Pouring Out a New Look for Milk

Pouring Out a New Look for Milk

In the U.S., milk typically comes in plastic or glass bottles or cartons. But earlier this month, Straus Family Creamery put new kind of bottle in the milk case, one that combines a stiff paper shell with a thin plastic pouch inside.

Julie Corbett, founder of Ecologic Brands, the company that developed the packaging, spoke with GreenBiz Radio about the inspiration behind the package and how they'll know if it's successful both in protecting milk and drawing in customers.

Jonathan Bardelline: First off could you give me a little background on how Ecologic Brands came about?

Julie Corbett: I come out of the investment industry. I worked for, actually, an Oakland-based investment manager for many, many years. I didn’t know much about packaging. I didn’t know much about the beverage world in general. I just dealt  with my clients and looking at different types of investments for them.  
Basically in September of 2008 we were just at a time when, as a family, we were really trying to reduce the amount of waste that we consume in our house, and a lot of that was targeted towards minimizing the amount of plastic bottles that we buy for ourselves in water or soft drinks or juices.
This investment opportunity came about in our firm, and it was basically a beverage company that was looking very appealing. So for the first time I was exposed to a little bit about beverage companies and how they push their product through. And this beverage company was about to launch a new drink in the supermarket, and this new drink in the supermarket which had never been launched, was kind of a smoothie-like thing.

And when they were talking about the volume sales that they were expecting, I was completely floored that a very small brand with very little national reach could talk in terms of tens and hundreds of millions of bottles a year. And it really got me thinking like, if this small brand expects to sell this much, how much are these bigger brands [selling]. It was very eye-opening to me, and I realized, “My goodness, there lies the problem.  I mean there’s hundreds and hundreds of brands like this. No wonder we have such a problem on our hands.”
As a consumer, when you start making different choices, it’s one thing to make different choices, but it’s another thing to think about solutions. So for some reason in my mind I just was completely perplexed by what would be the solution. How do we come about solutions? So I kind of embarked on a personal journey to really understand materials and all that stuff to understand what can be options.

And the reality is is that everybody’s looking for the biodegradable plastics, everybody’s trying to enhance the recycling stream, but in the end we’re still making hundreds of billions of bottles a year. And most of them aren’t getting to where they need to go, and that’s in the recycling bin or being recycled. I started looking at these biodegradable plastics, and I realized they weren’t really the magic bullet because they’re so controversial because they don’t really biodegrade unless they’re in industrial composting, and there’s very few facilities in the United States who actually do industrial compost.

I really thought about paper, and if you would think through the recycling stream, you think that in the end paper is probably the most successfully recycled material in the United States, Canada and pretty much all over the world. It inherently is so easy to recycle because it’s a fiber-based product, and all the energy is really put into place in trying to make virgin paper because you’re cutting trees and you have to make pulp to make paper.  
But once that process has been done, recreating paper out of waste paper is actually fairly easy and actually carbon minimizing. Since it’s such a successful recycled material and the infrastructure is there pretty much everywhere in the United States, I started thinking, well, what about a paper bottle made out of recycled material, but that’s not so easy.

It took an iPhone, when I ordered my new iPhone, to make me realize there was a huge advancement. When I looked at the tray inside my iPhone, it was made out of molded fiber. I knew that they took molded fiber and they made egg cartons out of it. We’re all very familiar with that. But I didn’t realize how evolved that technology had become and how beautiful. It really gave me the first idea of thinking, “Okay. Well, what if you molded, just like this tray in my iPhone, you molded this fiber, and if the technology was there, into a bottle?”

JB: Now, had you seen similar bottles to this before?

JC: No, I hadn’t.

JB: We’ve seen at least a couple. They’re small examples, but we’ve seen them elsewhere in the U.K.

JC: Yeah. I think you’re talking about GreenBottle, and no, I haven’t. At that point I did not actually, to be honest with you. And also just a caveat, being Canadian I drank my whole life, and like every Canadian, drank milk out of milk pouches, where you buy a milk pouch and you bring it home and you put it in a permanent container at home.  These milk pouches are the most efficient, the greenest way to actually manufacture and package milk compared to rigid containers. And they're about four grams of polyethylene versus about 56 grams of plastic used in a regular milk jug, so it’s super minimizing, and Canadians have adapted to this and have been doing it for 20, 30 years. Proven, proven technology.
Countries like Israel, the U.K., South America, Africa. Africa bottles water in these pouches. This is what I’m familiar with, and I always wondered why there were no American milk pouches. Actually, it first started with origami. I thought if you created a shell by bending paper and folding paper and then having the thin bladder, a thin pouch inside, the Canadian milk pouch inside. So you have your pouch that keeps the material in and keeps it kind of clean and sanitary and aseptic and then you have this shell that provides structure so it could sit upright and you could pour from.

