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A Look Back at 2021: Reflections and Lessons Learned

A Look Back at 2021: Reflections and Lessons Learned

Dec 27th 2021

When each year comes to a close, we reflect on what we've accomplished, where we fell short, and the lessons we will bring into the new year. We hope you enjoy these and find some ideas relevant for your own life or business in 2022.

Anyone Can Inspire; Everyone Deserves The Chance To Do So

At 9:45 AM every day, our entire team gets together (usually outside, courtesy of Colorado’s beautiful weather) for our morning meeting.

A different team member kicks off the meeting each day by sharing: a quote or reading, a shout-out, a personal or professional challenge, a personal or professional win, and a core value of focus for the coming week.

The quotes people share range from little-known hip-hop lyrics to Buddhist sayings to poetry. Some team members are very comfortable standing up in front of their peers, others are incredibly nervous. Across the board though, the person leading is prepared and always inspires us, bringing positivity and joy to our day.

Here are a few examples of quotes folks have shared and what about the quote spoke to them!

“No kind action ever stops with itself. One kind action leads to another. Good example is followed. A single act of kindness throws out roots in all directions, and the roots spring up and make new trees. The greatest work that kindness does to others is that it makes them kind themselves.” – Amelia Earhart [Chose this quote as a reminder that being kind is the easiest way to do good in the world]

Our team motto is ELE - everybody loves everybody. “ - Jackie Moon (Will Ferrell character) [Chose this quote because of the camaraderie and collaboration among the team]

If there's any room left on that ship, You don't have to save any room for me. 'Cause I've got my own boat, I'm doing my own thing, And I will stay afloat, even when it rains, 'Cause I've got my own boat.” -Yelawolf ("Row Your Boat" chorus). [This chorus always stands out to me when it hits my shuffle list because the world likes to lead you down a certain type of path, then shove you down a road of chaos to test you. But then I hear this song and know that I have value no matter what/who says differently. That I am my own biggest critic, fan, and inspiration because I can only be me.]

These morning meetings are a great reminder that giving people a public voice and the opportunity to inspire is a gift for all of us; and that each person has important perspectives to bring and lessons to share with the world.

Pulling Spend From Facebook (Ahem Meta) Was Surprisingly Painless

When Frances Haugen confirmed what many people generally suspected - Facebook knowingly harms children, sows division and undermines democracy in its pursuit of astronomical profits - businesses had a tough decision: whether or not to continue funding the "Big Tobacco" of the social media world to get brand exposure (in increasingly competitive spaces). We decided to cease all paid ads immediately, but to continue our unpaid presence with our highly engaged and passionate community of sustainability advocates. It felt like a tough decision at the time but we haven't looked back. Yes, we may have taken a small sales hit, but pulling spending from companies who are actively building a future we don't want to be part of is worth missing out on a few bucks. 

We continue to operate this way in other areas as well - such as avoiding Amazon (whose low cost at all costs model is not one we agree with), spending with independent companies where possible - to align our impact with our values wherever we can.

We Use Data, Science, and Research at Every Turn, But Keep Our Eyes Wide Open To Its Limitations

We invested in two LCA software solutions this year (Trayak and Sphera). I was so anxious to dive into them and assess our packaging suite. Imagine my surprise when both platforms showed that recycled paper had a higher carbon footprint than virgin paper - because the carbon released when the original tree is cut down isn't factored (a system boundary many experts agree is ridiculous).

This was one of many instances this year when an initial round of ecological analysis flew in the face of common sense and led us to dig deeply into the results before getting a clearer view of a more useful and objective conclusion. It's easy to take data at face value or throw trends around to prove a point. This year has shown us that it is critical to do the deeper work of understanding that data to make the best decisions for our customers and the planet.

Learn more about how we've learned to navigate the complexities of LCAs here.

There are Few Things as Powerful as Feedback

Putting yourself or your company out there for feedback can be scary.

Sometimes the input you get back is harsh. Sometimes the feedback you get feels unfair. Often, you want to respond to feedback with explanations or defensiveness.

This year (despite these concerns), EcoEnclose’s leadership team made a conscious commitment to giving and getting feedback.

