Episode 177: Making Your Home More Sustainable with Grove's CEO, Stuart Landesberg

Today's guest is Stuart Landesberg, Co-Founder & CEO of Grove Collaborative. We explore Grove’s mission and what led Stuart to co-found the company. We also discuss carbon offsets, government mandates, and the myth about recycling plastic.

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Tell listeners a bit about Grove and what you do.

You got it. So Grove is a company and, you know, was started with a goal to change the world, and the way that we seek to change the world is by transforming the home and personal care categories, which have a poor track record on environmental and human health into categories that can be a positive force, not just less bad, but actually more good for human and environmental health. And the way I got here is a little bit of a typical entrepreneur's journey, grew up in a household where sustainability was always top of mind.

What is it about the landscape of consumer products at that time that you saw that was broken? Did you have a diagnosis at the time?

So at the time I only had a really nascent understanding of the category. But what I got fundamentally right is the size and scale of the home and personal care industry is massive, it's about a trillion dollars a year, almost all of which is covered in single-use plastic, and a lot of which is based on a combination of water, which is unnecessary to ship, you have water at home, and derivatives of a super petroleum laden supply chain, right? Be with plastic, which obviously comes from petroleum, or the actual petroleum distillates that are going into your dish soap and your laundry detergent if you're buying conventional brands. There are brands out there that use more sustainable packaging, that use plant-based ingredients that are highly efficacious. And the core question that I asked eight years ago, nine years ago when I started the company was just why aren't more people using those brands?

I've come to realize now that the thing that needs to happen is not, not just access to the great brands that exist, but also a fundamental transformation of so many business models in the category, which is really how we got into the business we're in today, which is not just the direct consumers of curation business, but really, how do we build the Grove Co brand as one that can be zero plastic, and where every product leaves the environment better than it found it? And I'm happy to go into more detail there. But really, it's about how do you take, you know, laundry detergent and find a zero-waste model that has some giveback that's actually better for the environment?

Who defines what it means to be a sustainable product?

There's no governing body and there's a lot of bullshit out there in the market, about what is and is not sustainable. I think we define it in two forms, right? Ingredients should be plant-based, bio-based as much as possible because if it's not bio-based, it's almost certainly petroleum-based. I think we wanna move away from petroleum-derived supply chains as much as possible, both for human health and environmental health. I think the second piece, right, that's what's in the bottle is the packaging. I think there are two elements to this. The first is you wanna shrink the format as much as possible. So if you think about a glass cleaner, you know, your glass cleaner is probably 95 plus percent water. Shipping that water around the country has a real sustainability impact. Is better if you ship, uh, we sell a little zero plastic one-ounce concentrate. Now that's a significantly better sustainability profile than shipping a giant sort of bottle of water around the country.

So the first is, can you compress the size? The second is, what are the packaging materials? And we have a particular stance against plastic and really lead the market today by a pretty wide margin in zero plastic home and personal care.

Where does carbon fit into all of this? Are you looking at things like the emissions footprint for the supply chain, and freight and air and trucks, and things like that? And the same question as it relates to your partners, suppliers, the other brands that put products on your site.

So we think a lot about carbon also. Carbon is a smaller problem for our industry than plastic, you know, of the 1 trillion with a T pounds of plastic waste that are produced every year. Almost half of that is single-use packaging. That's like just, uh, I mean, my like soul hurts when I say that. Are you kidding? 500 billion pounds of single-use plastic packaging every year. I mean, in the CPG industry is like, we are leaders in creating that forever garbage, like we suck. And so like that is the number one problem that our, our industry needs to solve. With that said, I think any corporate player in the marketplace needs to be paying, in any industry, needs to pay attention to their carbon footprint. And so for us, we already are carbon neutral in scope one and scope two, and if you compare our carbon emissions per dollar of sales to the industry average, we're like less than 10% of the industry average. So it's a much lower carbon business model per dollar of sales.

And we offset all of our inbound freight, all of our outbound freight, everything we do from that perspective is offset. I think in the long term, you know, we have a bigger challenge in terms of thinking of scope three emissions, which is ... for those who don't know, scope one and scope two are e- emissions that we sort of creating directly, you know, shipping the product to people's houses, shipping the product to us, scope three emissions is sort of like I sell you a laundry detergent and you use it in your washing machine. And I am making money on that load of laundry. So I should pay to offset some of those emissions. And that's a bigger buy. Very few companies are into scope three, but a lot of companies are looking at, how do we create long-term plans to offset scope three emissions as well?

