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How We’re Building the World’s First Climate-Positive Grocery Store

April 1st, 2021

In a recent company-wide address, Thrive Market Co-Founder and CEO Nick Green shared a keen observation: Health of people and health of planet are two sides of the same coin.

It’s a simple yet poignant statement that gets right at the heart of the Thrive Market mission. It also rings especially true during Earth Month, a time when bold statements about environmental commitments from businesses abound. You’ll likely be hearing a lot of these messages in the coming weeks, from your email inbox to your social media feeds. While we’re excited to share more about our climate-conscious efforts, spread the word about our sustainable sourcing, and empower you with ways to live greener this month, our commitment to the health of both people and planet goes back to our roots—and it certainly won’t end on April 30.

Redefining “Mission Driven”

“Thrive Market isn’t just a company with a mission; we’re a company on a mission,” says Kristin DeSimone, Thrive Market’s Mission Manager. It’s why we scour the globe to find the best organic, non-GMO products—not just to bring the healthiest, highest-quality essentials to our members, but also to uplift local communities and protect the air, water, and soil. It’s why we’re dedicated to finding innovative solutions in every corner of our business that allow us to bring healthy food to families all across the United States, while treading as lightly on the Earth as possible.

“Our core ethos is to solve the primary problem—access to healthy food and products for all Americans, regardless of geography or socioeconomic status—without creating other problems along the way,” explains Thrive Market Chief Merchandising Officer Jeremiah McElwee. In practice, that means asking tough questions, tapping into the deep knowledge and expertise of our team, and in many cases, traveling across the world to see for ourselves. “We don’t make any claims that can’t be verified, whether it’s by a third party, or us actually going there,” McElwee states. He’s speaking from personal experience; over the years, McElwee’s role overseeing Thrive Market’s product assortment has taken him everywhere from the Teton Valley in Idaho to a small coastal community on the Mediterranean in Greece.

Healthy Our Way

It could be a box of cereal, a jar of face lotion, or a bottle of all-purpose cleaner—if it’s going in, on, or around you and your family, it must be safe and wholesome (not to mention affordable, and, as the case may be, delicious). McElwee reports that Thrive Market receives “thousands and thousands” of product submissions every year; our resulting 5,000-product catalog is highly curated by a knowledgeable and passionate team of buyers. “We screen every product rigorously to ensure it either tastes great if it’s food, or works effectively to deliver exceptional results if it’s a health, beauty, or home product,” he says, adding that artificial flavors, colors, and preservatives are among the many ingredients never permitted on our digital shelves. “Once those boxes are checked, we dive into the farming practices, labor guidelines, and community impact.”

Third-party verifications—such as USDA Organic and EWG Verified—are an important tool for our team when it comes to curating products; at Thrive Market, members can shop by more than 70 values, from special diets to brands that support charities. However, McElwee’s team looks beyond seals and labels to ensure exemplary quality. To wit: though we offer more than 1,600 products that carry the Non-GMO Project Verified label (meaning their GMO-free status has been approved by the country’s only third-party verification system to regulate GMOs), you won’t find a single food product at Thrive Market that contains genetically modified organisms in its ingredient list. McElwee says we simply don’t know for sure whether GMOs are safe for human health or the environment, and that’s a risk we’re not willing to take on our members’ behalf. To us, “healthy” means “non-GMO,” and as a result we only carry products that fit that bill—including more than 600 newly added, certified non-GMO products in 2020 alone.

No Products Without People

We take the health and well-being of the growers and makers we work with as seriously as that of our members. “Without people, we have no products to sell,” McElwee reflects. By knowing exactly how things are done at every farm, factory, and fishery, we can ensure fair wages, safe working conditions, and ethical labor practices for the individuals and families behind our products.

In Kenya, women run a co-op that grows our organic macadamia nuts. In Peru, families receive living wages to farm our arabica coffee beans using regenerative agriculture practices. And in Colombia, our sourcing partners are providing crucial resources to cacao farmers in rural communities, making them less vulnerable to the illicit drug trade. Ethical, transparent sourcing helps heal historic inequities in the food system and allows us—and by extension, our members—to be a force for global good.

Going Beyond Sustainability

When we enter a community, it’s with the intention of creating mutual benefit. Similarly, we always aim to leave the Earth better than we found it—and that’s what regenerative agriculture is all about. Where sustainability seeks to minimize negative environmental impact, regenerative practices aim to preserve, heal, and improve. We’re optimistic about the potential benefits regenerative agriculture offers for a warming planet, and see our continued investment in it as a step on the path toward carbon neutrality and beyond.

Through holistic, soil-nurturing practices (honed over centuries by indigenous farmers, it’s essential to note) like eschewing chemical fertilizers and allowing animals to graze freely, regenerative agriculture transforms farmland into “carbon sinks,” or places that absorb more carbon than they emit, as National Geographic explains. By curating and developing regenerative products (including 47 newly added regenerative items last year), we’ve been able to help drive the return to farming practices that are inherently climate conscious.

