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Smarter Single-use Options Do Exist (Transcript)

[00:00:00] Liz Bothwell: Hi everyone, welcome to Waste360's NothingWasted! Podcast. On every episode, we invite the most interesting people in waste recycling and organics to sit down with us and chat candidly about their thoughts, their work, this unique industry and so much more. Thanks for listening and enjoy this episode.

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[00:00:26] Liz: Hi everyone, this is Liz Bothwell from Waste360 with Jane Prior, CMO of AMI. AMI is one of the largest privately-owned beverage companies in the world with leading brands including Vita Coco and Runa. They've also recently launched Ever & Ever, which is a reusable aluminum alternative to single-use plastic bottles. Welcome, Jane and thank you for being here today.

[00:00:50] Jane Prior: Hi, Liz, thanks for having me.

[00:00:51] Liz: You were a huge part of the Ever & Ever launch, and it sounds like quite the endeavor. Could you please tell me more about this? What was a catalyst for creating this?

[00:01:01] Jane: Yes, absolutely. It was definitely a roller coaster that actually started about 18 months ago when we -as you mentioned- went from a one-brand company, which was originally Vita Coco, and pivoted to become a multi-brand portfolio of companies, adding Runa at the time.

As we were thinking about this evolution of our business, we really realized that we needed to take a harder look at sustainability. We had always had social impact programs and they were really primarily focused on the farmers from which we source our coconuts, we do a lot of work in the communities that we source, but we didn't have a real environmental plan or a real focus. When we started to think about becoming a multi-brand, multi beverage portfolio company, we knew it was time to take sustainability in that sense more seriously.

We embarked on a mission to find a partner and we ended up working with a team called Lonely Whale. If you don't know them, they are a phenomenal nonprofit advocating for ocean health, they were the ones behind the Stop Sucking straw campaign that drove a lot of change around the consumption and use of plastic straws. We partnered up with them to help us think through our macro sustainability strategy.

Our overall goal is really to find a way to neutralize the impact of our single-use packaging, recognizing that that is an increasing issue in today's world. Through that partnership, we started to understand how incredibly versatile aluminum was of a beverage package, and the Lonely Whale team were planning to launch a new campaign this year around plastic water bottles, in the very same way that they had last year around and plastic straws.

The interesting thing about plastic water bottles is they are a massive issue for the environment and for the planet. 500 billion plastic bottles are used annually around the world and 91% of plastic has never been recycled, so there's obviously a real issue and a crisis around plastic consumption. Single-use plastic water bottles are one of the biggest offenders.

The thing about when it comes to water, there are many alternatives, you can grab it in your S'well bottle, from a filter or from the tap, frankly, in many places around the world where it's safe to do so. But it's also a challenge for consumers who are on the go and looking for a water solution, maybe they forgot their S'well bottle. There's not that many options as a conventional retail to serve those people who are looking for a more sustainable alternative.

In partnership with Lonely Whale, we knew that we were in a unique position to introduce a new product and do it quickly, so it was actually January of this year that they got ready to launch their campaign that we decided, "You know what? We believe that we can make a difference, we can launch a brand very quickly to align with their campaign and to enable consumers to have this choice to pick a more sustainable solution".

We're a big company in the sense that we have national distribution in the US, global distribution on Vita Coco, but we're also incredibly small and entrepreneurial focus because we're still run by our founder, that's what enabled us to pull this off in four months and get the brand on the shelves by June of this year. That's just a little bit of how we got here but it's been really exciting, and it's been really amazing to see the consumer's response to the brand.

[00:05:02] Liz: I bet. Well, from a marketing perspective and a production perspective, to get this launched within four months with passion fuelling you is amazing, congratulations.

[00:05:12] Jane: Thank you. I think -at your point- it was really passion-fuel that enabled us to do it so fast. My technical team and supply chain R&D team were so passionate about this idea the day I brought it to them, they called every stock imaginable to make it happen. We have to find co-packers, we have to develop water, because even though it's water it's actually quite a complex product, believe it or not.

We also wanted it to be very high quality, with the right balanced pH of 7.4, so there's a lot that went into the development. Finding the right can and, of course, on the brand side, developing a brand from scratch. We didn't have a brand idea when we went into this on January 1st, we thought, "Wow, we really want to do something disruptive in this space, but we have to create the brand idea from scratch as well". It was definitely a lot of work, but definitely we had passion fuels to get this done.

[00:06:16] Liz: I bet. I hope you all celebrated when it launched and the success you're having, you deserve it. How did you find yourself in a position to care about the worldwide plastics issue in the planet overall? I know you said you worked with Lonely Whale, but it sounds like you as a person really cared about this. Has it always been a passion of yours?

