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Organizational Change
How Thrive Market Is Building the World’s First Climate-Positive Retailer

Carbon neutral since day one, we see our next task as going beyond sustainability towards an approach that preserves, heals and actually improves the planet. So, we’ve charted a path to become the world’s first climate-positive grocery store by 2025.

When people ask me about my job, I always tell them that one of the most important things I do is ask a lot of questions. 

I’ve been in the natural foods industry for nearly 30 years. Back when I first started out, if you wanted to know more about an ingredient, you had to look it up in a book. Information was less readily available, which made it easy to think of consumer goods as things that just magically appeared on grocery store shelves. 

But what first inspired me to get into this business — and what still drives me today — is knowing where our food and other products come from, and understanding how they are grown or produced. 

So, in my role as the Chief Merchandising Officer at Thrive Market, I ask a lot of questions. We want to know everything we possibly can about the products we offer to our members. In our 5,000-product catalogue of groceries, supplements, cleaning supplies, personal care products and home products, you won’t find any artificial flavors, colors or preservatives; nor will you find a single food product that contains GMOs in its ingredient list (in fact, we’re the world’s largest GMO-free grocer).

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Once all of those boxes are checked, we dive into farming practices, labor guidelines and community impacts — because without people, we have no products to sell; and without healthy soil, air and water, we have no food at all.

What you will find on our digital shelves are products grown on regenerative farms; many created by women and BIPOC founders; and suitable for dozens of unique diets, needs, and lifestyles. You’ll find the latest innovations in food and healthy living, thanks to our passionate and knowledgeable team of buyers who are constantly keeping tabs on the latest industry and consumer trends. You’ll find foods that are delicious and products that deliver exceptional results. 

Today, information is more available than ever; we’ve got the entire internet literally at our fingertips. This takes transparency to a whole new level, and it prompts us to ask some new questions: How can we go beyond simply knowing where things come from? How can we provide solutions to some of the world’s most pressing problems — such as soil depletion, decreasing biodiversity, and climate change? 

At Thrive Market, our core ethos has always been to solve what we see as the primary problem — access to healthy food and products for all US shoppers, regardless of geography or socioeconomic status — without creating other problems along the way, for people or the planet.

Because of this, environmental responsibility is part of our company DNA. To name just a few examples of our efforts in action: We’ve been carbon neutral since day one — thanks in part to our investment in carbon offsets, through conservation projects such as Envira Amazonia (which works to protect hundreds of thousands of acres of tropical rainforest in Brazil). Our deliveries are always ground shipped, which produces 82 percent less carbon emissions than shipping via air. Our fulfillment centers are wind-powered, use LEED-certified building elements, and employ zero-waste practices. 

We see our next task as going beyond sustainability — which aims to minimize negative environmental impacts — towards an approach that preserves, heals, and actually improves the planet. Simply put, we’re trying to leave the Earth better than we found it.

After working with a team of industry-leading sustainability consultants, we’re focusing on three key areas — carbon, waste, and excess plastic — and charting a five-year path to become the world’s first climate-positive grocery store by 2025. 

Given the scale of the problems at hand and the extremely high stakes, we know even our bold commitments aren’t enough. But for us, the journey starts here.

Carbon emissions produced by our supply chain — known as Scope 3 emissions — make up most of our (and most companies’) carbon footprint. For a business as complex as ours, taking that measurement is a challenge, but it’s a crucial first step. From there, we can take actions to both continue to offset and reduce our overall carbon footprint, which will ultimately help us surpass climate neutrality and meet our first renewed sustainability commitment: to become carbon negative.

At Thrive Market, we see our continued investment in regenerative agriculture as a step in the right direction. This centuries-old farming method restores soil health — which not only guarantees future harvests, but also has the power to transform farmland into carbon sinks, or places that absorb more carbon than they emit. 

