Walking the Talk: A CEO to CEO Interview
Founders of bambu®, Jeff Delkin and Rachel Speth, sit down with CEO of the American Sustainable Business Council, Jeffrey Hollender, to share their thoughts on being a sustainable business leader. They discuss and share engaging in policy efforts that defend the triple bottom line and the experiences and outcomes of having to say “no” when new business opportunities can compromise the larger mission and the organization’s commitment to sustainability.
Jeffrey: A little over a year ago the Co-Founder of the Small Giants Community, Paul Spiegelman, published a piece on bambu, How Strong Company Values Gave This Small Business The Power To Say No (And Yes), where, among other things, you were able to share your story on how bambu got started. Can you tell us about bambu and your commitment to sustainability?
Jeff: Sure. Our mission from the very beginning, when we were conceptualizing our business plan, was to create meaningful products. Both Rachel and I came from a consumer goods background. Rachel has always been entrepreneurial. Our focus was to provide people with well-designed, high quality, plastic-free products made from natural resources. We are both from the Pacific Northwest and have a strong affinity with the natural environment.
Rachel: My last 3 years at Nike, my focus was on sustainability. We wanted to see if we could be successful at creating a business model that was founded exclusively on renewable materials, adhered to fair trade practices, integrated a strong give-back component, and be profitable. We focused a lot on our supply chain and minimizing our impacts along the way.
Jeffrey: Why bamboo? What makes it the ideal material?
Jeff: While living and working in Asia, we came to experience and appreciate this wonderful renewable material and its use and application in countless ways.
Rachel: I remember being in awe the first time we saw bamboo used as scaffolding along a modern high rise building in Hong Kong. Or discovering its ceremonial application in Japan. Or as a common material in daily use items around the home. For instance, clothespins, spoons, toothpicks. Bamboo is particularly extraordinary because of the vast use and application. Remember, this was in the mid-1990s before bamboo had become a known material in the US, beyond use in the garden.
After 9/11, people traveled less and became more focused on the home. Cooking, farmers markets, organic options were growing, the Food Network exploded, and the kitchen was the new entertainment room. These were driving factors in why we choose kitchenwares.
Jeffrey: What are some of the challenges you have experienced as a business owner that come with staying true to the core values of bambu? And how have you overcome them?
Jeff: One of our current goals is working to eliminate plastic from all our packaging, we’re 95% there! It’s a challenge. Consumers have come to appreciate the advantages of plastic – it can be molded, hard, soft, elastic. Plastic can be clear and colorful, and produced at a low cost.
And as we know, there are numerous and substantial hidden ‘costs’ in our overuse of plastic. And it’s causing lasting damage to the plants.
Rachel: Conversely, natural alternatives tend to be limited. And brown. Not always the most beautiful or affordable options. But innovation is at work, and that’s encouraging. In a consumer world where we are surrounded by bright, colorful plastic options, it is challenging for a company like ours to stay true to our values. Let’s take silicone for example. It’s often touted as an eco-friendly material, but with no recycling options, there is no end-of-life means of disposal other than going into the landfill. Plus, there is no data to suggest that silicone is even safe.
We have made it our mission to create products that replace plastic. As we conceive a product, we look at all aspects of the lifecycle including end-of-life. It’s the ‘leave no trace’ objective. Our goal is to design and make quality products that do no harm, at any stage of its lifecycle.
Jeff: Certainly, working cross-culturally can be a challenge. Local customs, certain behaviors and language, policy and law, currency and trade, and time zones can all add to the challenge. Rachel and I have been living in China and Asia for over 20 years so much of it is familiar. But every day can pose a new challenge. We have learned to be comfortable working with uncertainty.
We produce in China because that puts us in close proximity to our material sources, and to the people who have the expertise working with these materials. Our teams know how to harvest and cure and finish better than anything we have seen elsewhere. It is the sole reason we are here. Abundant renewable material matched with the people who know how to work with it. We couldn’t do this anywhere else. Nor could we achieve the level or design and quality unless we were here on the ground.