[00:06:40] Jane: Yes. To be honest, it definitely has. I think coming from Europe, I'm a bit more aware of the issue because it's much more widely covered there, you see it, in the UK are putting in significant regulations and banning all different types of plastic. I think it's a little bit more part of my heritage, I think, because of where I grew up. I like to say to people, my mother was also incredibly waste-conscious, we never wasted anything, she was very frugal on all fronts. We recycled everything growing up, she had compost before that was cool. [laughs] I think it's in my nature as well to be conscious of waste.

We have just become such a society that's driven by consumerism, and we just forget that the things that we consume when we bash them aside, they don't necessarily leave the planet and that's really the case with plastic, it sticks around forever. I think it's just time for us as humans to really just address that issue and thinking about future generations, not leave them with a planet that is ruined from our consumption.

What was also really interesting to me when I started to work with Lonely Whale more closely was, I suppose I didn't realized that plastic bottles had only been around since 1990, so it's very much a problem that our generation created. That made me even more fuels to do something about this. Because in another 30 years there'll be more plastic in the ocean than fish if we don't do something about it, and that's basically something that my generation has created. I do feel a responsibility to try take this issue on and do what I can although it's probably a very small part.

[00:08:53] Liz: Well, but it helps, every small part helps. Also, I think you're right in terms of the generation and realizing that convenience is fantastic but now we have to help that along for the planet, because I don't think we all realized what convenience can do to the planet, so it's great thinking. What type of feedback are you getting from your customers and your stakeholders after the launch?

[00:09:18] Jane: Yes, the feedback has been amazing and there's still quite a lot of education required. I didn't mention this in the upfront, but what's really special about aluminum is that it's infinitely recyclable, so as long as a consumer uses it and disposes of it correctly, make sure that it goes in the right recycling bin, it can essentially live forever.

There's 75% of all the aluminum ever made stills in circulation today since 1888, that's a pretty amazing thing. Some of our cans could have aluminum in them that have been around for hundreds of years, it could have lived many, many other lives. The last piece is a can can end up back on shelf within 60 days. That's an entire concept that people don't understand and that was very much the inspiration for the brand idea, the brand being called Ever & Ever instead of easily telling people the story about how special aluminum is.

There's a big education piece to this where we have to help people understand why this is a better solution to plastic which, again, like I said, sticks around for an incredibly long time, so that's been important. Water obviously, isn't typically in a can, except for sparkling, but still, water is not usually in a can, consumers are used to being able to see the liquid. Again, there's an educational process to tell people, "No, this is just a high-quality premium still water in a can."

We're seeing major adoption in what we call the foodservice channel, and that's primarily corporations, schools, hospitals and a lot of these companies have mandates to reduce the amount of single-use plastic that is going to their systems. A very easy place to start is with plastic water bottles, it's very easy for them now that there are options like us on the market to say, "You know what? I can take out this plastic water bottle and bring this in as a solution instead." It's a full swap.

Now, every employee of that office goes to the canteen and suddenly sees that their plastic water bottles are gone, and we are there as a replacement. We have done many, many demos and samplings at these offices to help people understand why the switch has been made, but it's been very much driven and supported by a lot of these corporations which are driving the change. It's really been a phenomenal response, and for a brand that's three months old I'm pretty pleased with how it's done so far. So far so good.

[00:12:01] Liz: That's great. I think your timing is impeccable because, as you said, the single-use-plastic tipped into the mass media and everyone's paying attention now. I think you're on your way, for sure. Now, do you think more brands will follow soon in terms of thinking through packaging that will be less of a burden to our planet?

[00:12:23] Jane: A hundred percent. I hear from all my colleagues and friends who are in this space, obviously, the beverage industry in general, has a responsibility to address this issue. We are single-use beverage companies, so we're very aware of our role in this.

This is just one of many initiatives that we hope to initiate around solving this problem. Because I think the biggest thing about it is -from my perspective- there's no silver bullet solution, so introducing a canned water is not the answer. It's definitely a great solution and a great alternative, but it's just one piece of the puzzle, if you will. I'm sure in the future we're going to see movement to beverages in other formats that enable you not to have to use single-use plastic. More dispensers, for example. We could go backward in the same scope as to the fountain idea, but it's definitely a lot of evolution and revolution that's going to have to happen in the beverage category and in packaging.

Obviously, then there's still a lot of developments when it comes to PET, recycled PET and recyclable PET, making sure that the packaging that is used and consumed in the market is then properly either reuse or a new use for this on the other side. It's the industry and consumers changing their behavior to really move this forward but, again, the industry has a lot of responsibility and we have a lot of responsibility as a brand to help put programs in place and help consumers understand how they can make a difference and how they can make better choices. There's definitely a lot of work to be done, this is not a simple problem solved.

