Climate change is such a massive problem that it can feel overwhelming, even paralyzing. However, taking action, whether in big or small ways, is the only way to protect our planet and improve the lives of its people.
Chocolate-centric food brand Alter Eco feels strongly about this, committing to full-circle sustainability throughout its operations and up and down its supply chain.
"We believe that climate change and inequality are the two most important challenges of our lifetime, and they are inextricably linked," says Antoine Ambert, senior director of innovation and sustainability.
To meet these challenges head-on, Alter Eco produces only certified-organic and non-GMO foods, follows fair trade principles in its sourcing and mitigates climate change through regenerative agriculture practices. In 2020, the company launched a nonprofit arm, the Alter Eco Foundation, to help its partner cacao farmers transition to regenerative practices and support large-scale reforestation within its cooperatives.
Additionally, Alter Eco has earned Certified B Corporation and Climate Neutral Certified status to underscore its environmental and social sustainability efforts, as well as its continued quest for improvement. These difficult-to-attain, third-party seals signal to retailers and consumers that this is a brand that truly walks its talk.
Another pillar of Alter Eco's environmental and social responsibility ethos is a steadfast commitment to sustainable packaging—not exactly common in the snack and candy categories.
"Most snack packages are not compostable, reusable, recyclable or made of recycled materials," Ambert says. "Regular candy wrappers made of virgin polyethylene (PE) plastics can take up to 400 years to degrade."
Besides being bad for the environment, PE and other petroleum-based plastics break down into microplastics, which wind up in our drinking water, food and even the air we breathe. Although the long-term health ramifications of ingesting microplastics are still unclear, they are thought to release toxic substances that can penetrate our tissues.
"Research suggests that we ingest 5 grams of plastic a week, the equivalent of eating a credit card!" Ambert says. "People now eat an annual diet of more than 50,000 pieces of microplastic."
To become part of the solution rather than contributing to the problem, Alter Eco debuted the world's first compostable candy wrapper in 2013 and didn't stop there. The brand has continued improving upon that original design, making it even more eco, and launching sustainable packaging for its other products too.
We sat down with Ambert to learn more about Alter Eco's mission and many wins for both planet and people.
Has Alter Eco always championed sustainability, and how have its efforts evolved?
Antoine Ambert: Since Alter Eco was started in 2005, it has been in our DNA to work directly with small producers to create the best-tasting chocolate while improving the environment and farmers' livelihoods, with full traceability on where each ingredient comes from. We started out being fair trade certified and then became 100% organic in 2008 after seeing the impact of chemical fertilizers and pesticides on our farming partners' health.
We decided to become carbon neutral in 2010 as we started planting trees with our cocoa farming partners. We'd witnessed the damaging effects of deforestation in their region and saw how planting trees within the cocoa fields could not only sequester carbon but also regenerate the soil, improve farmers' working conditions and help them generate additional income. That was the beginning of regenerative agriculture in our supply chain.
What inspired the company to commit to sustainable packaging?
AA: Doing all this great work at the beginning of our supply chain, we realized it didn't make sense to call ourselves sustainable while using plastic packaging that ends up in landfills. So, back in 2013, we started tackling packaging by launching our first compostable wrapper, for our truffles. At the time, the wrappers could only decompose in industrial composting facilities, but as of 2021, they are backyard compostable certified.
To keep our carbon footprint low, we package all of our products in sustainable alternatives to plastic. Our nut butter bombs and truffles are wrapped in backyard-compostable wrappers, our bars are packaged in recyclable packaging and our new granolas come in post-consumer recycled bags. Since only 9% of plastics are actually recycled, we are focusing on increasing demand for recycled plastic versus extracting more resources to create virgin plastic.
Our packaging isn't the cheapest option—but it is what's right for both our health and the health of our planet. By using plant-based compostable materials instead of PE plastics, we estimate that in 2021, we diverted over 14.5 million candy wrappers from the landfill,
What challenges or roadblocks has the company faced while striving for the most sustainable packaging possible?
AA: Developing our truffle wrappers in 2013 was actually easier than we thought. It's a single-layer-printed wrapper, and the plant-based compostable materials were available on the market, so we just had to put our artwork on it and use it. Sustainable packaging can be that simple—sometimes.
We did worry about shelf life and how well the packaging would protect our chocolate. We did a few accelerated shelf-life tests and took a leap of faith, deciding to launch and see. Nine years later, we've never had a shelf-life issue or a complaint related to the packaging.
Has the global COVID-19 pandemic and resulting supply chain crisis made sticking with sustainable packaging more difficult?
AA: Sustainable packaging supply chains tend to be more complicated than those of commonly used alternatives because the materials are sourced from only a few suppliers in the world. Plant-based print layers, as well as compostable sealant layers and inks, may come from different parts of the world and then are combined here in the U.S. As a result, the pandemic and the supply chain crisis have increased lead times for most of our packaging.
However, supply challenges will ease as demand increases. As more and more companies adopt compostable and sustainable packaging solutions, it will create opportunities for more vendors to produce these sustainable materials here in the U.S.
How do you work with retailers to promote your message and generate sales?
AA: We prioritize education and transparency with our retail partners, and we provide the resources they need to grow awareness of sustainable packaging among their shoppers. We are also part of a coalition of brands, the OSC2 Packaging Collaborative, which put together an amazing campaign earlier this year called One Step Closer to Zero Waste. We made materials available to retailers to promote Zero Waste in their stores, including promotional shelves with products packaged sustainably.