During the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, we have dramatically changed how we shop for groceries; I haven’t been to a grocery store in months. Between buying 25 pound bags of staple goods like beans, lentils, rice, quinoa, oats and flour from a local store (tip: many grocery stores that have bulk sections will happily order full bags of staple goods for you from their distributors), getting a farm box through a local CSA for fresh produce, and ordering through Thrive Market for the things that don’t make sense for us to buy in bulk or that aren’t available in bulk. For example, I get things like dried spices, nuts, nut butters, chocolate bars, baby sunscreen and diaper balm on Thrive Market.
Thrive Market is a subscription grocery delivery service that focuses on making healthy foods more cost effective to all people; like Costco, you pay an annual fee and unlock access to competitive pricing on premium goods. The subscription definitely pays for itself quickly; we cover the cost of the subscription in savings on organic peanut butter alone each year. Think of them like the aisles of Whole Foods prior to when Amazon bought them (i.e. everything but the fresh foods sections), just with lower pricing, sometimes several dollars less per item than at a traditional retailer. Thrive Market try to do the right thing for the environment in many ways: they offset the carbon from shipping their products to you, have almost fully recyclable packaging for their packaging materials (minus the plastic bags they use to prevent spills – more on that later), and have zero waste certified facilities. I truly appreciate this about them and it is a reason that I have been a member for two years this month. While technically one of their core values is plastic-free, many of the items that they sell do come in single-use plastic, especially from the Thrive Market private label products.
Thrive Market has an extensive private-label section of their site, with over 500 products available, that is affordable and good quality from every product we’ve tried. The downside to it is simply their packaging; as a mail-order service, they have chosen to pack almost everything they make in lightweight plastic or mylar packaging that is not recyclable in most cities. Only 15 of their private label products appear as of writing this in the plastic-free section of their site. In the United States, we used to ship all our plastic off to China to deal with but ever since China closed their doors to plastic waste in 2018, because their countryside was getting polluted from all the toxic waste we shipped over (a great documentary on what was happening there is Plastic China), we now have virtually no market for selling low quality plastics like plastic bags, films, etc. so all of it will end up in a landfill where it will eventually off gas methane, a greenhouse gas far more potent and dangerous than CO2 for global warming. I see two possible solutions for Thrive Market to move away from single use plastics.
First, Thrive Market could partner with TerraCycle, a company that specializes in creating markets for things that are traditionally impossible to recycle. For example, you could collect all your Clif Bar wrappers and mail them to TerraCycle or conveniently drop them off at a local retailer who has a collection box for those kinds of items, like a sporting good store that I used to frequent in San Francisco offered. However, if you’ve got a big shipment of Thrive Market brand products, all of which can be recycled via TerraCycle, you could make it easy for customers to do the right thing by including a pre-paid shipping label in that box to send the used packaging to TerraCycle to make it super easy for consumers to send in all their plastic packaging for recycling. That is certainly the lowest handing fruit that I can see being available to Thrive that doesn’t require a huge change in how they go to market and helps them move away from being part of the take-make waste economy.
Better yet, Thrive Market could partner with Loop, an offshoot of TerraCycle that helps brands go to market with refillable, reusable packaging, for all of their private label products. Loop has partnered with many big name brands to offer their products in reusable packaging that is easy to return. Since your Thrive Market shipment already comes in a box, you could keep that box, put the reusable packaging back on it when you’re done and slap a label on it to return those items when the box is full. Yes, this requires consumers to put down a deposit. Yes, this costs Thrive Market more money in the long-term because plastic packaging is dirt cheap. However, for a better planet, sometimes we have to do hard things and I would pay a bit more per item to help offset that cost and I would hope that Thrive has a big of wiggle room in their margins to do the right thing for the planet.
The other change I would love to see them make is to be able to opt-out of having their packing department bag all of my liquid items or items purchased in glass jars in plastic. They use beautiful craft-paper for wrapping all of their items but then inside, you find your jar of organic peanut butter wrapped in a single-use plastic bag. I don’t have a way of reusing these bags; I don’t have a dog and we don’t use disposable diapers, so I can’t think of any way to give these a second use. I have almost cancelled my subscription over these bags because I strive towards zero waste living and being forced to receive these plastic bags is frustrating, especially since the rest of their packaging is gorgeous and easily recycled. I would love for them to add a box at checkout that I could select to indicate that I’d like to opt-out of their plastic bags, knowing full well that I might end up with a mess on my hands when my package arrives. So far, I’ve had nothing break during the two years that I’ve been a customer because they pack everything so well, so it is a risk I am very willing to take.
Finally, I would love to see them create an ideation section of their site where customers could request new items and other customers could upvote them/downvote them to show demand, and where customers like me could have a forum to voice the ideas around how Thrive Market could be even better of a business. I have contacted their support department to request things in the past that have never become available for sale; for example, Burts Bees packages their lip balm in recyclable metal tins but Thrive only sells their lip balms in plastic tubes. I have no clue if anyone ever saw my request or if the support agent I chatted with said “great idea” and then it ended there. Giving customers a voice through an online forum or ideation site is a great way to engage customers and understand what they want from you as a business, so you can ensure you are hearing them, making data driven business decisions, and staying relevant.
Overall, Thrive Market has an excellent service and I will continue to use it during the pandemic to get my groceries in spite of my gripes with their plastic packaging. They have an amazing selection of organic products that I can’t get without going to a grocery store at very competitive prices and they always get my order right, unlike some other services I’ve tried (ahem, Imperfect Produce, I’m talking to you). Post-pandemic, I will probably return to shopping at local grocery stores if Thrive Market does not allow me to opt-out of unnecessary plastic packaging and does not find a way to make their private label packaging more circular vs single use. I typically value zero waste packaging over low price and convenience, and feel like I am compromising on my values when I unpack my Thrive Market box and watch my waste bin fill up with plastic bags from my purchases. Yet, with me and my husband both working full-time with an infant at home, family a state away, and a pandemic raging, sometimes you have to make some compromises to keep from losing your mind and support a business that’s doing 90% of the right thing and encourage them to get even better over time. Interested in trying Thrive Market? Use this code to get 25% off your first order: http://thrv.me/KFvTcz.