste coefficient” or a measure of the amount of material we use that goes to a customer, versus what goes to waste. Tracking numbers on this won’t be easy, but we anticipate it will be rewarding for the entire team!

10. Monitoring the influence of Amazon in our lives keeps feeling more and more important At the beginning of the year, we set a goal to minimize the use of Amazon in our lives. We did so not because Amazon is evil, but because we recognized Amazon as a “cost-focused” ecommerce behemoth that endangers the very type of independent, quality-focused businesses we want to see flourish.

For much of the year we were very successful and in fact we discovered a myriad of awesome ecommerce shops to support as a result.

And then Amazon acquired Whole Foods, a regular in the set of grocery stores we frequent. And then the holiday season was upon us, and we found ourselves receiving gifts right and left in Amazon boxes. And even our 3 year old son know that “Alexa” controls the music and volume at many people’s homes.

Our takeaway? It seems like our relationship with Amazon is similar to rural community members decades ago who wanted to see their independent shops and main streets thrive, but also found themselves at Walmart because it was the easiest place to buy what they needed. Ultimately, so many main streets were lost as a result. So, as Amazon’s influence in ecommerce, logistics and retailing becomes bigger and bigger, we need to commit to doubling down on our support of the independent ecommerce shops that value ethics, eco-commitment and quality over “low cost at all costs.” #ShopIndependent #CommunityOverCost - these are movements that matter!