— Success story from Colombia —
Keeping Things Clean and Green – Naturesse, Colombia
Naturesse is a Colombian family business established in 2010 that produces toiletries such as solid and liquid soap, lotion, antibacterial gel, and shampoo.
In the early stages of the business, sales were business-to-business, with most clients being hotels and motels. Naturesse added value by offering customized amenities to suit customers’ needs.
The Decision to Eco-innovate
With a solid customer base of hotels, Naturesse was in a stable financial and operational situation; any changes were motivated by the core values of Naturesse and its senior management. Founder and CEO Natalia Osorio said that engaging in eco-innovation was ‘based on my personal belief, but we’ve been able to access new environmentally- conscious customers [by doing so]’.
In 2014, Naturesse participated in UNEP’s eco-innovation project. With the support of the Colombian National Cleaner Production Centre, Naturesse initiated the eco-innovation activities including an assessment of its entire value chain, allowing Naturesse to identify environmental hotspots and areas where productivity could improve, and how to expand into new markets, engage with new stakeholders along the value chain and increase profitability.
Identifying key hotspots
Following the UNEP eco-innovation phases, Naturesse evaluated its strategy and performance, leading to the identifications of four major challenges or ‘hotspots’:
Use of palm oil: the main raw material of the company was the soap base, which contained palm oil. In certain countries, unsustainable large-scale palm cultivation has serious impacts including deforestation, pollution of soils, water, and air through agricultural chemicals, as well as social issues like land conflicts and displacement of local communities.
Environmental management: in 2014 Naturesse did not have a system to monitor and control the consumption of resources such as raw materials, energy, water, and waste. Furthermore, it did not require its suppliers to provide environmental indicators, which prevented Naturesse from knowing if their suppliers worked according to sustainable practices. Finally, Naturesse did not have any control, monitoring, or treatment of wastewaters generated during its production process.
Plastic packaging: Naturesse had been working on replacing its conventional (PET) plastic packaging with packaging made of cane pulp paper and offered the biodegradable packaging to clients as part of their business offering. However, clients rarely purchased this option due to the higher cost and the low environmental awareness of plastic packaging pollution.
Hotel bar soap waste: It was estimated that a hotel discards up to 20% of bar soap that it buys. Using this estimation, the amount of bar soap that was going into the landfill from Naturesse’s 156 hotel customers was significant.
Developing a new business strategy and innovative business models
Considering these hotspots, and moving further through the eco-innovation activities, Naturesse developed a new overarching business strategy focused on sustainability, working with the value chain of their main raw material (soap base) to reduce the environmental impacts generated as much as possible.
Two eco-innovative business models were proposed to deliver the new strategy:
- Reformulating products to reduce environmental impacts
- Collecting and repurposing bar soap waste to reduce impacts along the value chain
Naturesse wanted to offer a product made from 100% natural raw materials and obtain environmental certification. As part of this change, Naturesse switched to source their palm oil locally. The commitment to sourcing local and natural raw materials had multiple benefits for Naturesse; they no longer had to pay import taxes or high transport fees, and reduced their vulnerability to international supply chain disruptions while being able to ensure better social and environmental standards. Naturesse also switched from chemical fragrances to essential oils, which made their solid soap lines derived 100% from natural products. This allowed the company to showcase their environmental benefits and attract new clients interested in sustainability, leading to almost US $3,000 per year in additional sales.
To comply with environmental certification requirements, Naturesse needed to improve internal environmental management to reduce consumption of water, energy, and waste. Naturesse implemented this by hiring an environmental engineer to identify hotspots and solutions related to energy, water, plastic, and waste and to analyse suppliers’ environmental practices.
To reduce packaging waste, Naturesse developed a new line of solid shampoos that avoided the need for plastic packaging completely. One bar of solid shampoo is calculated to replace over 1 litre of liquid shampoo and 4.5 plastic bottles.
Repurposing bar soap waste
Naturesse also proposed to collect leftover used bar soap from its hotel customers and use them as raw material input to manufacture liquid soap, helping to reduce landfill waste while developing a new marketable product. Due to Colombian laws against cross-contamination of products and the downturn in tourism due to COVID-19, and therefore the downturn in hotel bar soap , Naturesse was unable to implement this business model in its original form. Flexible local and national policies that would allow eco-innovation while maintaining product safety are needed and would encourage more companies to adopt eco-innovative practices. Naturesse is now looking to partner with another local company in their value chain to comply with regulations once the tourism industry has recovered and sufficient soap waste can be recovered.
Eco-innovation as a culture, not an intervention
Discussions in 2020 with the CEO and founder of Naturesse, Natalia Osorio, revealed that the company continued successfully implementing eco-innovation activities in their business after the end of the project. Over the years, the business model of Naturesse has been further developed towards increase eco-innovation; for example, their customer base has evolved from mostly hotels and motels, to predominantly retail and e-commerce. Since 2010, Naturesse’s sales have grown by 500% and its number of employees has grown by 300%, despite periods of economic and social shocks. The continued resilience and competitivity of Naturesse has showed that eco-innovation is not a one-off project, but a way to continuously keep a company innovating towards sustainability, increased resilience, and increased profits.
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