When Eric Hudson founded Preserve in 1996, his goal was to turn America’s recycling into household products that are attractive for more than their sustainable nature. While Preserve initially got its start making toothbrushes from recycled materials, his broader mission, he says, was “to reverse the harm caused by the industrial age by showing that products can be better to use and lighter on the Earth.”
“I wanted to create a business that we all could feel great about going to every day, that is genuinely going to have a good purpose and lighten the footprint of products on the Earth,” Hudson says. “The climate crisis that we’re currently in was definitely not happening then. My motivation was more along the lines of being more resourceful.”
Over the last 20-plus years, Hudson and his colleagues have made good on that goal by building Preserve into a leading sustainable consumer goods company and producer of 100% recycled household products while also acting to counter the U.S. emissions created through the production, use, and disposal of consumer products. And, with its latest POPi initiative, the company has expanded into directly addressing the ocean plastic crisis through a line of toothbrushes and razors made from plastic waste collected from coastlines and waterways at risk of entering and polluting oceans.
But they realize much more remains to be done, as I learned while talking with Hudson and Deana Becker, director of stakeholder operations at Preserve, as part of the research for my upcoming book, Better Business. They shared how Preserve’s operations have been guided by Hudson’s early goal and, as COVID-19 reshapes businesses and our economy, Preserve has made changes in their processing and distribution models. Guided by its values as a Certified B Corporation, a corporate certification that assesses a company’s social and environmental impacts, Hudson and his team are leaning into its aligned partnerships to keep the mission and the business alive.
From the Curb to the Kitchen
Hudson’s vision for Preserve from the start was to make beautiful, useful products from the items that people were putting in their recycling bins and taking to the curb. Recycled yogurt cups are used to create colorful toothbrushes; takeout containers are transformed into tableware.
“It’s been a good place to be focused,” Hudson says, noting that the amount of plastics in U.S. landfills and oceans around the world continues to climb. “We certainly want to reduce pollution emissions by reusing Earth’s resources, but we also realize we’re getting into a finite world here as far as resources are concerned for reuse and resourcefulness in our business. We’re now steering into new realms in food service and in household materials.”
By using recycled plastic for its products, Preserve advances several goals: reducing the amount of virgin plastic to save water, energy and electricity; and encouraging recycling to lower the amount of plastic in landfills and beaches. The last goal helped provide the motivation for its newest project, the Preserve Ocean Plastic Initiative (POPi), that launched this spring.
Using plastics collected from coastlines and waterways, Preserve is creating POPi toothbrushes and razors and donating 25% of proceeds for those items to nonprofits working to stop the flow of plastic pollution—an estimated 8 million tons a year—from source to sea. POPi became a reality in part because of a B Corp partnership between Preserve and Grove Collaborative, an online subscription platform for sustainable home products that helped get POPi off the ground through prepaid orders for the products.
“In essence, they helped us develop and launch this product and program, which we’re extremely excited about,” Hudson says. “Grove supported POPi from its ideation stage, and we’re launching the products with them.”
While the coronavirus pandemic has halted operations at some U.S. manufacturing plants, Becker says POPi production was able to continue.
“We’ve been lucky to have great manufacturing partners who are, in most cases, considered essential, so continuing to manufacture razors is not an issue,” she says. “It’s an example that positive things continue to happen in the world.”
Partnerships Provide Strength in a Pandemic
COVID-19 has meant other business challenges for Preserve, as sudden shutdowns reduced demand for many products in its food service division, which sells cutlery and other items to universities, convention centers, health care facilities, and clients including Whole Foods Market.
“We had to take drastic action,” Hudson says, noting that as a B Corp the company considered how its actions would affect workers, customers, community and environment, as well as the business’ bottom line. “We would never change our sustainability initiatives to cut costs. That would go against everything that we created this company for.
“We’ve been transparent about our financial situation,” he says. “Every partner that we work with, whether they’re B Corps or not, has principles that are aligned with ours. All of them were incredibly supportive of the changes that we needed to make to reduce our expenses.”
Those close partnerships are another hallmark of Preserve’s operations, Hudson says, and a perk of being part of the B Corp community.
“We have a penchant for partnerships to begin with, so the B Corp community is our closest platform for partnering with other companies, whether it’s marketing initiatives, social initiatives, or environmental,” he says.
Becker adds that beyond the partnerships, the B Corp structure provides a gauge for businesses and motivation for continual improvement through the B Impact Assessment that measures a company’s impact on workers, community, environment, and customers.
“The process, in and of itself, is incredibly valuable for any organization, because it really is going through a lot of things that no one person is ever looking at on a daily basis,” Becker says. “It’s a really interesting process of getting different internal groups talking about these issues.
While Preserve historically has scored well on the assessment’s environmental side, she says the company found it had room for improvement in other areas.
“Certainly, we can keep improving on the environmental side, but we’ve also seen there’s a lot more that we can do on the community side,” she says. “The B Impact Assessment provides best practices and ideas for how to move some of those pieces forward. We’ve continued to look at things that we may have been doing in an informal way – and the assessment has had us institutionalize those things so they are ongoing.”