[00:14:16] Liz: I like the way you're thinking because I know a lot of us in the waste and recycling industry, we get stuck with what's passed down the line. It's really comforting to hear that the producers of it, the manufacturers are thinking through the lifecycle, which is helpful because a lot of things have been mislabeled and a lot of consumers are confused if the green hour is on, that it is indeed recyclable, then we get it and then it isn't recyclable. Then, what do you do with that? Where does that end up?

It's a great conversation to have and like you said, it's not over, it's an ongoing conversation through the entire lifecycle of every product, it's great to [crosstalk] thinking it through now.

[00:15:02] Jane: We actually as a business -like I mentioned- as we started to make sustainability a bigger priority, we are quite focused on end life of the piece that we want to find solution for. We feel that that's very tangible, it's obviously a major issue that needs to be addressed, and it's something that we feel we can make a contribution on, more so than maybe some of the upstream source.

That's where our focus is at the moment, is finding solutions to the end life, whether that is, again, second lives for different types of packaging, better input with recycled can, PET or, more again, switching to aluminum where it makes sense and where possible because of the infinite recycle ability of it. Like you mentioned, just making sure the consumers have a better idea of how to correctly dispose of things. A lot of work to be done.

[00:16:04] Liz: Definitely. What else do you think consumers can do to limit their environmental impact on the planet?

[00:16:11] Jane: One of my personal pet peeves -and I think this also stems from my European heritage- is the plastic bags. I think that is one of the easiest ways for a consumer to change their behavior. I know in Ireland, for example, which is where I'm from, when there was a plastic bag ban was introduced, there was outrage, "How am I going to get my grocery shopping [unintelligible 00:16:37] if I can't get a plastic bag?"

Once the change was in place and the tariffs were imposed on plastic bags, the change was immediate and the impact was immediate. It forced consumers to change their patterns, "Now you have to bring your reusable bags to the grocery store." Things like that are so simple for you as a consumer to make an impact into change your behavior. Because you see it, like I said, in the countries in Europe where they have implemented plastic bags bans, the results in reduction in plastic have been phenomenal. I always make sure I have my reusable, and I think that's one of the absolute easiest places to make a difference.

[00:17:24] Liz: Definitely. That was just done in my town and you already see the difference, you see everyone going in with their reusable bags and it's great. Otherwise, there's a little bit of a penalty and it's helping.

[00:17:38] Jane: Yes, and it's not that big deal, it's really not. It's a little less convenient for the first couple of weeks until you get used to it, and then it just becomes a matter of course.

[00:17:50] Liz: Exactly. One of the special things about this industry is that we feel everyone in it has a desire to give back, and it seems like your company is too. I saw a little bit about the Vita Coco project, could you tell us more about that?

[00:18:10] Jane: Yes, absolutely. I mentioned it just at the beginning. Obviously, we started the business 15 years ago, all of our coconuts are sourced from all over the world, we sourced from eight countries, from Brazil, to Indonesia, to the Philippines. We really rely on these communities for their source for coconuts and for us to be able to bring natural coconut water to the US, to consumers and to really grow our business.

From the get-go when we went into these communities, we felt a responsibility to make sure that we invested responsibly in them. We're obviously bringing economic growth there, by sourcing the coconuts from these places. Historically, in many of the countries that we've gone to, the coco water was a by-product, so it was literally flowing down through these two rivers and the factories, they were producing other coconut products. The fact that we came along and packaged the coconut water brought another stream of income to these producers. Most, if not all of the producers that we work with, are actually family-owned, so they're small family businesses that have been producing coconuts for 50, 60 years, that's a really, really nice part about the story.

We're also reliant on thousands of small family farms. Coconuts, unlike many other fruits, like oranges or whatnot are typically grown in the wild and grown from small family smallholder farms. We really have to work with a lot of farmers in order to supply our coconuts. We embarked on an initiative to help give back to those communities through a combination of programs.

We have one program that's very farmer-centric and it's about educating the farmers on how they can improve the yield from their land, that's a combination of giving them better seedlings so they can grow better coconut trees, and get more output from their trees. It's also giving them access to different tools such as intercropping, so they can intercrop other products, such as sugarcane or cacao, and sell those to other manufacturers, not to us, obviously, we don't produce those products, for an additional stream of income. Really enabling the farmers to get much more from their land and to be more productive has have been a big focus for us.

