Leading Voices in Global Sustainability
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Co-Founder & CEO, Footprint
10 Questions to Change The World
How do you think climate change and the global sustainability agenda will
impact your industry over the next 3-5 years?
Footprint was founded with a mission to create a healthier planet with a first phase focused on innovating alternatives to single- and short-term use plastics we saw in the supermarket. When we started the company, there were no good alternatives to plastic that could withstand complex scenarios like freezers, ovens, microwaves, and long-term shelf life, and perform like plastic protecting food quality, and preventing mishaps like leaking. The plastics Industry continued to grow, buoyed by the cheap price of petroleum, the base ingredient for most plastics, and the myths of plastic recycling, which helped consumers feel better about using disposable containers and packaging because they believed the recycling logo on the bottom and the waste bin meant their plastic waste would be recycled. We've seen national and International change now in awareness about the toxins found In plastic at all stages - production emitting CO2, a non-renewable resource, chemicals leaching from plastic containers into food, and the realities of plastic ending up In landfills and waterways at the end of use. One study actually refers to plastic as "the new coal" in terms of its damage on human and planet health. Innovation and awareness mean the industry for plant-based materials is now exploding. Footprint counts some of the largest food manufacturers, consumer products companies and retailers in the world as our customers.
Three primary tailwinds are working to accelerate demand, which we only see increasing in the next several years. They are 1) regulations that are all-out banning single-used plastics like straws, cups, plates, cutlery, etc at both local and international levels driving demand for new solutions 2) corporate climate pledge commitments, a part of which includes eliminating plastic packaging, sourcing renewable materials, and overall CO2 reduction 3) consumer consciousness about what they're consuming and the Impact It has on society. Combined, we expect evolution to plant-based materials to be the new normal for everything from packaging to one-time-use consumer products.
What is one ‘sustainability hack’ you’d recommend to an organisation wanting to transform into a more sustainable operation?
That is different for every company. It depends on what the priorities are, and how they're being measured. For one, ban all water bottles and coffee cups that aren't reusable or from a renewable source. Just cutting down on water bottles in an office, and paper coffee cups that are all lined In plastic and not recyclable, can be a great hack to break the habit of a grab-and-toss mentality. Install a filtered water system, and give employees reusable water bottles to use at work.
Combined, we expect evolution to plant-based materials to be the new normal for everything from packaging to one-time-use consumer products.
Give them a coffee mug or suggest that they bring their own. This can be a great way to demonstrate company values of sustainability, influence behaviour outside of the office (and get people excited about getting a company giveaway).
Why have you embraced sustainability in your professional career?
I saw first hand the damage plastic outgassing was doing to computer wafers during shipping when I was working at Intel. This was the spark behind the eventual founding of Footprint. Our premise was that If plastic packaging could damage something as sophisticated as a computer wafer, what must It be doing to food coming home from the grocery store? With some experiments and testing, we determined that there was literally nothing coming home from the supermarket that we tested, from pineapple spears to meat, that didn’t have plastic in it leaching from the packaging.
Studies show that people are consuming a credit card's worth of plastic every week from their food and drink. Babies are being born with chemicals that can be traced back to what their moms were eating and drinking during pregnancy without even realizing it. So that was all concerning. At the same time, I grew up surfing in southern California and on vacations, more and more I was seeing the plastic pollution pile up along shorelines. My partner Yoke Chung and I founded Footprint with urgency to make sure we could contribute to a healthier planet for our kids by finding plant-based solutions to replace plastic to tackle the issue from both a human and a planet health perspective. So mine is a bit of an "accidental environmentalist" story, but now I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.
What are some of the wins you have achieved in your career to date?
There's no limit to what you can do in this field, there's a bounty of options career-wise in sustainability.
One of the biggest wins is convincing our first customer to partner with us on the journey to solve the plastic problem, by prototyping, testing, learning and re-building again and again to get our first market-ready solutions done, and then scaling those to millions of people. That was the start of the proven innovation we needed to keep going, attract new customers, and attract a strong investor base.
As a company Footprint has had many wins, from the acceleration of customers we have today, to awards and recognition, ranging from CNBC Disruptor 50 to Fast Company Innovator to Newsweek's Planet Protector recognition. But I have to say I'm especially pleased that in 2021 we were named Conagra's sustainability partner of the year - a huge honor from one of the world's largest food brands and one of our most important customers. From a company growth perspective, I am truly passionate about our people and the incredible scientists, engineers and problem solvers we've been able to recruit. Building a team of almost 3,000 people around the world to help solve the plastic crisis is humbling, and also inspiring because it means we've got top talent helping to make the world a better place.
What do you want to have achieved before you retire?
I am on a journey right now to make sure we can scale our solutions to as many organizations that want it and that's taking more than all of my time right now. I want to say yes to every customer who knocks on our door, and we are building capacity as quickly as possible to be able to offer solutions to existing and all new scenarios. That said, I have four kids, and I am acutely aware of what it takes to succeed as a young person in today's world. I hope to be able to do more and more to ensure kids have access to the support they need to get off to a good start every day. One of my personal passions - that no kid should go to school hungry - will be something I'll get more involved with.
What advice would you give for organisations looking to start or advance on their sustainability journey?
There's no limit to what you can do in this field. Whether your passion is sourcing new materials, manufacturing, data analysis, technology, robotics, artificial intelligence, computer coding or even accounting, there's a bounty of options career-wise in sustainability. It's a broad term but basically - almost any skill is needed. In fact, it's urgent. The planet depends on it. I would also say it's important to be a personal planet protector - start doing things in your own life to walk your talk - get rid of short-term use plastic, say no to companies not offering you options, take your own grocery bag to the supermarket, resist plastic bags, walk and bike more, turn off the lights, drive an electric car. All of these things can help and personal responsibility is a big part of making collective impact.
Who do you go to for inspiration in this space?
I would also say it's important to be a personal planet protector - start doing things in your own life to walk your talk.
I have a lot of inspiration every day from our customers and from our employees. Our customers are always pushing us to innovate, and help them solve problems they really want to solve. I have a strong inner circle of investors and supporters who also inspire me and challenge me when needed. I am a voracious reader, so I tend to gravitate toward entrepreneurial thinkers, and courageous risk takers in what I choose to read. I'm inspired by Andy Grove, Marc Benioff, Paul Polman for example. That said, my kids are really the biggest inspiration if I'm honest. You can't get anything past teenagers and mine will constantly stretch me to dream bigger, and never give up.
- Footprint Co-Founders, Troy Swope and Yoke Chung -
How do you offset your own footprint?
I drive electric, I only have re-usable water bottles in my home, I never use bags at the grocery store, I develop technologies that reduce C02 emissions, to name a few.
What is your one ‘guilty / non-eco’ pleasure? (that you can’t live without)
Airplanes. I travel for work, and I love to experience new places for fun. I haven’t figured out a more eco-friendly way to get to Paris yet, my favorite city on earth, without one.
If you had to choose one person, organisation or community to lead the world in sustainability, who would it be and why?
Gen Z - To stereotype a group: They are actively aware of their impact on the environment, they are curious technologists, innovators and investors. They demonstrate empathy and once they get more actual "PLAYING TIME" this will be the generation that will push us all to rise.
"If working apart we are a force powerful enough to destabilise our planet, surely working together we are powerful enough to save it. In my lifetime I have witnessed a terrible decline. In yours you could - and should - see a wonderful recovery.”
- Sir David Attenborough