Clearly there’s a reason why Americans aren’t adapting to the Canadian milk pouch. Somehow it’s not an appealing format to them. They like rigid containers. This bottle is really something that is, I think, the perfect bottle to take Americans down the road to sustainability.  
One, because the first thing is that I think Americans have had the same packaging options available to them pretty much for as long as we all know. For all the new products and all the things that we’ve seen in the healthy living, organic category, we’re still stuck with the same packages. This is really finally giving Americans the ability to choose. And the ability to choose is an important step into starting on the road to sustainability.

JB: And you’re currently testing it with Straus and Whole Foods?

JC: Yeah, we are. I mean Straus, as you know, I mean they’re such a leader in the environmental and sustainability movement. It was the first dairy west of the Mississippi, very beloved brand name by many, quality milk and cheese and yogurt. So of course it takes an environmental steward like Straus to sort of try this and test this out.  
It’s not meant to replace their glass by any means, but there are people and channels that don’t take glass, but would love to drink Straus milk. So this is to give their following or people who would love to be buying their milk another option. So we’re testing it, and of course Whole Foods has always been so supportive of new ideas and products, so it was a natural to approach Whole Foods to be at the center of this test.  
And Whole Foods has been very supportive and why we choose Oakland as our launching pad and our test center is that, of all the stores in the Bay Area, Oakland is probably the most diverse in its set of clientele -- socioeconomically, ethnically, urban and suburban, just the overall kind of profile of consumers there is extremely diverse. And it’s a very, very successful store in the Whole Foods chain. And we’re an Oakland-based company. Everybody has to work out glitches, but it’s been – I think the consumer’s been very clearly, very receptive to it because it’s doing very well. So we’re very, very grateful.

JB: And with this test did you get Straus to try it out first and then got Whole Foods' buy in to stock it?

JC: Because we’re not coating the paper, putting it through the distribution chain where it’s wet, it’s humid, long distances are traveled sometimes...we need to test it all out, so that’s why we chose only one store.

Before we did this store test, we actually did a consumer test in June, where we delivered it to people’s homes. One-hundred-fifty people got this bottle. Half of them were Straus loyals. Half of them were people who don’t buy Straus, who buy regular milk cartons. People loved the functionality of it. In fact, they loved the gripability. It wasn’t slippery like a milk carton. It poured better. Children were able to pour it. What came out, which was a bit shocking to us, is how much people loved the pourability functionality of it.
But it’s one thing for people to taste it at home and love it, it’s another for it to make it through the rigors of a distribution network and channels that a bottle has to go through before it hits the shelf. After this test it was clear to Straus that there was some merit in this bottle, and we needed to sort of see what it looked like on the shelf and whether consumers would actually reach for it and buy it.

JB: Is there anything significant from the test so far that you’ve learned?

JC: This has been a work in progress for two years, two long years in the making. To see the bottle filled and then put on trucks on loading docks in pouring, pouring torrential rain, and looking at it on the shelf and it actually looks pretty good. Maybe the label might be a bit creased or bumpy, but if the label’s the problem and not the bottle then you feel pretty good.
Because if the bottle doesn’t look very nice, nobody’s going to buy it. I mean we’re still visual consumers. There’s a lot of people who know a lot of things, but the average person does not have the bandwidth, nor the time, to be completely educated on the complications of what our recycling systems are, what it takes to convert stuff into other things, the realities of it all, how things are made, how things need to be. But they are interested, they do care about the environment, but they have very little choices. 

JB: And with the test with Straus and Whole Foods, how long is this going on and at what point do you kind of say that the test is over and then assess from there, and if it’s successful, what’s the next step?

JC: The goals of the test are really to understand if there is a demand. When a new product is on the market people might buy it once because it’s a novel solution or it’s a novel thing -- “Oh, this is cute.  I’ll buy it" -- but they don’t necessarily come back and buy it.

So what we’re trying to establish, and it’s important to establish, is: So they take it off the shelf, they put it in their shopping cart, is it going to perform well enough through that even into the bag, into the car, into their fridge and then pouring it on their cereal in the morning for them to like it enough to come back? Or is it good enough because they feel so good that they want to come back?
And purchase frequency. We feel between eight or 12 weeks is a good time to sort of gauge if people are going to come back to it and if you’re attracting new consumers. Straus has a loyal base. They sell a lot of milk, a lot of yogurt. They’re a very popular brand, but they have consistent sales, and they’re slowly rising. They’re doing well, and they’re experiencing growth, but are you attracting new customers because of this bottle?
People who normally reach for another brand, for example, are they now reaching for this brand that they’ve never used before? This is stuff you don’t know in a week, but because milk is the highest purchased frequency item in the household -- people tend to buy milk once a week if not sometimes more -- that within an eight-week, even maybe after four weeks we’ll know, you just need to understand is it just the buzz or is it a real thing.