We asked you - our customers - to share input with each order you receive. We also surveyed you for ideas on what packaging solutions you want us to pursue or improve on next year.

We asked team members to constantly give each other and us feedback. We implemented more regular reviews so employees can get more consistent feedback from their managers. As President and CEO, Kyle and I also sat down 1-1 with every member of our team to get their input on what EcoEnclose could be doing better to make this a great place to work.

We learned firsthand how quickly feedback goes from being scary to becoming a true gift. It feels incredible to hear something, acknowledge it, and maybe even get better that very day as a result.

We’ve made so many changes based on the input we’ve received, and have plans to put many more improvements in motion next year. Here is a small handful:

  • Better labeling of our corrugated box orders with box quantities and dimensions for a much better customer experience
  • Introducing custom-sized notecards and notecards in 110 lb stock
  • Improving our communication of lead times on our website and in our follow up communications
  • Giving our administrative team members a chance to shadow warehouse workers, to help them get more familiar with their day to day work responsibilities
  • Being more transparent with our team about our strategic and personnel decisions - what the decisions are and why we are making them
  • Instituting a poly take-back program and improving end-of-life communication on our poly mailers

Committed, Knowledgeable Partners Are Invaluable

This year, we relied heavily on the expertise of organizations like Canopy, EcoCycle, the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, and Fashion For Good. Our partnership with Canopy led us to recognize the ecological value of next generations fibers and launch our Next Gen Wheat Straw Packaging Paper.

We frequently engaged and learned from brands who have signed onto the Responsible Packaging Movement. Becoming part of this interconnected web of experts has helped us navigate decisions more quickly and thoughtfully than we have been able to in the past, and has given us tremendous energy and optimism for the future of sustainable packaging.

Maintaining Integrity Is Hard, But Disregarding It Makes Things Much Harder

Our commitment to sustainability runs deep. It is a personal passion of mine and is something many team members have a strong and sincere commitment to. It is why we are in this business. This means that we don’t gloss over things and that we say no to decisions that may benefit our bottom line but do not align with our eco principles.

For example, we are often asked if a product we offer is FSC certified. FSC certification and chain of custody are complicated. EcoEnclose carries an FSC Trademark License that extends to a handful of items we sell, such as our glassine bags (which are made with virgin paper). But because the vast majority of paper-based packaging we sell is verified as being 100% recycled, we have not pursued FSC certification for these items (recognizing that the value of FSC is to certify the sustainability and forest of origin of virgin wood and paper). While we’ve worked hard to know and follow FSC’s strict protocols, we have seen firsthand that many packaging providers will promote “FSC certified” on their website even though they do not hold a valid FSC license number themselves and are therefore promoting FSC incorrectly and inaccurately. When customers ask us about this, we try to explain the nuances and encourage them to verify licenses through FSC’s website. But we know this is a lot of work! All of us simply want to be able to trust that the information we see on a company’s website is accurate.

Similarly, we are often asked if we can carry certain products - such as a virgin poly mailer with biodegradability additives or a PLA bioplastic mailer, or dissolvable corn starch foam peanuts. While we could easily sell these products, we have chosen not to based on extensive research on the sustainability attributes of these materials. Saying “no” to these requests means we are often saying “no” to major sales opportunities.

It would be easy in these moments to see “integrity” as a constraint that gets in the way of our growth and success. And I’ve made the mistake of getting into that dangerous thought spiral at some point this year.

But over this year, I’ve come to see this as a gift. We each only have so much control over outcomes, but we have real control over our actions. Making every decision based on whether or not it will achieve a desired outcome or sale will drive us all insane. But making decisions based on how well they align with our values and how well they would support you - our customers - is something we can do.

That doesn’t mean we get every decision right.

A team member gave me feedback that she felt like our response to a customer challenge (which required us to rush and overnight ship pallets of shipping boxes) did not align with our sustainability values. This led to a great dialog that had nothing to do with the impact on sales, but everything to do with how well our approach did (or didn’t) match our stated values.

