How Can Sweet Red Pepper Relish be Sustainable?

My first answer, “We can’t do more than make sure that our suppliers apply sound labor practice, ensure our inputs come from producers who are good stewards and turn out the lights at night. We have a small footprint yada yada yada”

Sweet, my first sustainability post is an easy two sentences, a tight line of phoned-in trite B-school BS. But then I actually thought about the Fourth Creek business model, the specialty food market ($17 Billion) and the product based small business community (way larger), and came to a different conclusion.

As a specialty food company we are very aware of the aggregate (the “long tail”, sorry!). It’s where our current and future customers live. We can’t easily reach you with mass marketing because you are unique, educated, smart, savvy, and disparate. So as a business we go for each unique store and unique customer one at a time, until we have a mass of educated Sweet Red Pepper Relish eaters. Now you are a group where before you were few and unknown. Small businesses are just the same. There are lots of us, we’re different, we add up and we can connect with each other.

So what does the aggregate have to do with sustainability?

First, I need to admit that think about cardboard boxes more than you want to know about, and not just how to make forts out of them. Sexy with a capital “EEEXY!”, I know.

Not Me

Part of Fourth Creek’s business is mail order and we need small boxes to ship one or two one jars of Sweet Red Pepper Relish. Since we’re a producer, we end up with lots of empty case (12 jar) size boxes which are useless to us, and not easily convertible into smaller boxes. Thus far it’s been off to the recycling center.

But is that right? Should that box be recycled immediately? Or is recycling after one use wasteful? I see lots of businesses from manufacturers to distributors and retailers immediately break down and recycle their boxes. But most of these unbranded boxes don’t approach fulfilling their utility in the reuse category. Perceived value aside (how it looks when a pretty box of goods arrives on your doorstep vs. a clearly repurposed box “with character”), recycling boxes before the end of their useful life seems like a waste of resources; energy, assets, manpower and time that could be applied elsewhere to cool and value providing stuff. So I guess it depends if you care more about a pretty package at any cost, and you probably drive  a new car off the lot every time too. Though I grant there are some cases where it does matter.

So the question: Can our useless once used box  become some nearby small business’ useful box in which to ship their products, and done so in a manner such that neither of us ends up featured on an episode of Hoarders?

As an experiment I ordered a book from Amazon. I’m going to ship the book in the box to a friend across the country back and forth until the box fails. Whats your guess as to how many times that box can be used? What if it goes from one use to five or even to ten? Imagine that effect on reducing recycling runs, increasing overall economy in energy, man/woman power, time spent, and assets (recycling machines trucks wear & tear etc) and then the savings associated with reducing the demand for fewer new boxes in the first place. My supply chain dork excitement ensues as I think about the aggregate effect of it all, forgive me. I know consultants could design financial models that would end up being ultimately wrong as to the specific number, but I assure you there certainly would be a material effect.

So how many small businesses can partner up with others to get into the reuse habit? Again, we’re one of thousands, the aggregate. It’s not a catch-all but I like to think that a lot of boxes could easily be reused. There’s probably no money to be made (maybe one of my non-profiteer friends can hop on it and similar complimentary efforts) but coupled with other little “aggregate” solutions,  it would help lower costs and make us better stewards of the environment.

So on the front end, our tiny commitment is to source boxes for shipping from local businesses (I just got a bunch from the hardware store that are perfect sizes!) eliminating the energy time, cost, and resources associated with the manufacture and delivery of new boxes. On the back end, we are currently looking for small businesses to reuse our boxes as well. Would you? Local solicitations are encouraged!