A Look Back at 2019: Reflections and Lessons Learned

A Look Back at 2019: Reflections and Lessons Learned

Posted By on Dec 29th 2019

Without reflection we go blindly on our way, creating more unintended consequences, and failing to achieve anything useful. 

- Margaret J. Wheatley

Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards. 

- Soren Kierkegaard

It’s that time of year again - my favorite blog post! A year (in fact an entire decade) is coming to a close. Before we turn our attention to our 2020 focus and priorities, it is essential that we take stock in how 2019 has gone - what we’ve learned, how we’ve succeeded, and how we fell short of our aspirations.

1. Sustainable thinking has to start with ourselves - our purchases, operations and behaviors

“For nearly every global problem, there are solutions we can implement in our backyard that save us money and help us live more luxuriant lives.” - Paul Wheaton & Shawn Klassen Koop (Building a Better World in Our Backyard)

Sustainability is at the forefront of so many political and corporate rants these days. This isn’t a bad thing at all - it is exciting to be in a time when citizens and consumers have such high standards for the entities they support.

It is also a time when there is more opportunity than ever to support the environment through who you vote for, who you purchase from and who you donate to. It is easy to get so focused on these, more externally obvious demonstrations of ecological commitment that you forget about the massive impact that can be had at home or work.

We found this for ourselves this year. In the past twelve months, EcoEnclose made large strides in building a more eco-friendly product set. Some examples: upping our post-consumer waste across various products, making algae printing ink a more readily available option, developing an entirely new paper mailer to ship apparel, and releasing a label with a unique recycled and recyclable release liner. We are incredibly proud of these advancements and how they can help companies ship in more sustainable and innovative ways.

But as we aggressively pursued outward facing advancements, we were not as maniacal about assessing and minimizing our own internal impact. While we maintained eco-friendly strategies (such as only using 100% post consumer paper and labels; using a bulk drip coffee system, diverting over 90% of our waste, using reusable cutlery only), we did not aggressively pursue new opportunities to decrease our operational impact - such as assessing the supplies we buy for the business, how we heat and power our operations, how our employees commute to work, and how we manage our waste.

The book referenced above, Building a Better World in Our Backyard, is one of many books that remind us that even as we invest in the external, or assess and criticize others, let’s make sure we are doing all we can to make sustainability foundational to how we operate our own households and businesses.

In 2020, we look forward to implementing programs that motivate and incentivize all team members to make small and large changes each week that improve the sustainability of our operations.

2. Let's shift the paradigm from "minimizing the negative" footprint to creating a net positive impact

Today the conversation around sustainability is typically about how to minimize the negative impact - carbon footprint, biodiversity loss, creation of waste, water usage, effluent and pollution, etc - of what we as humans do.

While we of course need this type of effort and conversation, it also inevitably leaves us wondering if humankind, by design, must be inherently detracting from the planet. That is a pretty dark rabbit hole to go down!

Several years ago, EcoEnclose established a long-term vision of being a net positive contributor to the planet. It felt far fetched at the time. But it has been inspiring to see a variety of books, documentaries and stories emerge this year showing how this notion of human activity actually replenishing soils, absorbing carbon, and improving biodiversity is feasible and can be happening right now. The idea of running a business and developing product lines that actually strengthen aspects of our environment feels within reach.

As a small example, our black algae printing ink was shown this year to be net carbon negative. More carbon is sequestered than emitted in the development and manufacturing of this ink!

This is an inspiring way to pursue sustainability and, we hope, the type of focus that can lead to truly transformational ideas in our business and across all industries.

Check out The Biggest Little Farm (a fun documentary) or The Soil Will Save Us for two inspiring accounts of humans and industry leaving the planet better off rather than simply minimizing the negative impact.

3. Transparency and honesty have to come first (even when they don’t lead to the answer everyone wants to hear)

Early this year we were asked if our Zero Waste Label sticker contained any plastic. It would be easy, and not inaccurate, to say “no” to this question and to label our stickers 100% plastic-free.

The paper is made with 100% recycled post-consumer paper. The release liner is made with 100% recycled post-consumer paper and it has no plastic or silicone coating.

The sticker utilizes an acrylic emulsion adhesive. Many companies (including the manufacturer of this adhesive) state that an acrylic emulsion adhesive is fully free of plastic. Paper stickers and labels with this type of adhesive are home and industrially compostable. It would therefore be easy to say that yes, the stickers are fully plastic-free.

For us, that answer didn’t quite feel right and forthcoming.

We realized the larger question we had to answer was “What is Plastic Anyway?” This led us down a deep but valuable rabbit hole that allowed us to clarify our own definition of plastic so we can be clearer in answering this question.

