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Is Recycling a Myth? Grove Collaborative Co-Founder and CEO Stu Landesberg Explains

Updated: Dec 2, 2022

This is the Authentic Avenue podcast episode featuring Dana Marineau, Chief Marketing Officer of Rakuten, with host Adam Conner.

This is a link you can use to find Authentic Avenue, a marketing podcast hosted by Adam Conner, on Apple Podcasts. Remember to subscribe, rate, and review!

Ever heard of "wishcycling"? I hadn't -- at least, not until today's Authentic Avenue.

Today, my guest is Stu Landesberg. He's the Co-Founder and CEO of Grove Collaborative, a now billion-dollar sustainable home brand. They provide, among other things...shall we say "cleaner cleaning?"

Between shampoo bars, lotion sticks, hand soap sheets and more, there's so much I didn't know about Grove that Stu helped me to understand. He also helped open my eyes to the brainwashing going on in the world of recycling. News flash: it's not as helpful as everyone thinks. (It's still good!! But it's benefits are overblown.)

That's why Stu has committed his brand and his purpose to going plastic-free. Completely plastic-free. On today's show, we also discuss that journey, and how it plays into the authenticity the business manifests for itself as a result.

Enjoy! Full transcript below.


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TRANSCRIPT BELOW (powered by Descript; accuracy not guaranteed):

Adam Conner: Hey, Stu, how are you doing?

Stu Landesberg: Hey, Adam, great to be here.

Adam Conner: I can't wait to learn more about this story. Obviously, Grove is a huge company now massive. And you were there when it was right at its inception. And so whenever I have somebody on the show that founded a business from the ground up, especially one of this size, I got to ask what in the heck gave you this idea?

Now I heard. That this idea had something to do with looking around and seeing too many solo cups with what what's that all about. It seems like where you're partying, what what's going on?

Stu Landesberg: I don't know why you would assume that Solo cups are associated with parties. It's interesting. This is not the founding story that I always tell, but there is, there is a lot of truth in this.

Um, so the boundary story for growth starts with the household in which I grew up. My parents instilled in us from a very early age, the importance of sustainability. I think I was probably in high school before I realized that paper towels came in any color of brown. Uh, and maybe, maybe that long before I realized that not everybody was turning the compost bin a couple of times a week as their chores.

Uh, but it was certainly in college where I encountered the omnipresence of the 16 ounce petroleum based plastic cup. And it used to drive me nuts that everybody was buying these. Forever garbage cups that we were using for 10 minutes when there was a compostable alternative available. And it was my first brush with the sad reality that while consumers are well-intentioned right.

I went to a good school in the Northeast where people were really did care about sustainability, but nobody was buying the sustainable version. And it was my first real direct contact with the fact that while we are well-intended. Our purchases do not always match those intentions. And if you look at sort of the history of Grove, a lot of it really is about how do we make it easy for us as consumers to create habits that reflect what we want to see in ourselves, right?

The habits around sustainability, natural products, buying things that are healthy for our families and for the planet. Making it easy to create those positive habits, but a lot of it actually does go back to that first insight that, gosh, why aren't we just buying a more sustainable alternative for our 16 ounce soda cups?-- I'll call them that -- uh, that were a bit of a staple on university campuses, at least back when I was in school.

Adam Conner: So the habits, that is what that's really where this started. Why aren't people adopting these habits in it? Why isn't it caring? So the way they consume well-intentioned as they may be, this is another thing I like to ask founders because they founders have a mind of their own right.

To build a business like this. Obviously it's not done in one night. It takes a hell of a lot of charisma, willpower, all that. Well, let's talk about habits that you've fostered for yourself as a foundation here. Um, what would you say are a few of the habits that you carry with you that you believe have allowed you to build Grove into the Solo killer that it is?

Stu Landesberg: I should change my LinkedIn profile, Solo Cup Killer. Um, but, uh, I think the most important habit that I've built in the last decade building this company is really about self-reflect. And I am so lucky to work with an extraordinary group of people and the success we've had, the growth has been because I've been so lucky to be surrounded by an exceptional group of individuals, team members, investors, customers, supporters, partners, and my ability to continuously and deliberately invest in myself as a business partner, as a leader, as a CEO.