To further promote this restorative method of farming, we’re working with our partners to actively encourage the use of regenerative practices. Shane Finnegan, a Thrive Market Product Innovator, reports that many of the farmers we work with already employ regenerative methods like composting and cover cropping. By better understanding the processes currently in place at these farms, our team can identify a clear path to further improvement and provide the necessary resources. Finnegan recently pioneered a checklist intended to help farmers monitor factors like soil health and biodiversity. “The vision is that with our support and the support of our members, we are able to help evolve these already amazing farms into farms that are 100% regenerative,” Finnegan shares.

In 2020, years of dedication culminated in a major milestone on the path to building a better market and a better future: we became the largest grocer in the United States to receive B Corp certification. Awarded to only the most environmentally and socially conscious brands, the B Corp distinction is an achievement in and of itself. Thanks to ongoing efforts like using zero-waste practices at our fulfillment centers and investing in regenerative agriculture, we were awarded 20 points in the Environmental Impact area alone for our Environmentally Innovative Wholesale Process—a score that makes us stand out among our competitors, DeSimone says.

What’s Next: Becoming Climate Positive

Though sustainability has been a part of our mission since day one, in many ways we’re just getting started. Through working closely with a team of industry-leading sustainability advisors, we’ve identified three key areas of focus. This year, we’re taking a critical eye to each, making some ambitious promises, and charting a five-year path to climate positivity.

Becoming climate positive by 2025 will require us to go above and beyond every effort we’ve made up to this point, and to dedicate a renewed consciousness to everything from sourcing to production to shipping. Given the scale of the problems at hand—climate change and depletion of our planet’s finite natural resources—and the immeasurably high stakes, we know even our bold commitments aren’t enough. But for us, the journey starts here: with carbon, waste, and excess plastic.

Carbon

To understand carbon neutrality and negativity, it helps to understand the three types of emissions that make up a company’s carbon footprint. The Greenhouse Gas Protocol explains the three scopes as follows:

  • Scope 1 emissions are direct emissions from controlled facilities, such as the fuel that powers our delivery vehicles.
  • Scope 2 emissions are indirect emissions, like the electricity that powers our office and fulfillment centers.
  • Scope 3 emissions are indirect emissions from a business’ supply chain—or, in our case, anything from ingredients and packaging to employee commuting.

The Greenhouse Gas Protocol states that Scope 3 emissions comprise the majority of most companies’ carbon footprint. For a business as complex as ours, measuring those emissions is challenging, but it’s a crucial first step. (One small achievement on the Scope 3 front: with staff based at our Los Angeles headquarters working remotely for the bulk of 2020, our employee commuting emissions dropped by 90%.) From there, we’re dedicated to reaching carbon negativity through a combination of reducing and offsetting our emissions.

We’ve already achieved carbon neutrality thanks in part to our investment in carbon offset credits. In 2020, we’ve continued to support Envira Amazonia, a conservation project through Carbonfund that’s protecting nearly 500,000 acres of tropical rainforest in Feijó, Brazil. This holistic program includes efforts to preserve soil health, prevent deforestation, improve water quality, and conserve wildlife habitats to promote biodiversity. Not only has it mitigated the release of 12.5 million tonnes of carbon emissions, but it also invigorates local communities through agricultural training resources and employment opportunities.

We’ve determined that inbound and outbound shipping (meaning from our suppliers to our fulfillment centers, and from our fulfillment centers to members’ doorsteps) make up a significant portion of our carbon emissions. Despite our existing efforts in these specific areas—such as only shipping via ground, which releases 82% less carbon emissions than air shipping—and our commitment to climate-positive initiatives like regenerative agriculture, we know we have work to do.

Accordingly, we’re constantly looking for ways to make our fulfillment centers even more sustainable, whether that’s through using wind power or LEED-certified building elements. John Gentzkow, the Director of Fulfillment at our warehouse in Batesville, IN, explains that the facility gets its electricity from a combination of sources through a partnership with the Rural Electric Membership Corporation, a local electric cooperative servicing rural properties. More than 40% of the Batesville facility’s power is renewable. Recently installed LED lighting helps make the building even more energy efficient.

Getting creative with common food packaging formats is another way we’re striving for carbon negativity, whether by putting coffee in a tea bag (more on that later) or peanut butter in a pouch. “We view each step of the process through the lens of total carbon footprint reduction,” says Jenna Engleman, who oversees our exclusive product lines (including Thrive Market Goods and wellmade by Thrive Market) as the Senior Director of Thrive Market Brands. According to Engleman, soft film packaging, like the kind our nut butters come in, reduces carbon footprint by up to 40% compared to glass jars and plastic bottles—and not just because they’re lighter to ship. “It takes a lot less energy to create large rolls of film than to blow mold bottles and jars, which requires the use of heat-process fossil fuels,” Engleman explains.

Zero Waste

As a robust ecommerce business, a lot of materials come through our doors each day. The concept of zero waste is concerned with how it leaves. To qualify as zero waste, only 10% or less of those materials can go into a landfill.