We decided that no, we could not say that our stickers are 100% plastic-free (based on our broad definition of plastic). However, we can be confident that they are an excellent (and arguably the absolute best) sticker for a company seeking to minimize plastic in their operations as the core elements of the product contain absolutely no plastic or synthetic polymer.

We know other companies may refer a standard paper sticker as plastic-free. Standard paper stickers have a paper facestock, an acrylic emulsion adhesive, and a silicone coated release liner. In our definition of plastic, both the acrylic emulsion and adhesive and the silicone coating on the release liner are “plastic.” We know neither answer is objectively “correct” but we realized the importance of comprehensiveness, clarity and transparency (even when these long-winded answers were probably more than our customers wanted to hear!).

By the end of the year, these various questions from our customers led to the development of a detailed Bill of Materials on our products and a longer-term priority to being transparent about what goes into our packaging solutions.

4. We have to be willing to get messy with our eco innovations. They aren’t going to be perfect and we have to keep pushing forward.

Among our product improvements this year: 100% recycled poly mailers with an unprecedented 50% post consumer waste, expanding the availability of our black algae printing ink, 100% recycled paper mailers designed for apparel, and 100% recycled shipping labels on a zero waste release liner.

None of these were perfectly seamless new releases.

For example, the high recycled content (97% post-consumer waste) and paperboard material in the Paper Apparel Mailer led to an initial adhesive that required significant pressure for a proper closure. As we learned from this, we made improvements, including stronger adhesives, updated designs, and flipping the paperboard so a coarser grain was on the outside of the mailer.

A small subset of our first run of poly mailers with 50% post consumer waste had a slightly darker, beiger tone than is standard for our offering.

Hiccups like this can be frustrating - for us and our customers.

We realized that we need to be comfortable not only releasing new sustainable packaging concepts, but also getting rapid feedback and making eco and functional improvements as quickly as we possibly can.

But they also remind us that if sustainable solutions and innovations were easy, everyone would be doing them already.

Finally, these challenges remind us of how privileged we are to work with such a committed group of companies who are just as excited as we are to try new, eco-friendly solutions and share feedback from the field to help us get the most functional and earth-friendly packaging possible.

5. Never rush or lower standards when hiring

We brought on almost 20 new team members this year and we have a pretty epic team right now (if I do say so myself).

For every new hire that remains working with us today (and hopefully for the long haul), there are at least a dozen we spoke with or even hired that ultimately were not the right fit for EcoEnclose.

Attracting the right people to a company in this thriving economy in Colorado is incredibly difficult. It can be easy to rush through the hiring process or get lax with what we ask for when we need people fast. More importantly, when a company gets busy, it can be easy to be okay with substandard performance and engagement from a new hire.

We learned (sometimes the hard way) how critical the right people are to building a strong, growing, sustainable company that can be an awesome place to work for its team members.

Every time we made a hire too rapidly or with hesitation, it turned out to be the wrong decision. Each time we ignored the niggling voice of doubt about a person or ignored behavior that was in direct contrast to our core values, it turned out to be the wrong decision.

Now, as we go into 2020, we have made some concrete changes to our hiring, including:

  • Test for every one of our four core values, looking for concrete examples from each candidate
  • Have every candidate complete two projects or two working interviews that help us gauge their work in action and enable them to experience the job more directly
  • Have at least four different people in the organization meet with every candidate
  • There are no “easy” positions. Yes, we have some roles that are more tedious and rote that seem like we should be able to hire for more easily and quickly. But laxing our standards for even the most “simple” role is still a mistake. Every team member, however isolated their role may seem, is essential to building team culture.
  • When in doubt, hold the offer. Keep learning and interviewing more.
  • Set up early reviews with new hires. These reviews should be two way - is the role working and right for the new hire? Is the organization a good fit? And of course, is the individual aligned on the core values and bringing what you expected into the position? In prepping for these reviews, take the time to observe and get feedback from others. If things are going planned, make decisions swiftly, for everyone’s sake.

These are all so much easier said than done because when we need to make a hire, we typically needed that person yesterday! These are steps everyone in the organization needs to hold hiring managers accountable to.

6. Being a great place to work is not about making people happy. Being a workplace where people can accomplish, grow, learn and forge connections takes constant effort and vigilance.

Like any good relationship, building strong interpersonal connections and a cohesive culture among dozens of team members requires a ton of work by everyone in the organization.

Ours isn’t perfect, but we have built a culture that is collegial, collaborative, motivating and hopefully a place where people feel welcome and challenged every day. Here are a few things we’ve learned are essential to team culture. We are human…so we don’t model this every single day, but they are tenants we’ve come to the hard way, and now work to keep front and center in working with our team.

