Transitioning between a world of linear consumption of natural resources and accumulation of post-consumer waste, to a virtuous circular model, where waste and renewable materials are inputs for value creation, is within grasp. Many companies have already embraced this strategy, and we have seen success stories alongside this new market logic. In this month’s product review series, we would like to present two very different products, from two quite distant worlds – luxury and biomaterials – but that unexpectedly meet on the road to doing business better.
On one side, a startup, with a fantastic product, 100% renewable, 100% biodegradable, quick and cost-effective even without carbon pricing: meet Ecovative, the mushroom materials company1.
Founded in 2007 by two young entrepreneurs, it is based on a brilliant idea: fungi can be used to produce rigid and molded materials, such as are needed in insulation and packaging. While it takes, for example, 15 years to “grow” a package made of tree paper pulp, it takes 4 days to grow one made of fungi and agricultural byproducts. And while polystyrene foam can take up to a million years to decompose, Ecovative’s mushroom based protective packaging is home-compostable.
A true cradle to cradle “ultra-rapid renewable” product, it can also be used for insulation, engineered wood, and even surfboards. Such a business model is both simple and effective – and will be part of the much needed replacement of unsustainable packaging and building materials that have been surrounding us for the past decades, and that, alongside most plastic products, have contributed in creating a huge and lasting pollution in the natural habitat.
On the other side, a more than two centuries old French champagne house – Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin.
Veuve Clicquot is not new to sustainability and innovation: already one of the first champagne houses to be run by a woman in the beginning of the 19th century, Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin established in 1972 a yearly prize for the most successful business woman. Acquired by LVMH in 1986, it became, along with other companies of the group, one of the first French luxury brands to conduct a carbon footprint analysis of their business activity in 2001, and define a corresponding strategy to reduce GHG emissions. According to LVMH2, this process was embedded in the creation of the Carbon Footprint tool of the French government and the energy management agency Ademe, and was subsequently rolled out at other companies of the LVMH group.
Most luxury brands and companies have embraced to a certain extent sustainable practices, but have rarely embedded it in their marketing strategies. Although luxury is synonymous with quality and durability, and most luxury goods depend on rare resources and unique savoir-faire, sustainability in luxury remains behind the scenes.
It was therefore a good surprise to see Veuve Clicquot last year put on the market a 100% biodegradable isothermal packaging for its champagne brut3. The casing, made of potato starch and paper from bio-based material, is 100% biodegradable, light but also isothermal, keeping the precious beverage cool for up to two hours. Reconciling a premium luxury brand with eco-design is therefore feasible.
It is a recurring argument that customers of luxury products are not interested in hearing about sustainability topics surrounding products that aim for exceptionality. Associating champagne with issues such as waste management and electricity consumption is probably not straightforward, or very appealing. But these are part of the business activity nevertheless, and more importantly, the state of the ecosystem where the champagne is produced is vital to the long term value of the product. Probably because environmental preservation is absolutely material to the production process, Veuve Clicquot, alongside other brands of LVMH, introduced environmental criteria in the evaluation of employees and in their performance remuneration in 2008. It is also the driver behind the creation of the potato-based bottle cooler: cradle-to-cradle packaging products are essential if we are to preserve the environment that gives us exceptional products such as champagne.
Both examples, despite their very different contexts, are compelling and encouraging. Packaging, a good that we use on a daily basis, and that contributes to dangerous waste accumulation when not recyclable, can be transformed into a truly 100% environmentally friendly product, while responding to the needs of demanding markets that are luxury goods. How companies package their products is very visible to customers, and those who embrace the change such as Ecovative’s customers or Veuve Clicquot, will have moved out of the short lasting, but highly impacting age of disposable plastic.
Margarita Pirovska, PhD, is the Policy & Sustainability Analyst at Cornerstone Capital Inc. and former Project Manager at GDF Suez in the Sustainable Development Division.