Rachel: Another challenge for us is that nothing ever stays the same. Things are always in a state of change. We can’t assume the status quo, manufacturers go out of business, technology disrupts WHOLE industries, buyers move on, leadership changes, and for us, even weather can be a challenging factor. We need to remain nimble, plan ahead, and build contingency plans whenever possible.
Jeffrey: What does it mean for bambu and your stakeholders for all of your bamboo to be sourced overseas?
Rachel: We are very local in the structure of our supply chain. We have lived and worked in China for more than a decade. We source locally and produce where we have the manufacturing experience. We have built a very green supply chain. The only weak point, and one that is somewhat of a conundrum for us, is that we have to transport our products from Asia to the US. While we do utilize lower impact methods, it is a reality that our material is in one location, and our customers in another.
Jeff: With China’s middle class growing, wages increasing, and technological advances, things are changing quickly. China is no longer the factory to the world. China is no longer the factory to the world. Honestly, that’s good. China’s consumers are increasingly aware of environmental impacts, often choose organic, and are living healthier lifestyles than ever before. We are working on a China-for-China model for our business.
Rachel: I would also add that in China, at the local level where we work, people share the same needs and have the same concerns as people in the US. We forget that SOMETIMES. They want to take care of their families, provide opportunities for their children, and be proud of the work they do. It’s a different story than the one being played out in world politics at the leadership level.
Jeffrey: Are there policy issues related to the import and export of bamboo?
Rachel: We are entering a new chapter in international relations between our two countries. Trade tariffs are in effect and being further considered. At this moment, we don’t know how our business will be affected over the long term.
Jeffrey: What are some of your biggest policy concerns as CEO of bambu? And how would you like to see these policy issues addressed, ideally?
Jeff: We are proponents of renewable energy and using renewables products as alternatives to plastic. There is no tax relief or incentives for utilizing eco-friendly materials. Either at the manufacturing side or in the US. We would support the notion of favorable status to low impact, eco-friendly imports. Or Imagine, China and the US working together to create joint policy on climate and plastic pollution. That’s a big idea that could reap huge benefits.
Jeffrey: What have you or your staff, done to take your concerns to policymakers?
Jeff: Certainly sharing views and concerns with others in the green community. We keep an eye on discussions among policymakers. Trade, China relations, sustainable solutions, are all topics of conversation and debate.
Jeffrey: Can you talk about some of the opportunities or business ventures you have had to turn down or walk away from due to others not having the same care for sustainable procurement, environmental sustainability, or sustainable business practices in general, as you?
Jeff: It’s not just about sustainability practices or beliefs. Some companies have impressive sustainability credentials. Sometimes, we decide to not do business with a group that would compromise our values. For instance, we had to stop business with a customer we had the pleasure of working with for more than 15 years. New leadership came on board, and priorities shifted. Consequently, integrity issues were breached. So, we were forced to make a tough call and end our relationship. We don’t like turning away business, but if we feel it will compromise our ideals and devalue our brand, then we have to consider that.
Rachel: On the manufacturing side, we have refused to work with suppliers who don’t meet our
social and ethical standards. We absolutely have to be at the source of our production. We personally view and audit all producers and potential producers. We couldn’t do what we do unless we have an on-going and active presence in Asia.
Jeff: We do not sell to mass merchandisers and discount chains. Since our beginning, we have made it a focus to work with and support smaller businesses, and independents. We find that large retailers are often insensitive to the workings of a small vendor like ourselves. And yet,
it is often with the small companies that many of the best business ideas and products originate from.
Jeffrey: How does walking away from those types of opportunities affect you as a business leader and your bottom line?
Jeff: It’s difficult. We have to make tough decisions. It’s not always about the money. When you are a values-led company, you have to stand by what’s important to you. We have always taken a long view on our business and brand building. Sometimes saying ‘yes’ can put you out of business.