Has allowed me to continue to show up for all of the stakeholders as well as I possibly could be every single day, even as things change. And so I think the most important habit that I would say is one of consistent and deliberate self investment, because the job, what it means for me to be a great business partner, to my colleagues, peers, customers, et cetera, today is really different from what it meant for me to be a great business partner to them a decade ago. And so that deliberate practice, which is a combination of reading, coaching, peer groups, and candidly, just taking the time to listen to feedback from the people that I work with on a regular basis, um, has been, has been incredibly valuable and also incredibly rewarding on a personal level.

Adam Conner: Now is it the feedback of, of employees or was it another source that led you to this pledge, which is emblazoned across the front page of Grove's website, which has to be completely plastic free by 2025. Let me ask broadly, where did that come about? And how's it going? Because I hear I've done a lot of interviews with folks.

That have made pledges like this, and everybody's sort of there it's coming along, but 2025 is like far enough away where you can be like, well, we haven't gotten there yet, but we're working on it. Can you tell me a little more about it?

Stu Landesberg: Well, 2025 is way closer than everyone else in the industry. I'll just say that nobody else in our industry of any scale of the saying zero plastic by 2025, mean this is a groundbreaking ambition for the industry.

And I will say it came about because our vision, which is clear. Is to be a PO is to take the consumer products category and make it a positive force for human and environmental health. Not just less bad, but actually more good. And if we want to be a positive force for human and environmental health, we have to start by solving these single hardest problem in our category, which is the omnipresence of single use plastic packaging, our reliance on this forever garbage.

Defectively all of our, and so we said, if we want to solve this, we need to create a concrete goal that is both ambitious. And that is far enough away that we think we can do it, but close enough that we have to start working on it today. And so that was how the zero plastic 2025 pledge came about. We don't know how to do it across everything, every product we make, if we did.

It wouldn't be 2025. It'd be 2022. So there's some still some real work to do. But 20, 25 is close. God willing. I'll still be CEO in 2025. A lot of people who work at the company today will still be there. So there is no opportunity to pass the buck. And that has created a really strong focus and clarity of mission around where our center of gravity from an innovation perspective should be, which has allowed us to really produce, I think, some groundbreaking innovation at a, at an extraordinary pace over the last year. And so we've seen really encouraging success across a number of our beyond plastic product lines. Hand soap, dish soap, laundry sheets, hand sheets are peach. Zero plastic. Personal care line's doing extremely well. So we are, we are well on our way to achieving this goal. I mean, more work to do, but we'll save nearly 10 million pounds of plastic. The huge number, just over the course of 2021. So I huge amount of progress already made, but a lot still to go.

Adam Conner: I'm glad to hear that progress.

That is something which I think everybody can admire and hopefully emulate. And it's that emulation that I want to ask next about 20, 25 is true. It's it's closer than I've heard in this industry. And I was referring mostly to some conversations I've had around that sustainability elsewhere. I've done it recently in farming with the CEO of app harvest.

I did it with the co-founder of a dormy in the world of apparel and that stuff is maybe relatively close, but a different industry. And it's. Um, there are models there and hopes, there are not quite the exact tactical things I'd like to see. Of course, it's so close. How could you be at, you said yourself, you need to do a little bit of development to figure out how to make things completely plastic free across the board.

But there are things in the meantime, which are helpful to be educated on too. So I've gone through and looked at a whole lot of different terms in this world, because for example, At harvest and adore me. And both of them use the term green washing, which I thought was very interesting to look that up. I know that listeners, you're listening to this in the beginning of August, we've just come out of plastic free July, which doesn't really need an explanation.

It's obvious what they want you to do in that month. Then I read another one, which I didn't know was a problem. And I wonder if this is something which you're taking a charge on that others can emulate. Can you explain what is a wish cycle? I, I don't know what that is. Is that something that, that you are helping to combat that you hope others do?

Would love to hear your thoughts.

Stu Landesberg: So let me give you a three minute history of the plastics industry in the 1950s and sixties, the chemical industry, petrochemical industry, mostly DuPont figured out that you could take some of the, sort of like products of petrochemical therapies, doc, and turn them into plastics and plastics are revolution.