  • Core values, core values, core values: Core values mean nothing unless they are used every single day. We call out one person who has exhibited the core values every morning. We try to utilize core values in dealing with performance challenges or interpersonal issues.
  • Make sure everyone knows what success looks like; then treat your adults as adults: Have clear metrics for every department and team members, and a structure for getting this data every day. Outside of that, think autonomy, not micromanagement. There is nothing less motivating than being micromanaged and treated like a five year old.
  • Interpersonal tension is like a thrives in the dark: Every reality television producer knows...put people in close quarters, force them to work together in some way, and emotions will eventually run high. Even the best work environment will find this type of tension. The best (though often the hardest) thing to do is air it out. Bring people who are having issues together and ask that they be open. Avoid 1-1 conversations that can create “he said, she said” interpretations and rumors. Everyone doesn’t have to be best friends, but this type of approach tends to breed more respect and professionalism among team members.
  • Give people slack in their day and role to improve the organization and innovate: Some of the best ideas for a business come from “the ranks.” Give people a chance to make their roles, their departments and the overall organization better. Google asks their team members to spend 20% of their time working on independent projects. That model has served the company well, and we can all learn quite a bit from that type of trust in employees.

7. In one minute, a video can convey what countless emails and chats cannot

And videos really don’t have to be that hard to create! It is amazing how much can be clarified in a short video.

For example, a common question we’ve gotten this year is that our GreenWrap dispenser doesn’t work that well (or at all!) for a small set of customers. People are sometimes displeased because their GreenWrap is either tearing or not expanding at all. We also sometimes see companies wrap their items with GreenWrap, but without expanding it at all (which is totally fine if that is what is intended, but most people want the honeycomb to expand!).

Our standard customer support channels are email, phone and chat. But it is really difficult to convey the fix to this issue through words alone: “Turn the tension bar” or “You don’t have the tension set where you want it” don’t really work if someone doesn’t know what the tension knob on their dispenser is.

Someone asked, via instagram, if we had a video of how to use greenwrap. Bells went off -- what an obvious and genius idea!

In about 15 minutes, we got footage of Sonya (our resident GreenWrap guru, and expert in many of our products!) teaching the world how to set up the dispenser, adjust tension, and use GreenWrap to wrap and protect products.

I’ve since heard directly from dozens of customers that the videos clarified so much. Many comments were along the lines of “I’ve been using the product all wrong! I can’t wait to try it again.”

We then created a video showcasing the impact of adding pressure when sealing a 100% recycled paper apparel mailer, which got similar positive feedback from viewers.

Once I get over the regret of not creating these videos much, much earlier..I’ve gotten tremendously excited about the possibilities of video training in the future!

8. "Two second leans" can make continuous improvement part of your culture (and a way of life)

I’ve come across the concept of “lean” throughout my career, but it often felt mysterious and scary, and only relevant to complex manufacturing (such as Toyota’s manufacturing line). I’d heard of a six sigma “black belt” in lean, a phrase which makes it seems as if a person needs to undergo deep, complex and long-term training in order to understand and implement lean.

Six months ago, I stumbled across Paul Akers, CEO of FastCap and proponent of a strategy called “Two Second Lean,” which makes the concept of lean far more accessible to anyone and everyone. This approach makes lean so much more than a mysterious way of doing business, it becomes a way of life.

The concept: every day, make an improvement that saves you at least two seconds each day. Perhaps every morning you scramble around your house looking for your keys (or wallet, or phone, etc). A Two Second Lean might be to put hooks or shelves right at your door that are clearly labeled for each of these items.

This year, our team implemented thousands of two second lean (every team member was asked to do one, every day). Sometimes they were simple - clearing out a cluttered area or sweeping corrugate dust under a machine. Sometimes they were more elaborate, such as relabeling our pallet racking to be more user friendly, establishing written instructions on our more complex warehouse tasks, or creating an excel tool to support with our data tracking and analysis.

We’ve seen that with dedication to this concept, it becomes more of a way of thinking than simply a daily task. You start looking for things to “two second lean” as you go about your business. You find yourself frustrated by something and think, I can’t wait to address this tomorrow.

Pretty quickly, two second lean starts to bleed into your home life as well, as you look for ways to smooth out those daily frustrations that take up time and mental energy. And, it starts to be rooted in sustainability as well, as so many two second lean strategies save on materials, mitigate waste, or eliminate the need to purchase new supplies.

9. We have to balance our sustainability framework with the eco values of our customers

There are many interrelated components of environmentalism - climate change, biodiversity, ocean acidification, fresh water supply, marine plastic pollution, landfill capacity, air quality...the list goes on. 

Our sustainable packaging framework considers most of these issues while recognizing climate change as the most pressing concern for the world to address.

