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Tom Szaky

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Eco-preneurs Need to Look to Larger Retailers to Create Change

Posted: 02/28/2013 10:39 am

Since a young age, I knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur. I started my first company -- a Web design firm -- at age 14. But quickly my focus turned to a much more universal problem -- garbage.

Garbage has since become my life's work and what I am known around the world for -- at least in some circles! As the CEO of an environmentally focused company, I end up in many debates or discussions about "green" business: how being environmentally responsible is or isn't defined, what limitations the movement faces and what the future holds for green companies and green products or services.

Too often the highest aspirations of young eco-preneurs I meet are to sell their products into Whole Foods Market. I have nothing against Whole Foods at all -- quite the contrary -- but it represents such a slim fraction of the retail business in America. When I ask entrepreneurs and others why they view Whole Foods as a retailing mecca for social enterprise, the response is universal. They do not want to be associated with or support larger retailers like Target and Wal-Mart.

Unfortunately, this model will continue to typecast environmentally responsible products as "cult" or "fringe" items purchased and used only by hippy moms in San Francisco. It will certainly prevent our vital products and services from ever fully reaching the mainstream.

To effect real, fundamental change, shouldn't we be focusing on the mainstream? Isn't it more effective and impactful to put those eco-friendly products in Target and The Home Depot and (gasp) Wal-Mart, where the vast majority of American consumers actually shop?

I founded and continue to operate TerraCycle based on the assumption that for the world to solve its environmental issues, green companies need to work with major corporations and major retailers -- from the "belly of the beast" if you like. I want to make better, greener, more affordable products available to the masses, and that means working with corporations and retailers big and small, because at the end of the day if you want to change people's buying behaviors and practices, you can't do it at the local co-op.

Don't get me wrong. I not only support co-ops and locally owned businesses, but also patron them almost exclusively. But if you only sell your sustainable or organic products at co-ops, aren't you just preaching to the choir? To reach the vast majority of American consumers and create more potential to make a broader impact, green businesses need to dream big. Really big! And yet, I still feel a lingering resentment in the broader green community against those big box retailers and corporate partners.

It is a resentment that will only work against us in the end. The fact of the matter is that major chain retailers and multinationals are here to stay. In fact, it is my opinion that the number one driver of sustainability in the world of consumer goods today is Wal-Mart, and I am not the only person who feels that way. In 2008, Adam Werback, former president of the Sierra Club, joined Wal-Mart as an environmental consultant. Some of the world's most successful social enterprises - Method, Seventh Generation, Stonyfield Farm, Ben & Jerry's, etc. -- are now sold at Target and Wal-Mart, to name just a few chain retailers.

TerraCycle is working with both environmentally founded companies (Honest Tea, Clif Bar, Stonyfield and Bear Naked) and major corporate partners (Kraft Foods, Frito-Lay, Mars) to make legitimate change. And we proudly sell our products through not only independent retailers and Whole Foods, but also Wal-Mart and Target.

Tom Szaky is Founder and Chief Executive of TerraCycle.

 
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