But you they're infinitely malleable. You can get them in any shape and colors are extraordinarily low costs and they last effectively, forever. And that makes them a really powerful commercial product in the seventies and eighties, or maybe even as early as the sixties. These folks realize though that there was a problem, which is that the cost to produce this was so low that there was going to be broad production and mass scale here.

But the cost of disposal in any sustainable way was incredible. And basically all you could do at the end of life here was either incinerate it, which is bad for the environment for a number of reasons, put it in the ocean, put it in landfills. There's no real viable economic end of life, alternative for plastic.

And you started to see as early as the eighties and nineties real consumer pushback, because it makes sense that if we're going to be using this product for minutes or hours, days, we don't want something. That's going to last forever. And our Lantos consumers are smart enough to understand that. And so the plastics industry lobbied Congress to get the recycling triangle put on the bottom of effectively every single plastic item.

It was not environmental groups that lobbied for the plastic recycling sign on the bottom of the, like your yogurt container. Result is that, you know, plastic recycling doesn't really work, but it sort of works for some plastics. But what happened when they put the plastic recycling sign on the bottom of everything is that you went from the types of plastics that were recyclable were now being mixed with all of the plastics that we're not.

And so, whereas you used to have a, a waste stream that had some recycling viability, really what you got was a consumer. That felt much better about my single use plastic yogurt cup, water bottle beach toy, whatever, because when I'm done with it, I throw it in this recycling bin. But the plastic recycling industry significantly less effective until you took an industry that was never that effective in plastic recycling.

And basically just paralyzed it entirely by making the feed stock basically entirely unusable. And so it's it's recycling today or wish cycling is basically the fact that consumers wish we all wish that plastic was infinitely recyclable, but the fact is unlike a material like aluminum or paper or glass, Plastic can only be down cycled.

So you can only use it two or three times before it degrades into garbage. There's extremely high energy usage to recycle plastic on like something like aluminum, which has 95% energy savings. And the infrastructure doesn't do, it's just that less than 10% of plastic gets recycled, no matter how much you put in your recycling bin.

And so despite the fact that 90 plus percent of the almost 1 trillion pounds of plastic waste we create a year is ending up in landfills, oceans and incinerate. We all feel okay about our single use plastic consumption because of this little triangle on the left. And really that little triangle is just an extraordinarily good brainwashing mechanism to get all of us.

To believe the myth that it's okay for us to use plastic in a way that has no regard for the fact that we are filling up the commons with, with garbage, that's going to be around for a million years. And it's, it's a direct result of lobbying efforts from the industry and it's driven, incredible consumer confusion, um, because recycling is genuinely a good thing, but in this particular case, Because it's a laid our natural instinct as consumers to not create too much waste.

The recycling sign on the bottom of every plastic container has had a wildly pernicious impact because it's created and facilitate art, our addiction to single use plastic. So it's a great question. And the fact that recycling plastic, plastic recycling is a myth doesn't get nearly enough press in our desire to sort of solve the plastic problem overall.

Adam Conner: You want to know what's funny with -- you just said brainwashing there at the end. And listeners, I don't know if you picked up on this, but as you were explaining that, talk about how it's a myth and how like, you know, only a certain amount of recycled material, like actually makes it out into, I guess, additional product or secondary product.

And there's really only two, three times it can be used. The first thing that my brain went. I was like, shoot, I better hope that everything that he actually is recyclable, according to the little triangle myth that though that may be like, I should just make sure to maximize that because if it's only 10%, I need to like get 10% of the most possible.

Whereas in reality sounds like what I should be doing is saying like, well, let me just like cut that off at the head. Find things that don't have any plastic in them. And that way I don't contribute to a problem that I guess, I didn't know really existed until you said it. So. I'm going to wrap my brain around that for a little while.

But in the meantime here, here's what I can ask about, because this is more directly applicable to you. And in particular, what I see on Grove's website, it seems like you've cracked this a little bit. Listeners. I don't know if you've visited their website. I would encourage you to by the way, quick plug, is that seen products there that I really haven't seen.

I mean, anywhere else, I'm talking about a shampoo bar. I'm talking about a lotion stick. I mean, these are things that these are two words I've never even used in conjunction with each other. So, um, how did you develop those? I mean, don't give me the secret sauce, but like, is that okay? Should we expect more shampoo bars in 2025?

Like how has that, how has that layered into this whole thing?