Many farmers already use regenerative methods such as composting, crop rotation, and conservation tillage. By working closely with our partners around the globe to better understand the processes currently in place at their farms, we’ve been able to help them transition into 100 percent regenerative operations in many cases. We’re proud to be supporting the return to farming practices that are inherently climate-conscious through curating and developing regenerative items — including 47 new items in this category last year. And many more to come.

Trash is another major contributor to climate change. Think of all the single-use items that wind up in the garbage every day, from cups and straws to paper towels and plastic bags. These things pack a one-two punch for global warming: the greenhouse gas they release once they wind up in a landfill, and the energy consumption required to constantly replace them with new products. 

Since 2015, we’ve had zero-waste practices in place at all of our facilities. In practice, that means recycling, composting, or reusing 90 percent of all materials. At our fulfillment centers, compactors compress cardboard and plastic into bales that can be diverted to recycling facilities. Broken shipping pallets are repurposed as firewood. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, when our Los Angeles headquarters was at full capacity each day, we collected food scraps in the kitchen for compost.

As part of our second commitment to becoming climate positive, we intend to make these mindful practices official in 2022 with Zero Waste Certification.

While we’re on the topic of garbage: Did you know that the US leads the world in generating plastic trash, but only around 10 percent of it is recycled? Our third sustainability commitment on the path to climate positivity is to achieve plastic neutrality by 2023. That will require measuring all plastics sent to our members, starting with our exclusive Thrive Market Goods products. Next comes offsetting those items through partnerships with organizations such as The Plastic Bank — which sets up “recycling ecosystems” in countries that lack sufficient infrastructure, and employs local citizens to collect and divert ocean-bound plastic waste; and rePurpose, which helps individuals and businesses calculate and offset their plastic usage.

A certain amount of plastic packaging is inevitable in our business, so we always seek the most responsible option. Our first choice is compostable or biodegradable packaging — currently, our team is testing compostable leak protection bags and working on sourcing biodegradable pouches for our nut butters; and late last year, we launched our first compostable product (single-serve coffee in tea-like bags). The second-best option is packaging made of recycled content and recyclable materials; our exclusive Thrive Market collection features over 400 products that fit that bill. From there, we’re focused on landfill reduction. 

Of course, recyclable packaging is only good if you actually recycle it — and unfortunately, that can be complicated. To remove some of the guesswork for our members, we recently started using How2Recycle’s standardized labeling system on our packaging to provide clear, simple recycling instructions for different materials. 

Because we know not all recycling programs are created equal, we’re also pioneering a program with WasteZero that will make it easier for our members to responsibly dispose of hard-to-recycle plastic waste, keeping it out of landfills and oceans.

Through the program (which is being tested by a small segment of our members), participants gather their recyclables, place them in a box, add a prepaid shipping label, and send the box to WasteZero — which will sort the items and work with their own recycling partners to repurpose the materials. While WasteZero has been working with cities across the country on recycling and waste-reduction programs, its partnership with Thrive Market is the first of its kind. If it’s successful, the next step will be to offer it to more members.

It would be a cop-out to chalk up harm to the planet and its people as the unavoidable collateral damage of running a nationwide consumer goods company in this modern age. I think our industry can, and must, do a lot better than that.

When I got into the natural foods business in the early ’90s, I was joining more than an industry; I was joining a movement. It was in some ways a backlash to the rise of mass consumer culture in the 1950s and ’60s, and a welcome return to the good old days of real, minimally processed, healthy, organic food. 

Accompanying that step change on the consumer side was a seismic shift on the business side — away from the traditional capitalist climate of intense competition, and towards a culture of collaboration. Before then, it was unheard of for like-minded brands to find the common ground in their missions and try to solve problems together. Finally, companies were realizing they were on the same team, and that by sharing the power, they could be a force for good.

That spirit of joining forces around a shared fate makes me optimistic about the future. As Thrive Market doubles down on our mission to build a better market and future, my hope is that others follow suit. We know that everyone can win and business can be a catalyst for positive change. All it takes is some thoughtfulness, collaboration, empathy and commitment.