Since 2015, we’ve had zero-waste practices in place at each of our facilities. In action, that means recycling, composting, or reusing 90% of all materials. At our fulfillment centers, compactors compress cardboard and plastic into bales that can be diverted to recycling facilities. Broken shipping pallets are repurposed as firewood. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, when our Los Angeles headquarters was at full capacity each day, we collected food scraps in the kitchen for compost.

Next up is making these mindful practices official with Zero Waste Certification, which we’re pursuing for 2022. DeSimone shares that the certification will validate our existing waste diversion efforts in a meaningful way.

Excess Plastic

America leads the world in generating plastic trash—and only 10% of it is recycled, according to National Geographic. A certain amount of plastic packaging is inevitable when it comes to shipping consumer goods across the country, so we’re trying to do it in the most environmentally responsible way possible.

In her role at the helm of Thrive Market’s exclusive brands, Engleman is just as concerned with the packaging of our products as she is with the stuff inside. “Responsible packaging is critical to the future of sustainable consumer products,” she states. When it comes to developing a new snack, skincare product, or supplement, Engleman says the ultimate packaging standard is compostability or biodegradability. The next best option is packaging made of recycled content and recyclable materials. From there, landfill reduction becomes the primary goal. As of last month, the Thrive Market Goods collection includes 350 products in recyclable packaging and 59 products in post-consumer recycled packaging. Late last year, we launched our first compostable product: single-serve coffee in tea-like bags.

While sustainable packaging innovation is a top priority at Thrive Market, so is food safety—and the former can’t come at the expense of the latter. “Given that we don’t allow artificial preservatives or synthetic stabilizers in our products, high-integrity packaging is even more crucial,” Engleman says, adding that finding sustainable packaging that can maintain the proper oxygen-moisture barrier to protect shelf-stable products can be a challenge. “The reality is that sustainable packaging technology has not caught up with the need for many shelf-stable food products.” That said, Engleman hints that there are some exciting packaging developments in the works, including a potential biodegradable version of those plastic nut butter pouches.

Aside from providing members with better packaging options, Engleman and others on the Thrive Market team are working to demystify recycling—which she says “has always been far more confusing than it should be.” To remove some of the guesswork, Thrive Market has begun using How2Recycle’s standardized labeling system on its packaging, with the goal of providing clear, simple recycling instructions for different materials. “We’re dedicated to finding solutions that rally our community behind a healthier planet,” Engleman states.

Depending on where you live, however, recycling your plastics might be harder than just tossing them in the blue bin. Brian King, Thrive Market’s Director of Transportation and Logistics, also wants to make it easier for members to recycle their plastic waste, hopefully diverting hard-to-recycle materials from landfills and oceans in the process.

King shares that even in big cities, local recycling programs can be less than ideal. “You can’t always recycle all the different kinds of plastic that we or our vendors use,” he says, noting lightweight, flexible plastic (think: chip bags and the aforementioned pouches) as prime examples. “We’re trying to find a solution we can offer members where, if their local curbside recycling won’t take these things, they can send them to us and we’ll take care of it for them.”

Earlier this year, King began developing a partnership with sustainable brand WasteZero that makes it easy for members to manage hard-to-recycle items. Through the program (which is currently being tested by a small segment of members who opted in), participants gather their recyclables, place them in a box, add a prepaid shipping label, and send the box to WasteZero, which will sort the items and work with their own recycling partners to repurpose the materials. While WasteZero has been working with cities and towns across the country on recycling and waste reduction programs, King reports that this partnership is the first of its kind. If it’s successful, the next step will be to offer it to more members.

Empowering our members to recycle is one thing, but we want to do better than corporations that have historically shifted the burden of recycling entirely to consumers. That’s why we’re pairing our efforts to encourage recycling and other sustainable habits in our community with taking action toward achieving plastic neutrality. DeSimone explains that Thrive Market will begin by measuring all plastics sent to members, starting with Thrive Market Goods products this year. Next comes offsetting them, which we’ll do through through partnerships with organizations like Plastic Bank, which sets up “recycling ecosystems” in countries that lack sufficient infrastructure and employs local citizens to collect and divert ocean-bound plastic waste, and rePurpose, which helps individuals and businesses calculate and offset their plastic usage. Through assessment and offsets, we’re aiming to reach company-wide plastic neutrality in 2023.

Meanwhile, King is also hard at work addressing another common member concern related to excess plastic: the leak protection bags that currently come in any Thrive Market order containing fragile items. King hopes to phase out the plastic bags by summer of 2022, and is experimenting with a compostable option to replace them.

“The world’s first climate-positive grocery store” may be an impressive title, but we’re not pursuing it for the accolades. We’re doing it because we feel duty-bound to take urgent climate action and protect our planet. Staring down these new commitments feels a bit like standing at the base of Mount Everest, but we’re bolstered by the support of our community and encouraged by our shared hope for a better future. “We know that everyone can win and business can be a catalyst for positive change,” McElwee says. “All it takes is some thoughtfulness, collaboration, empathy, and commitment.”

Ed. note: This piece has been updated.

This article is related to: Sustainable Living

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Kirby StirlandKirby Stirland is a writer, editor, and New York transplant living in Los Angeles.

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