On the second side of it, we have been building schools because, obviously, education is such a core foundation to any community. Some of these kids in these communities were going to school and learning under tarps, that was basically their classroom. We partnered up with a team in the Philippines called The Hope Foundation, they've actually consolidated during our entire program, but they have been building schools in the Philippines for a couple of years and they helped us to build, I think, close to 20 schools now.

That's been incredibly rewarding because the kids on other side of the world crumble when they have to go to school and these kids were so excited to go into these classrooms and to have this access to really, really simple things, like a structured building and a clean bathroom. It's amazing to see, the response has been phenomenal.

That's just some of the programs that we do there, it's been what we've been focused on from an impact perspective on the Vita Coco brand for the last couple of years.

[00:21:48] Liz: That's amazing. It's so nice to see a concrete benefit of what you're doing with the schools and the children. I love it, that's great. Were you doing anything else with Lonely Whale?

[00:22:00] Jane: Yes, our partnership with Lonely Whale is ongoing, we'll start planning for another initiative next year. Like I said, they are still our partner in [unintelligible 00:22:12] at our macro sustainability strategy. On our Tetra Paks, for example, how can we come up with better end life solutions for that. We're still in partnership with them to continue to develop our broader sustainability program. Hopefully, we'll have more concrete stuff to talk about in the next 12-18 months. Good initiatives in the work.

[00:22:39] Liz: That's great. What else are you paying attention to around sustainability and social good?

[00:22:47] Jane: You can't really help but pay attention to the March in New York, last week and its climate conversation. What an incredible figure, this Greta Thunberg is, her speech at the UN this week was mind-blowing. I certainly know that pulled on my heartstrings, I have a two and a half-year-old, so I'm thinking, "Great, you're going to be coming to me in 10, 15 years time saying, 'what did you do about this? How did you let this happen?'" I think she has just put a spotlight around this issue that much like the plastic crisis which is, I guess, ultimately connected to the broader issue with the planet, she's done such an amazing job to get the world to wake up to this discussion. Certainly, like I said, having me asking questions about my behavior and how I can make an impact, that's definitely the most topical for me right now.

[00:23:53] Liz: Definitely, I think that's on a lot of people's minds now, especially after seeing this lovely articulate young girl who is calling everyone out. We're definitely paying attention to it.

[00:24:03] Jane: Absolutely. Like I said, her speech last week was really jarring, but very impactful, I think.

[00:24:12] Liz: Definitely. It seems to be the face and the voice that everyone needs right now, which is great.

[00:24:16] Jane: Yes. She is the voice of the next generation. I think definitely you're seeing a shift the younger consumers. Even the Gen Z versus Millennial are -like she said- they're addressing this issue because they're the ones who will ultimately have to live with the consequences, whereas the older generations have gotten to push it down, pushing the ball down the road, "We will deal with it later, we will deal with it later." This young generation, she thinks, "This is what's happening in my lifetime, so I have to do something about it." It's really, really phenomenal to see and it's going to very interesting to see how much impact she can actually have.

[00:25:00] Liz: Definitely. What advice would you give to professionals who want to do more, do better and affect change, whether it's someone maybe in a company who doesn't have a C-level title? Do you have any advice for someone like that?

[00:25:15] Jane: Yes. I think you have got to start somewhere, that's how I think about it. I know we started the Vita Coco project, which is our social impact on the farmer side. It seems an incredibly lofty challenge, and many of the programs that we do are very long-term in nature, so you don't see results for -could be- five, seven years and that seems very daunting at the outset when we started it. We put a stake in the ground, we started working on it and eventually, a couple of years later, we really see results. My advice is to start somewhere.

On another note, I had an intern here this past summer. She, in conjunction with some of the other members of my team, worked on a green initiative for our office because, believe it or not, we were not as good as we could be or should be. Like I mentioned, sustainability has come on our radar more recently as a business and there are many things that we could do better. She put an entire plan together of how, she was an intern and she did it as part of a project, but the thinking was so sophisticated that I was blown away when she presents it to me, and now we're going to start to implement many of those initiatives.

That's something that anybody can do, it's easy to make sure there's proper recycling, make sure there's proper messaging, take plastic utensils out of kitchens and just help educate people at how they can make a small difference. That would be my advice.

[00:26:47] Liz: Yes, that's great advice. What an intern, that's fantastic.

[laughter]

[00:26:52] Jane: Yes, she was exceptional.

[00:26:57] Liz: [laughs] That's awesome. Based on the early buzz and success of Ever & Ever, not to mention the social bit of it, it sounds like you are already exploring other planet-friendly alternatives in your brand and your work. I don't know if you can tell us anything about those, or if they're still in the inception phase.

