In anticipation of the 2020 National Co+op Grocers Climate Collaborative Awards, we're talking with the leaders of our 2019 award-winning companies to learn a little bit more about what drives their climate leadership.
Our seventh interview is with Ryan Black, CEO and Co-Founder at Sambazon, winner of the 2019 Outstanding Company Award.
Congratulations on winning a 2019 National Co+op Grocers Climate Collaborative Award! What are you most proud of, when it comes to your company’s climate work?
As a mission-driven company that was founded on a triple bottom line philosophy—which measures success socially, environmentally, and economically—Sambazon has been active at the forefront of environmental protection of the Amazon since our company was founded 20 years ago. It’s in our DNA.
So, when our team learned that scientists estimate that one species is forever lost to extinction for every 584 acres of rainforest that are cut down, and that deforestation accounts for 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions, we decided to step up our game. With the goal of saving 30 endangered species in 30 days, Sambazon launched #PurpleForThePlanet, a social-good campaign that harnessed user-generated content to fight climate change and protect biodiversity in the Amazon Rainforest. We pledged to protect five acres of Amazon rainforest for every person who colored their hair purple and uploaded a photo to social media.
Over the past 2 years, the campaign has inspired over 21,000 social activists to go purple for the planet and help fight against climate change protecting 184,000 acres and 316 species. All proceeds from #PurpleForThePlanet go to the Rainforest Trust’s Conservation Action Fund, which works to protect endangered regions across the globe by establishing public and private nature reserves managed by local conservation partners.
What were the key factors to success in getting you where you are today on climate?
Like success, combatting climate change is a journey, not a destination, and every little step and effort adds to the greater movement. One of the major steps we took was to become the first organic and fair trade certified açaí company. When we began, there were no fair trade standards for açaí so we worked directly with one of the most respected certification agencies, EcoCert, to develop the standard.
These certifications help to hold us accountable and ensure we provide a living wage, safe working conditions, and that we follow organic and sustainable harvesting practices. Organic farming reduces pollution, conserves water, reduces soil erosion, increases soil fertility, uses less energy and actually takes carbon dioxide out of the air through soil sequestration.
To date, Sambazon has protected 2.5 million acres of the Amazon rainforest by giving the forest an intrinsic value; we have created an ongoing source of income for local people that incentivizes them to maintain the forest and harvest açaí berries rather than cut down the açaí palms. Sambazon’s contributions helped the Rainforest Alliance secure carbon equal to the yearly emissions of 40.1 million cars in the last year.
Our wild-harvested fair trade açaí helps protect even more of the Amazon as the Brazilian people have a financial incentive to protect the forest that also generates a good quality of life. We are further validating our impact on the Amazon rainforest with research projects, such as a recent biodiversity study we sponsored to measure and document the incredible wildlife and biodiversity that exists in the area where Sambazon harvests its açaí in Brazil.
What are the challenges? Do you see a way for companies to work together on overcoming some of them across the industry?
The natural products industry is full of healthy and sustainably sourced products, but many (including some of ours) are packed in single-use plastics. Plastics are filling up our landfills and ending up in our environment, often in our oceans. Every year about 8 million tons of plastic escapes into the ocean. We need to find better solutions and in order to do this quickly, we are working in partnership with such groups as OSC2’s Packaging Collaborative and Climate Collaborative.
The groups are key to our industry’s success and offer small businesses the opportunity to work together to tackle big problems which we would have a hard time addressing on our own. Only through participation from all stakeholders—manufacturers, recycling/composting companies, packaging suppliers, consumers, retailers, etc.—can we create solutions that benefit the long-term health of our planet and people.
How do you keep climate action as a company priority, and keep your goals ambitious? What does that look like internally?
We have made a public pledge towards reducing our climate impact and we calculate our carbon footprint every year in order to track our climate goals. We operate both of our Sambazon factories in Brazil with the smallest impact possible. In fact, our manufacturing processes are carbon negative up to the port in Brazil. Since açaí is 95% seed, we designed a way to use the seeds (our largest by-product) as a fuel source at our factories. This saves roughly 3,250 hectares of trees from being cut down annually.
Sambazon uses water taken directly from the Amazon River in our factory. It is filtered multiple times using state-of-the-art equipment and then used in the washing, preparation, and processing of the açaí fruit. The wastewater produced in our plant is collected and processed through another filter system before it is returned to the Amazon River, so we ensure that it is cleaner than when it was first collected for our use. We even use the sediment removed from the water as fertilizer to grow different types of seedlings. We donate the seedlings to local açaí harvesters to promote biodiversity. This is unprecedented in our industry.
Looking forward with your own climate work—and the opportunity for industry action on climate—what are you most excited about?
Sambazon has internally launched a sustainable packaging initiative to review and take action on all of our packaging items. We’re testing plant-based packaging options. Our new Sambazon ready-to-eat açaí bowls, for example, are made with a custom-designed bowl and lidding film that is made from 100% plant-based materials. This bowl reduced 43% CO2 emissions and a 47% energy savings when compared to the plastic alternative. We are the first company to launch a 100% plant-based packaging in our CPG category.
What’s your advice for others in the industry looking to tackle climate change in their operations?
Create a culture of sustainability. For those just starting out, make sustainability and climate change a part of your mission and vision. This ensures everything you do comes from a place that not only makes a profit but is good for the planet and people as well. Be willing to keep learning and adapting your business as new technologies and climate priorities arise.
It can be overwhelming to start from zero. So do an evaluation of your entire business, start with quick wins that have a big impact and tackle changes one by one. Sambazon asked our cleaning staff to stop putting plastic liners in our desk garbage cans each night. This small change saves 8,000 plastic bags per year!
Don’t try to tackle changes alone, join industry groups such as the OSC2 Climate Collaborative and the tri (tree) that put like-minded companies together and give you the resources and tools to make lasting change in your operations.