Stu Landesberg: So we don't, we don't own the secret sauce on zero plastic, right? Vocal that we think this is where the future is going. And I appreciate the call it and the lotion stick. We are the only zero plastic lotion system in the world. It's very cool, sort of like aluminum case with a refillable cartridge, extremely high quality, huge plug for our refillable deodorant and lotion lines.

Great grades zero plastic products. But I think what we see is that if you look out at our category, Which we think of as home and personal care, there's $1 trillion in commerce every year globally in our categories alone, forget food that's wrapped in single use plastic that will change. I believe, 20 years from now that we're still creating the same amount of single use plastic waste.

I mean, it's just, it's almost like there's not room for it at a certain point in the world. And as a result, the products that we use from your shampoo to your deodorant, to your hard surface, cleaner to your dish soap, we're going to be buying different stuff, or at least products packaged into different stuff.

And so our business is really about how do we take the information, the relationships that we have with the consumer and build out the most beautiful, highly efficacious and yes, most sustainable brands. And products that we possibly can across as many categories as possible, you know, in some categories, shampoo bars, you know, we're going back to technology that existed a long time ago, but a shampoo bar.

For example, we have an awesome shampoo bar line under our peach brand. Those we took the highest quality formulations possible, took all of the water out of the product. So if you think of your traditional plastic in case bottle of shampoo, that's just shampoo actives plus water. If you suck the water right.

You can get a bar format, so you no longer need any plastic to package it. And then of course, there's lots of water in your shower. So you actually get a higher concentration of the things that makes shampoo effective in a more environmentally friendly format. And of course, we're able to deliver a higher quality product at a lower price because we're not paying for the sort of like supply chain to put the water and mix it in and shift the big bulky bottles around.

And so we're able to deliver a higher quality. At a lower cost with a lighter environment footprint. And I think that's part of the magic is if you look across our business lines from the hard surface concentrates in the glass or usable bottles to the tree free paper, which is wrapped in paper box is also zero plastic, um, to the zero plastic laundry sheets we just launched, which is super cool.

It's, there's a lot of opportunity to deliver higher quality. At an affordable price point to the consumer with a significantly better environmental footprint. So it's a win for the consumer and a win for the environment at the same time.

Adam Conner: Yeah. Speaking of sheets, that's another one. I didn't think I'd use in conjunction with hand soap.

That was another recent one that, uh, threw me a little bit. So thank you for explaining that because I, I can understand why ultimately, I mean, if you have a, a bar shampoo, you don't need to put it in a bottle. Well, now you're, you're telling me a little bit of how it gets done and I hope more people do.

Emulate your product lineup, um, because that ultimately will lead to the same goal that you are aiming for, uh, to be plastic free. And I'm going to go ahead and assume it's not a big jump that that's part of your authentic journey of Grove, but I always talk about this a word, because in my opinion, everybody has a different definition for it.

Probably similar to the way in which most. I have a different definition of the word green in this way. Sustainable mean, these are words that are becoming more popular in frankly, like in marketing speak, but authenticity is another one. And I always ask the leaders who join us, how their brand carves its own path.

I mean, what are its avenues to achieving it? That's why the show is called authentic avenue. So I'd be curious to know. Where that lands for Grove, I guess, to, to ask it another way, if you could fill in the blank. I mean, if I were to say grow is at its most authentic, when it "blank," what would you say?

Stu Landesberg: What a wonderful question.

I think authenticity is so important and you know, I'm someone who believes the soup tastes better when it's made with loves and for whatever reason, in whatever way, products that are made from a wild, true, authentic path. Consumers just can feel that right. And the fact that like we wake up every morning and this is not just true of me, right.

If I got hit by a bus Grove would be just as passionate about this the next day. But this team comes into the office where they wild and crazy burning passion, like obligation to change the industry. And we are here to do it. And so I think we are at, we are at our most authentic. When we are really pushing into new ground and we just launched our laundry sheets, for example, and this is laundry is a category it's billions of plat of laundry detergent, plastic, laundry detergent bottles go into the ocean every year.

There's actually so much of a certain brand of laundry detergent in the ocean. Like the bottles that you can get. Orange colored ocean plastic. You can buy gray ocean plastic, which is mixed, or you can buy orange ocean plastic, which is like, there's so much of this brand bottle.