Jeffrey: Are there any large retailers that have similar values that bambu is working with? Any that you would like to work with in the future?
Rachel: We are currently implementing a program with Anthropologie. Now this was a company that previously didn’t engage us on a professional level. It was not a good experience. But things change when new leadership steps in. We’ve recently had a good experience with the new buying team. Relationships matter so much in business.
Jeff: We are now working with REI. We enjoy a longstanding relationship with Whole Foods and New Seasons, two companies that share similar values. Patagonia is a company we admire and wok like to work with.
Jeffrey: Can you talk about your expansion from home goods to the outdoor segment and the impact bambu has had on the industry?
Rachel: We gravitate towards the passion industries. We’ve been embraced both in the Outdoor and Natural Products segments. Buyers are the consumers, and passionate about the products that interact with. There is a high degree of enthusiasm and support that is different from the housewares industry.
Jeff: The Outdoor industry consumes an enormous amount of plastic. We were shocked, but we were also inspired. We offered an unmet need that fits well between cheap plastic and expensive titanium. So, we set it upon ourselves to help green the industry one spoon at a time.
Jeffrey: ASBC works on many sustainability issues, with environmental sustainability being one of core pillars at the moment, along with high road workplace practices. Can you share some ways in which bambu has taken the high road and implemented responsible workplace practices within the business model?
Rachel: We do a lot of education work with our teams in China. We felt it was essential that we inform and educate our staff and our producer groups of the importance of responsible business practices. Being a B Corp business has given us a great platform to educate and work from. And it has instilled a greater sense of purpose among our team.
Jeff: ‘Everything matters’ is a credo we refer to often. Whether it’s how we answer an email or how we interact with a customer, or how we treat a vendor. It all makes a difference.
We also involve everyone in our company in deciding the recipients of our charitable donations. Because what’s important or of interest to me or Rachel, may be different for our team. People work hard for the company, it only seems natural that they should have a voice in which organizations we support.
Rachel: Recently, the question of diversity came up from a customer who received our latest catalog. She asked why we didn’t have more people of color in our collateral. It was a great question! While we are well represented with Chinese, and women, we can absolutely do better with people of color. And it’s a topic that we in the green industry should be leading. Something we’re already thinking about.
Jeffrey: Since your sit down with Spiegelman what’s changed? What do you want the world to know about bambu?
Jeff: We’re working to change the world. Change mindsets about plastic, join with other businesses who are providing better alternatives. And, creating appreciation for objects made from nature, and the natural world in general. With appreciation comes respect, and care. And if people care about something, then they will protect it. Plus, there is an inherent beauty in things created from nature that is too often overlooked. We’re trying to turn that around.
Rachel: From day one, our goal has been to change buying behavior. So that people consider all aspects of a product, and the type of company they choose to buy from. We feel that things are shifting. The recent trends around food, wellness and healthy living are good indicators.
Jeffrey: What’s next for bambu?
Jeff: We are focused on profitable growth and continue to instill the values we’ve established across all our stakeholders. We didn’t start bambu with an exit in mind. It was always more about building a brand and creating a culture that could benefit many.
Rachel: We’d like to be more involved in community, policy changing and teaching students and entrepreneurs about responsible business leadership. We began our business before B Corp was established. Yet, B Corp reflects the very principles we set out to build into our business from the beginning. Specifically, meeting the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability to balance profit and purpose. My hope is that someday all companies will follow these same practices.
On the larger scale, while we’re not political advocates, we are working to incite change through our business. We’re seeing policy change, not necessarily led by government, or even business, but because of the desires of people. Individuals are applying pressure and forcing business to change. Case in point, the recent and growing plastic bans around the world. More than ever, the people have a voice. And that’s encouraging.
Change is all around us. From changing consumer tastes, to manufacturing techniques, trade policy, and the impacts of new technologies. In the midst of all this change, we continue to try and focus on making the highest quality products we can.