Sun & Swell Foods’s Kate Flynn knew her four-year-old company’s packaging was hurting the environment. Encasing the company’s Apple Pie, Fudge Brownie, and Oatmeal Cacao Chip energy bites in standard plastic wrappers and pouches always felt off for the Santa Barbara, California-based organic and ingredient-conscious snack foods maker. But single-use packaging was something of a necessary evil, Flynn thought. It was not only commonplace in the market, the packaging itself helped extend the shelf life of the perishables within.
“I became really sensitive to the fact that I was also contributing to the single-use plastics problem,” says Flynn, 37. “And I was thinking if we ever reached this size of company that I want us to be, we have to be able to sell our products in something other than plastic.”
The pandemic proved to be the fuel she needed to ignite the change she’d longed for. Though Flynn says she began transitioning to compostable packaging in 2019, the pandemic led her to reconsider her company’s environmental impact and expand her efforts. She worked first on prioritizing her company’s mission and then came up with a strategy that reflected it.
Instead of traditional wrapping often made from plastic or other non-compostable and harmful materials, she’d use compostable products for all her packaging. She embraced the importance of her products’ “lifecycle” from production, to consumer use, to disposal. And instead of solely focusing on her company’s revenue and profitability, she trained her attention on her brand’s impact on the planet.
The company’s compostable packaging is made from plants and is designed to return to the earth safely–and it’s only “slightly” more expensive than traditional plastic wrappers. Flynn says Sun & Swell builds the costs into its products.
The road to sustainability was anything but sunny, however. While the company had begun distributing products using compostable packaging, shelf-life concerns began to crop up.
Food lasts longer in plastic packaging, and grocery chains can’t keep the product stock on the shelves as long if the product isn’t wrapped in plastic. This meant grocers were less inclined to carry Sun & Swell’s products, given the shorter sales window.
Flynn had a big decision to make. “We reached this moment of like, Okay, do we want to commit to staying plastic-free and therefore adjust our business model to really accommodate plastic repackaging and maximize the impact we can do and shifting the grocery industry away from plastic? Or do we want to, you know, build more of a traditional CPG brand focused on selling our products through traditional grocery channels and go back to like the regular plastic packaging?” Flynn sided with the earth.
Sun & Swell began expanding its product line to offer more organic and also sustainable products directly to consumers. The pandemic-driven DTC boomed worked in Sun & Swell’s favor and expedited her company’s transition, says Flynn.
While all of Sun & Swell’s products now use compostable packaging, Flynn notes the stat is unheard of in the food industry. Even the plastic wrappers on the outside of a bottle are a problem, as they’re rarely compostable, says Flynn.
If more companies started using compostable packaging, Flynn posits, it would lift all boats. “It basically allows us to create a more circular food system where we’re not leaving trash behind.”
For those interested in joining the revolution, Flynn has some advice for getting started:
Embrace the process.
Don’t wait for the government to tell you when it’s time to act, says Flynn referring to recent legislation in states like New Jersey and Maine designed to curb pollution. Waiting can make the whole process sting more, she says, noting that for large corporations–and smaller ones too–changes in supply, production, and packing involve many aspects that can’t be corrected overnight and will take time. So prep for the long game. “I think you have to be thinking proactively about switching to more sustainable solutions.”
Flynn says taking environmental initiatives seriously is also important for staying competitive in a market that’s driven, increasingly, by more conscious consumers. “If you look at Gen Z, who ultimately is going to have the buying power … they care so much more deeply about the broader impact of the products that we’re buying. It’s not just doing something because you have to, it’s thinking about the long term, like how is your brand or company going to stay relevant to consumers?”
“A small step from a big company makes a major impact,” but even smaller companies can take baby steps that add up, says Flynn. One easy way to start is simply beginning to consider selling products in more sustainable packaging.
You can also begin making changes one brand at a time. Flynn says Pepsi, which owns the brand Off the Eaten Path, has launched a couple of products in sustainable packaging. “You know, it’s not the entire brand, it’s not all of Pepsi, but it’s a couple of products within one of Pepsi’s product lines. And I thought that was awesome to see that Pepsi is taking some steps seeing how it works and learning from it.”
Flynn says another thing brands need to consider is the “end of life” of their products and what happens after they are used. “It’s not just about selling products in compostable packaging or recycled packaging. It’s making sure that the end of life of those products is being considered and thought through and taken care of,” Flynn says. Future-focused entrepreneurs ought to be thinking holistically, she adds.