This year, we found ourselves having many discussions with companies that have a more singular and distinct focus (such as waste or minimizing plastic). This shift away from climate change in favor of plastic pollution and waste makes sense! Huge floating islands of plastic and sea life literally choking on products that humans did not dispose of properly are so horrifying (and seem to symbolize so much of what is wrong with our culture of consumption and disposal today).

We have seen so many households and companies adopting priorities to minimize plastic, a goal we respect and appreciate.

But we have also seen that this pure focus on waste and pollution may mean there isn’t always consideration for the broader set of environmental issues - climate change in particular - that need to be addressed. 

This has led us to recognize the importance of maintaining a laser-like focus on what we truly believe is critical for environmental progress while also ensuring our sustainability framework and product set is flexible enough to meet the needs of companies with different ecological values.

For example, we work with many companies who are shifting away from plastic mailers. We may start a dialog with them by reiterating the ecological benefits of 100% recycled plastic (that it has a lower carbon footprint than an equivalent paper-based packaging solution and creates a much needed market for recycled plastic). However, if the company is firm about eliminating plastic, we get it and are incredibly excited about this deep commitment! We then walk through the pros and cons of our different 100% recycled paper mailer options.

A company like this may then ask - “Do you carry PLA (compostable bioplastic) mailers?” 

This is a question we have grappled with this year and one that has tested our willingness to be flexible on our sustainability framework to support our customers. Based on our research to date, we have recognized that a PLA-based mailer is a significantly less sustainable option than a 100% recycled plastic mailer (and is actually detrimental to the environment in ways we cannot support), and have chosen to avoid this material.

PLA is made with conventional corn (largely originating from Cargill), and this type of industrial agriculture is actually the leading cause of climate change. 

Clearing lands for monocrop production accounts for about 20% of agriculture’s carbon footprint. Industrial ag turns rich lands and soil into dead dirt, which releases its carbon into the atmosphere (and means this land no longer sequesters carbon the way untouched lands and well managed farms do). 

The fossil fuels used to fertilize, protect and harvest these monocrops accounts for 15% of agriculture’s carbon footprint. PLA is almost always derived from GMO corn designed to take on heavy doses of fertilizers and pesticides, which ruin waterways, drinking waters, and contribute to algae bloom in the ocean. 

Additionally, it takes 2.65 lbs of corn to make 1 lb of plastic, meaning that if all plastic produced was converted to PLA, the world would have to shift a third of its entire grain production to corn for plastic, or destroy unthinkable acreage to shift it to corn fields. This spells disaster for lands, famine for underserved people, or both.

Unfortunately, the compostable plastic that is made from all of this corn doesn’t even readily biodegrade in the oceans, so all of that negative impact of producing PLA doesn’t positively support the core issue of marine plastic pollution. Because of this, we have chosen to avoid PLA. 

However, we are not opposed to other forms of compostable plastic, as long the material meets our foundational sustainability tenants, and generates enough of a positive environmental impact. 

These are just two examples of the types of strategic decisions we grapple with, in which customer inquiries and changing trends push us to better research and refine our own sustainability framework, and look for solutions that balance the needs of eco-minded companies alongside the needs of the planet.

10. Every mistake is an opportunity for growth

We’re yes, we make mistakes. Going into 2019, we made a commitment to track and discuss our mistakes and I’m proud to say we’ve done just that.

And while 99.4% of our orders have gone through without a hitch or an issue, 0.6% of them have had an error. Sometimes the wrong item is fulfilled in an order. Occasionally an order has gone to the wrong person. Every now and then, we’ve cut the wrong box dimensions, printed with the wrong ink, or had a print job that didn’t meet alignment expectations.

Every one of those is an opportunity to learn and improve. Here are some examples of how we can learn from mistakes.

Wrong item fulfilled? Can they be relabeled in the warehouse? Do they need to be moved away? Do we need to change our training and onboarding process?

Wrong box dimensions? How can we make the order data clearer for our production specialists? How can we refine our double checks process?

Did the ink color come out differently than expected? How can we help customers understand how water-based inks show up on kraft colored, porous corrugate? When should we provide draw downs and hard copy proofs?

Striking the balance of minimizing mistakes as much as humanly possible while also creating a culture where we are open to learning from those mistakes is really difficult. If we are too hard on mistakes, we encourage our team members to hide them. If we celebrate them, we don’t do justice to the issues they cause across our operation and for our customers. We’re working on this balance and look forward to new strategies in 2020 to make “error-free” a mantra across our organization.

Reflecting on the year past seamlessly moves us to 2020 - what will we focus on and prioritize, what goals will we set, how will our organization change and grow? 

We are so excited for what’s to come - for EcoEnclose, our customers and our planet. Thank you for being a partner in this journey!