So, even when we’re not getting the decisions right, these experiences are getting us more thoughtful about how our values should dictate our behavior; we’re not lamenting the outcomes.

Any Move Will Laugh In The Face Of Your Planning; Be Ready to Laugh and Problem Solve

We moved to a new, larger warehouse in August this year.

As with any transition like this, there were a lot of moving pieces. And as with any situation that has so many moving pieces, nothing went according to plan. Construction on the road next to our new building meant that fiber couldn’t be laid on time, causing our internet to be installed three weeks after we moved in. We can tell you firsthand that running a business off of hotspots is a nightmare.

One of our main pieces of equipment wasn’t moved properly, leaving us down a machine for a week. Our server for that machine was also moved incorrectly, leaving us unable to run critical software for a week.

We were committed to utilizing used furniture and carpeting. This led to delays in our breakroom and administrative offices getting fully set up.

The list of mishaps that happened is long and no amount of planning could have kept them at bay.

Despite these challenges, what I remember most vividly is not the hiccups. It is how beautifully people responded to the challenges.

When our automation software didn’t work, we executed the process manually for a few weeks. When Comcast didn’t install our fiber lines on time, everyone stayed patient with our snail-speed internet and avoided the music and Zoom calls so we could focus on keeping machines and fulfillment operational. With our break room under construction, people took the time to enjoy eating outside instead.

One week after we moved in, the person leading the morning meeting shared the following Albert Einstein quote: Life Is Like Riding a Bicycle. To Keep Your Balance You Must Keep Moving - and explained that this quote was a good description of how the team tackled the move, taking and working through each challenge in stride, never stopping, always finding ways to keep balance by moving forward.

When Life Canceled Our Parties…We Made Lemonade

Because of COVID, we’ve had to say goodbye to a lot of the events we would otherwise have planned. Everything from tours of our local recycling facility to our annual holiday parties has been canceled.

But…we’ve happened upon a pretty outstanding alternative: the EcoEnclose parking lot party. We hire a food truck, bring refreshments, and have a live band. Not just any live band…an incredibly talented group of folks from across our team. And yes, once their formal set is done, the event typically devolves into a show of far less talented, but equally enthusiastic, karaoke.

We’ve had three parking lot festivities over the past 18 months, and all of them leave our team feeling celebrated, refreshed, and connected.

These are one of those COVID byproducts that we hope become a regular part of the future of EcoEnclose.

Don’t Miss the Chance To Discover People’s Talents and Passions

When you walk into our new building, you’ll see a gorgeous wood-burned EcoEnclose sign, handcrafted by a Fulfillment Associate. Come to any parking lot party, and you’ll hear our General Manager, Warehouse Manager, Art Lead, Customer Experience Associate, and Sustainability Lead - all performing in our in-house band. Stay late one day and you might hear our Second Shift Fulfilment singing the new album he dropped on Spotify the week before. Check out the plants all around our warehouse and you’ll appreciate how many incredible gardeners we have on our team.

Similarly, if you check out the website of any company we are shipping packaging orders to and find inspiring talent - from t-shirt designs to handmade candles to creative jewelry to delicious baked goods.

It is easy to never discover or appreciate the passion and talents of the people we work alongside or serve every day. We’re all so busy. Who has time to Google the company on a packing slip before shipping an order out? Or ask the customer picking up an order what their business is all about?

But, as precious as time is, I’ve learned this year that getting to know the people we interact with every day is far more precious. Taking the time to discover who is working for you or whose order we are shipping can open up a world of inspiration and connection.

Yes You Can; Just Add One Pushup A Week

Midway through the year, a small group of folks started doing push-ups twice a week. The group started with 20 pushups and added 2 each week (and after hitting 40, added one). They are now doing 60 pushups, every Thursday and Friday.

We know pushups aren’t for everyone.

But it has been fun to see a basic principle in action - if you want to get better at something, take the time to practice it, and just do a little bit more each time. The improvements happen slowly until you - seemingly all of a sudden - look back and discover that you’re doing more than double what you could six months ago.