Adam Conner: And it gives, gives a whole new definition of that word, I would think anyway. Go on.

Stu Landesberg: Yeah, totally. So, but the laundry sheets it's dissolvable or this or surfactants is right in the sheet, it can be packaged in paper, which pods can't be. Cause pods can't be exposed to humidity. So it's a really exciting zero waste laundry. Me. And consumers are absolutely loving. The consumer response is awesome.

And this is the thing that makes me so excited, right? It's a win for the consumer. It's an easier experience. It's extraordinarily high quality, the price points affordable. I think opening price points and they're like 12 bucks, right. Easy to get into it. And it's a huge win from a sustainability standpoint.

And so I think that when we roll out those types of products, uh, we are changing the industry. In a way that when we make that small change and multiply it across the millions of people in our community, the millions of products sold in our category, you can actually drive real structural change. And so I love that type of innovation.

And I think, you know, we are, it is, it is an authenticity that really, I should say I started by talking about the team, um, Hit that again, because any success we've had in our authenticity is really a result of having a group of people who are so deeply committed to the mission. Some CPG companies say innovation is, let me, let me get this off the shelf formula in a different category.

And I'll add my packaging to it. Whatever know we never take the easy way out. We always drive to push the envelope farther and innovation, and I'm so grateful to have a team. Wakes up every day with a burning fire to change the industry. The way I know we all do.

Adam Conner: Well I'm glad you started there. I'm glad you circled back to it a second time and I might have you hit it on the third time here as we close out though, maybe to a slightly different team, that being the team of people that listen to this show every single week, and look for advice from the leaders who are profiled as to how to find their own authentic.

It's one of the bigger questions I ask on this episodes, but I figured to do it because you have shown us through this conversation, uh, that it needn't just be a vision, that it is something going plastic free, uh, specifically that you can take tangible steps on right now. And you could do it really, really soon.

That is something which if you work backwards, I would think puts you on a path, uh, that forces you to be authentic in the way that you want. I think there are a lot of folks out there who would love to have a path like that, a goal like that, which they believe to be tangible and reachable in such a short timeframe.

But regardless of whether they do or not, I'd love to close with asking you for some advice as to how they can find their brands, personal truth, let's say, or their own avenue to authenticity personally or professionally. I'd be curious to hear your thoughts as we close.

Stu Landesberg: That's a great question. And I will say, you know, it's been my experience that.

My professional life is a joy because I work at a company that I love and that attracts like-minded people who love the same things. People who, you know, in the case of growth care about sustainability, but also want the challenge of a startup, you know, want an environment where the grow has a unique bloods.

I feel like it's almost like you're perpetually studying for an exam with your first. It's if you remember that experience from college, like that's kind of like the culture and it feels great, but it's hard sticks are high, not like killer high. Um, anyway, so I think, you know, being able to work with people who share a common north star is incredibly facilitating.

To be able to pursue at least in my case, an authentic purpose. And so the counsel that I would give is to find the overlap in the Venn diagram between you, where you're really good at something where you're creating value for society and get paid to do something. Um, and where there's. Huge sort of like passion and excitement to go do it day in, day out so that you can put in the time and really enjoy all the time you put in.

And I think in that intersection of high skill, high value to society and high passion, there are, there are so many great organizations pursuing mission-driven ends that. Operating in the center of that Venn diagram, you know, the soil for authentic innovation and authentic career development. And just for me, really authentic satisfaction, the soil is so fertile that good things can help it grow

Adam Conner: Well, I appreciate you planting a few seeds of truth there for us as we round out today. I, uh, I, you know, you wanted me to admit something. I I've never tried out one of these shampoo bars or lotion sticks, or now these, these sheets, but I don't feel like I got to. It's going to make me more conscious. Next time I go to the store, by the way, congrats on the launch in Target. Store that everybody will know.

Uh, if I walk in there tomorrow, I'm going to go find your stuff, but I really appreciate your view on the world more than that. And the goals that you've set out, I hope more people emulate it. Hope more people emulate your perspective on how to become personally authentic. And so for all of that, uh, Stu, thanks so much.

I'm so glad to have had you on the show,

Stu Landesberg: Adam, you are far too kind. My friend, it's been a pleasure.


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