Several months ago, I announced a big goal publicly: my company, Seattle Chocolate, would be carbon negative by 2024. It was ambitious, bold, and seemingly out of reach—which is precisely how I knew it was the right goal to set.
Sustainability is a key focus for my business today, but it wasn’t always the case. Like most entrepreneurs, I spent the first years focusing on survival. I had a vision to make the world a better place through chocolate—but in order for any of that to happen, the company had to be financially sustainable.
It took 10 years to get our business profitable and stable. Slowly, I began shifting my focus to using the company as a vehicle to make a mark in the world—one that would outlive me.
I’ve always been a “tree hugger” at heart. Spending the last 36 years in the Pacific Northwest among remarkable landscapes created a connection to the planet. Sustainability became a natural choice: it would be one way I would leave a legacy through chocolate.
Whether you are thinking about legacy or not, our businesses are incredible vehicles we can use to make an impact on the world around us.
Here are some of the practices I’ve leveraged to inspire our company’s sustainability impact.
Motivate with hope, not fear
Years ago, I attended the Natural Product Expo (a cornerstone trade show in the natural consumer packaged goods world). I sat in a crowd and listened to a fantastic keynote speaker. One sentence resonated with me: “We have 100 months left before the damage from global warming is irreversible.”
These facts and statistics can be sobering. Many people often have a visceral reaction to them, almost feeling burdened with guilt and fear about the current state of the environment. A worry that the earth is going to implode and become uninhabitable quickly sets in.
Returning from that trade show, I was filled with a sense of urgency—but I also felt a sense of hope.
“At least we have 100 months,” is what I kept telling myself.
When the problem feels large, a sense of helplessness can quickly overcome us—and it’s not a good place for anyone to be in. Leading with hope was the only way forward.
My team and I broke the “big problem” down into smaller steps: we leveraged GreenFeet to audit our carbon footprint, analyzed each area of our business, set KPIs and milestones, assigned accountabilities, and built a roadmap to becoming carbon neutral (and then, eventually, carbon negative).
In the process, I learned that hope will always be the greatest motivator and the most effective tool in the entrepreneurial toolkit. Motivate with hope, not fear.
At this point, we’re now down to about 87 months – and yet I feel just as hopeful as ever.
Effort goes a long way
Within 90 days of hearing that there were 100 months before the planet suffered irreversible damage, Seattle Chocolate became carbon neutral.
How did we actually achieve this in such a short period of time?
We reached out to all of our vendors, including the primary vendor from whom we purchase chocolate. We researched. We asked our vendors hard questions. We challenged them and ourselves.
In the process, we realized there were many areas of our supply chain which we had overlooked from a sustainability perspective. For example, the plastic bags we had been using (and throwing away) for years were recyclable. Vendors never told us because we never asked.
Now, we recycle these bags.
Part of the effort came down to setting out internal processes. We implemented a policy to look to other vendors if the vendor we are currently working with is not willing to implement sustainable practices. Unless they figure out how to work within our parameters, we will not work with them.
Sometimes it’s the smallest efforts, whether it be asking hard questions of your existing vendors or implementing new processes that trigger transformation, that have the largest impact. My best learning: put in small efforts and let the changes carry you forward toward bigger efforts.
Lead by listening
Six years ago, I received a letter from a woman named Betty from Oregon. In the letter, she enclosed one of our Seattle Chocolate wrappers and a note that said: “This is garbage.”
Betty, who had worked for a recycling company in Oregon, claimed the packaging that we used to wrap our chocolate was not recyclable; the only means of disposal was tossing it in the trash.
I had been assured that our packaging was recyclable, yet I checked again with our packaging vendor. The vendor reconfirmed that the packaging we had purchased from them was entirely recyclable. I still wondered, “Why did Betty say that?”
My team and I dug deeper. It didn’t take long to make an interesting discovery: while the paper and the plastic that we used were each recyclable, the bonding of the two of them together rendered the packaging no longer recyclable. Betty from Oregon was right.
It took us six months to trial and error a new wrap that wouldn’t tear at retail and would be entirely recyclable. Once we accomplished it, I wrote Betty a letter back saying, “I did it. And thank you for caring enough to point it out!”
The best leaders listen more than they speak. Sometimes that means listening to customers, like Betty from Oregon, in a real way. The result is a positive feedback loop: when people feel like they are being listened to, they will feel more motivated to support and participate in the big goal you are trying to achieve.
Entrepreneurs are the changemakers the world needs. We can move fast, take on ambitious projects, and create change that can ripple out far beyond the boundaries of our companies. Why shouldn’t we take the lead on sustainability, the most pressing issue that all human beings are facing right now?
My journey tackling sustainability reminds me that we have a choice when we look at a big mountain before us: either we feel empowered to take it one step forward, or we feel hopeless about the size and scope of it, never taking a step forward and never making any progress.
Hope creates momentum—and once momentum occurs, who knows what legacy you will leave behind in the world long after you’re gone?
Contributed to EO by Jean Thompson, an EO Seattle member and the CEO of Seattle Chocolate and jcoco. After delivering an acclaimed TEDx Talk in 2017 titled “Imagine a World Without Chocolate,” Jean has been on a mission to spread the chocolate revolution.