Strong and Honest Communication Can Help Fix Almost Any Challenge (and Poor Communication is at the Heart of Most Challenges)

The Monday before Christmas, I checked in with a company about an order I had placed three weeks earlier. The message I received was that the item I ordered was out of stock and that I’d be refunded for it shortly.

My first response was frustration. Why didn’t they email me about it right after I placed the order when I could still get it from another store!?! My second emotion was empathy. Reaching out to a customer with bad news is tough, and it’s easy to run away from these situations.

But, we at EcoEnclose have learned firsthand over the past 18 months that the only effective way to deal with a hard situation is to confront it directly - with honesty and over communication.

This has been a year of supply chain and inventory hiccups for all of us. That, coupled with unexpected and unprecedented levels of absences to manage COVID health risks, has led to more order issues than ever.

Internally, EcoEnclose has also had new levels of challenges - hiring and onboarding at a rapid pace, moving to a new building and implementing new protocols, transitioning to new software, etc.

When issues come up, it’s natural to run from them. No one wants to pick up the phone and tell a customer their order isn’t going to ship on time. No one wants to sit a new team member down and tell them that they are doing their job incorrectly. But transparent communication is everything. It is the only way to build trust, resolve issues, and retain loyalty.

Team Togetherness (In A Time of General Isolation) Has Been An Unexpected Gift

EcoEnclose is in an increasingly unique position of actually distributing and producing much of what we sell. In our main headquarters, our customer experience and business development teams work alongside our manufacturing, print, and fulfillment teams.

This has meant that - even as so much of the world has moved to a 100% work-from-home environment - companies like ours that produce and distribute tangible goods (and were deemed an essential business during the lockdown) need to figure out how to 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.

Balancing all of this has led to us establishing a hybrid approach to flexibility and work-from-office. Team members who can work virtually are still asked to come in a few times each week. Team members who can’t do their work virtually are given the flexibility to work around their personal needs. And of course, our COVID policies have been closely followed, which has led to no virus transmission within our building.

Over the past few months, many team members have mentioned (sometimes in surprise!) how much they love this hybrid. That while “working from home” all the time sounds good in theory, it is also isolating and disconnecting. That the joy that comes from in-person connections with team members is really difficult to quantify but makes for happier and more purposeful days. Reflecting on this now, it isn’t surprising. Research has shown that COVID isolation has led to a 4x increase in US adults reporting symptoms of depression and anxiety.

But the last few months have reinforced the importance of togetherness, especially now, as so many other trends in the world are creating isolation and disconnection.

Funding Might Be Nice, But Independence Is Even Better

Raising funds from equity investors can feel pretty appealing at first blush. More cash in the bank relieves a lot of day-to-day stress and can help fuel rapid growth.

But a few months ago, we were in a meeting with a partner of ours who had recently raised some outside capital. The tenor of that meeting was different from any previous calls we’ve had with them. The focus was now entirely on how different strategies would impact growth. Any idea that would be most likely to generate short-term sales that could be reported on at the next board meeting was the right one to pursue.

I recognize that outside funding does not automatically mean a company has to focus on short-term sales above all else. But it often adds a new level of pressure to grow and makes it easier to consider decisions that aren’t the right ones for a brand long-term.

We are often approached about outside funding and these recent interactions have solidified confidence in our decision thus far not to take on equity investors. While there are certainly ways to do this well (by hand-selecting investors whose commitment to our mission and core values is much stronger than their need for short-term sales), the stress it would put on our decision-making isn’t worth the extra cash right now.

Imitation is Flattery

Over the past year, we’ve seen packaging companies release “sustainable packaging frameworks” that sound identical to ours. We’ve seen our blog posts and social media captions copied. And we’ve heard from many of you in our EcoAlly community that you are struggling with the same issues - others stealing your creative work or in-depth research, without crediting you at all.

Unfortunately, it is virtually impossible to police this sort of behavior these days.

So I’ve adopted a new attitude. When I see this type of imitation, I move first to flattery (hopefully it means we did something good and worth copying!), and second to hope. Because if our efforts are being adopted by others in the packaging space, perhaps it means that more and more companies are getting on board the sustainability train - and (regardless of why and how they get there) that is good for our overall mission and the future of eCommerce.