[00:27:15] Jane: Yes, nothing that I can specifically speak to, but absolutely, yes, definitely a big part of our ongoing innovation strategy is thinking about how we can improve our packaging offerings and make more brands available in more categories to consumers who are looking for better choices. Even in the context of Ever & Ever, we will have more products in that line in the future, hopefully, early next year.

Again, some people don't love to drink still unflavored water or sparkling unflavored water, so bringing some innovation to that brand to keep people excited and interested, keep the conversation going and to give them some other options. Because -I think you said it earlier- at the end of the day, the way we live our lives these days it's on the go, we're very used to convenience and as much as we advocate for always having a reusable water bottle, it's not always possible. Personally, I always forget mine, especially if I'm heading to the airport or something like that. Again, sometimes people want alternatives to water, so we definitely believe that we have a role to play and making sure that we can provide more sustainable solutions long-term for consumers.

I think we, like I said, are in the sweet spot of being a relatively big brand in the context of startup beverage companies, tiny in the context of Coke and Pepsi, but also that's what enables us to have speed to market. We went to market with this product in -I said June of this year it was- and on the heels of it, both Coke and Pepsi announced initiatives to move some of their plastic water bottles to aluminum after that. We hope that we had some part of that decision, we welcome the competition, even if long-term that means that we have to share the pie, which of course we will, that's okay because we're part of the movement that helps to inspire this change and that was a big part of our ambition with launching this brand.

[00:29:31] Liz: Amazing. The speed to market had so much to do with it and your timing -like I said before- was impeccable, that's awesome. Now, are you in airport yet? Because I know San Francisco with their ban on plastic bottles, I would think, "[crosstalk] need you there as the option."

[00:29:47] Jane: We are in New York, in Newark, JFK and LaGuardia. We are in about 10 other locations, I don't have them all off the top of my head but definitely, O'Hare and Reagan in DC, in Minneapolis, I think, and then multiple terminals within those airports. This is just the beginning obviously, we just launched the brand a couple of months ago, one of the biggest challenges when you launch a beverage brand is building distribution. It's actually quite impressive that we were able to get that done so fast, and it's because, again, the airports are very aware of this issue and opportunity, and making options available to their consumers. Our team here was able to very successfully move that into the system quickly.

You should see us. Last month, August, we launched in the New York airports and then we're starting to trickle into those other airports, this September, so you should start seeing us very soon and definitely we're going to have a big program during the holidays for November and December when there's a lot of travel. Hopefully, start to really drive more visibility for the brand and around this issue for consumers traveling during the holidays.

[00:31:03] Liz: Great, I'll look for that, I'm sure it'll be great. What keeps you busy outside of work, Jane?

[00:31:08] Jane: [laughs] My toddler [crosstalk]

[00:31:10] Liz: Yes, a two and a half-year-old will do that.

[00:31:14] Jane: Yes. Just trying to spend as much time as possible with him when I'm not at work, obviously. Work keeps me busy and keeps me on my toes Monday to Friday, so I really find as much time as possible with him on the weekends. Then trying to get in a little Yoga for myself every now and again, but that's increasingly difficult these days. Being a Mom and doing what I do it's pretty challenging, so that keeps me busy.

[00:31:50] Liz: [laughs] I bet. How can listeners find Ever & Ever? I know the airports, I believe Amazon, can you just tell us where we can find it?

[00:31:59] Jane: Yes, on Amazon, on our own director consumer site, DrinkEverandEver.com. We are in select Target stores, and that distribution will be expanding over the coming year, particularly in New York and Hawaii at the moment. In New York City, we're starting to appear in a lot of bodegas and natural food stores, and we have some bigger authorizations coming up in the coming months.

Actually, you should start to see us at Sprouts, which is a big natural specialty store in the West and the Southwest, and some other big retailers coming on board over the coming month. Like I said, a big challenge for beverage brands is building distribution, and we hope that in the next 12 months we will be able to make the product much more accessible and available to consumers where they shop. We don't expect that you are going to go to Amazon, necessarily, to buy your water, it's when you're at the deli, or your convenience store, or at the airport that you want that solution. That's what our ambition is, to provide it in those points of need.

[00:33:03] Liz: That's great. Well, this has been wonderful, thank you so much, Jane. Congratulations on such a swift and successful launch, I'm blown away as a marketing person to know that what you did to make that happen in such a short period of time is just all inspiring. Thanks for being generous with your time today, and I look forward to our audience hearing about this and this alternative to plastic bottles.

[00:33:26] Jane: Thanks for having me, Liz.

[00:33:27] Liz: Thank you and take care.   

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