And so as we look at that, you know, there's a bunch of ways to skin it. The first is, can we create smaller products more compact, which we can often do by taking the water out of stuff and a bar shampoo is a great example of that. The shampoo in your shower, maybe not you and your listeners, because you all are like the tip of the spear on eco stuff. But like most people's shampoo in their shower, it's in a big plastic bottle and it's 90% water, right? If you strip the water out, you just got a bunch of actives, you can put into a bar, and there's plenty of water in your shower. You actually get a better experience, a more concentrated and much smaller product, cost less to ship, less carbon, sort of like from shipping the product around. You apply that same principle to like toilet paper, right, the amount of carbon emit shipping toilet paper around the world is insane. You can wrap that thing twice as tightly on the roll, get twice as many sheets, you get twice as many sheets on the roll, there's half as much carbon shipping it around.

Anyway, so there's real stuff we can do in the supply chain to limit the amount of carbon. And then, of course, we work with carbon offset partners to do it. And I think the important thing to note on carbon offsets is that not all carbon offsets are created equal, right, there's like, I love the carbon offset idea and I'm in favor of a carbon tax, but a lot of the carbon offsets are ... they're almost like window dressing carbon offsets, they're way better than nothing, but we're specifically focused on carbon offsets that like improve and regenerate ecosystems so that it's not a one-time impact, but really sets us up for a long-term impact. So that's how we think about carbon. Important that I think every company does.

Switching gears a bit, but how do you think about recycling, composting, and bioplastics?

I think reducing is always better, like reduce, reuse, recycle, like kind of in that order. Composting, I think totally works, but a lot of places don't offer composting services, right? In many parts of the country, you know, municipal composting is not available, and not everybody has backyard compost, and creating products that are backyard compostable is even harder than creating products that are municipally composed.

Have you looked at making your products compost compatible?

A lot of our products are compost compatible, but we prefer them to be smaller first, right? Like, it's great if that material is compostable, but even better would be less material. So, reduce is number one. Compost is like the second best, right, because I think composting actually does work. And aluminum recycling and glass recycling works. Both of those materials are infinitely recyclable. And aluminum has incredible energy recapture. It takes only 5% of the energy to recycle aluminum as to create a new one. Right? So you're getting 95% energy savings when you recycle aluminum. It's not perfectly circular, but it's actually like, worked reasonably well. Plastic recycling is bullshit. Less than 10% of the plastic in the world gets recycled, no matter how much you put in your bin. And like, do you know the story of how the recycling triangle came to be? Do you know the story?

I hate this story. But I also love this story. So plastic was created in the 1960s by DuPont around the same time they created styrofoam. They realized pretty quickly that there was an end of life ... amazing material, incredibly cheap, incredibly malleable, incredibly durable, but incredibly expensive to dispose of. And there was an end of life problem here. So in the sort of '70s and '80s, they created this idea of recycling, recyclers came up. And initially, it was basically just one type of plastic that you were able to throw in your recycle bin. But what started happening was people were starting to throw all of the types of plastic in that recycle bin.

And so it was the petroleum industry who is, you know, plastic is made from oil, for those who don't know, it was the petroleum industry and the petrochemicals industry, that got the idea for putting the recycling triangle with the different numbers on the bottom of every single piece of plastic, even though the vast majority of that plastic is actually not recyclable. And so it was the industry's idea to basically trick consumers into believing that it's okay to use this forever garbage for single-use applications because no problem I'll just throw it in the recycle bin and I don't have to worry about the impact that I'm having. But that is just a lie. It's called wish cycling, I think. Like I wish it was being recycled, but it's not.

And it's an interesting example of where, you know, the consumer I think if you ask 1,000 consumers, maybe one understands that the oil industry is actually responsible for the recycling signs on the bottom. And California someone in the legislature just put forward a bill that Grove supports. What the bill does, it removes the recycling sign from non-recyclable plastics. Like, ho- how is that a thing that there needs to be a bill about? So recycling works for aluminum and glass, and actually for paper too, it's not as energy-saving for paper, but it does work for paper. But for plastic, it just totally doesn't work. But the petrochemicals industry realized the only way they were gonna sustain demand here was if you tricked consumers into believing that it wasn't a problem to use it for everything.

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