Can small businesses improve global environment problems? Yes, and to a far greater degree than you might imagine. It's simple: Small businesses exist because passionate, hard-working individuals with a vision conjure them into existence. Remember the famous quote by anthropologist Margaret Mead: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."
Put in another, blunter way: Big companies don't often innovate. Not really.
Why? It's too difficult for them. Innovation is inherently risky, and the more they stand to lose, the less likely they are to embrace uncertainty. Global leaders prefer to snap up technologies after they've proven themselves in the market, which is much safer.
Whom, then, can we trust to solve pressing environmental concerns? The answer is makers of innovative products, like Proud Source Water and Fishbone Packaging, two disruptive young businesses I admire that are taking on plastic in the beverage industry.
"We want to be the Patagonia of bottled water," Proud Source President CJ Pennington declared during our recent phone conversation. "Our approach is full circle, meaning we care not only about where a product comes from and how it is packaged, but also where it ends up. We're looking to lead the bottled water industry in the sustainability category socially, economically and environmentally."
Proud Source is based out of Mackay, Idaho, a tiny, remote mountain town in the Rockies formerly known for mining. A fourth-generation resident founded the company in 2016 with the primary goal of bringing jobs back to his hometown. In April, Proud Source entered the domestic premium bottled spring water category with a unique distinction: It packages its product using exclusively aluminum and paper -- never plastic.
Today, you can purchase Proud Source water in 20 states primarily across the Southwest, at outlets that include Sprouts, Albertsons, Jacksons Food stores, Yellowstone National Park convenience stores, various independent co-ops and 30 different Idaho festivals.
Why aluminum? Because people recycle it. In fact aluminum is significantly more likely to be recycled than plastic. According to a 2015 report published by the Aluminum Association and Can Manufacturers Institute, Americans recycle aluminum cans twice as often as they do plastic beverage containers. The average recycled content of plastic beverage containers is a mere 3 percent, whereas aluminum cans contain on average 70 percent recycled content.
Bottled water is here to stay, so why not make it more environmentally sound?
"The world has more surplus plastic waste than it's ever had before, unfortunately with much of it ending up in our environment," Pennington explained. "When we understood that, it was immediately clear that we would avoid the use of plastic."
These facts have motivated other like-minded companies to begin bottling water in aluminum. Proud Source is the first to offer a pH of 8.1, which is slightly more alkaline than regular drinking water, and the reason why the company is able to forego polycarbonate linings in the interior of its bottles. Its water is also naturally mineral-rich due to its area's volcanic past; and the water is bottled on site, meaning it's never exposed to light before it reaches the consumer -- two benefits that appeal to water purists and contribute to its higher price point.
Globally as well as domestically, the market for premium bottled spring water is growing. According to the Beverage Marketing Corporation, Americans drank more bottled water than sugary soft drinks in 2016. When you consider that our bodies are mostly made of water, it makes sense that the same people who care about what they eat are increasingly concerned about the quality of their water.
"Water is a living organism. Ever drink out of a plastic bottle that's been in your car for too long? As the water is exposed to light and heat it changes its characteristics, not to mention the harmful effects of BPA contamination," Pennington said. "That will never be the case due to [our company's] bottling and packaging practices."
Teaming with Fishbone Packaging
When it came to packaging, Proud Source sought out a like-minded U.S.-based innovator-partner. That search led to Fishbone Packaging, which offered a patent-pending device for beverage packaging that's designed to replace plastic six-pack rings, caps and shrink film overwraps as well as reduce the amount of paperboard n packaging other multipacks.
Essentially, Fishbone's packaging is a slim piece of cardboard used to carry six-packs and four-packs. That cardboard can also be printed on, making it an advertising vehicle as well.
"Fishbone shared our mission . . . We were trying to develop a six-pack with the lightest footprint possible, and ended up working closely with them to make that happen," Pennington said.
How Fishbone did it.
Here's where I personally entered the picture, as a specialist in bringing products to market. But when Kevin L'Heureux, the founder of Fishbone Packaging, first approached me for advice, I was wary. The packaging industry is notoriously slow to innovate. The machines in that industry run so fast and produce so much that the slightest changes require massive capital to implement, let alone take a chance on.
Still, I embraced the founder's vision, his passion for eliminating plastic rings from the environment, his disgust at images of plastic trash at sea, of marine animals struggling to get free of plastic rings. Could he do something about these problems? (Full disclosure: In exchange for mentorship and an advisory role, I took a small financial stake in Fishbone Packaging.)
"This idea was something I'd thought about off and on, passively and peripherally, for years," L'Heureux told me. "Most people do, right? I'm not unique. Those rings frustrate everyone."
L'Heureux is an entrepreneur but had never brought a product to market before. In 2013, he created his first prototype. The subsequent process of connecting with the right people and integrating his product into existing canning lines has been long. Major bottlers expressed interest, but eventually he and his cofounder Keith Elliot, an engineer, realized they would first need to prove a market existed. Bottlers were "hesitant," he said.
To validate its market, Fishbone Packaging invested heavily in equipment for rapid prototyping and devoted a significant amount of resources to develop the machinery that applies its product on factory lines.
L'Heureux's idea to replace six-pack rings with cardboard is not entirely new -- you can find similar ideas in older patents. What he has done is improve the design so that it can be manufactured and applied, to bring a cardboard beverage carrier to market. Following several design iterations, he's thrilled to be packaging Proud Source water today. And he's fielding interest from other brands, including larger manufacturers, as well as licensees for his expanding patent portfolio.
"Developing a product that can ultimately make a positive impact on the environment, that's what drives us. We wouldn't have gone down this road this far otherwise," L'Heureux said.
The lesson here is clear: To bring a truly big idea to market, prepare to play the long game. You will need time, money and, most of all, the right partners. That's what L'Heureux found in Proud Source when it became one of his earliest customers, as well as his co-founder Elliott, the engineer whom he credits with having been absolutely essential to the company's success.
Licensing is the speediest route to market, by leaps and bounds. But ideas that are game changing are often perceived as too risky to be licensed right away. If you have a big idea like Fishbone Packaging's, you may need to prove that a market exists on your own before a licensee will get on board.
When I asked Pennington if he and his colleagues were willing to look at other product developers' ideas, he almost laughed at me. "Of course! We're a young and very open-minded company that is all about looking at trends and trying to course-correct the industry," he said. "If someone sees something we don't, we'd love to learn about it.
Open dialogue is crucial," he stressed. "If you want to be innovative, close-mindedness is a recipe for failure." I couldn't agree more.