New Leaf Paper CEO Jeff Mendelsohn on Successful Green Entrepreneurship
Recently, I had the opportunity to sit down with Jeff Mendelsohn, an icon of the green business community. Mendelsohn founded New Leaf Paper in 1998 as an alternative to the waste he saw in the paper industry. Since then, the company has proven that going green in an industry not known for it is not just a solid niche market strategy, but also a driver of tremendous collaborations.
Through the company’s Eco-Audit, New Leaf Paper is able to showcase one of their business client’s commitment to environmental stewardship in a way that is engaging, interactive, jaw-dropping, and graphically eloquent.
SC: Let’s start with the big picture. Since it’s inception in 1998, New Leaf Paper has saved 3.7 million fully grown trees, 1.1 billion gallons of water, 2.06 million BTUs of energy, 179 million pounds of solid waste, and 324.4 million pounds of greenhouse gases. Did you ever think you’d see those kinds of figures?
JM: Our mission from day 1 was to shift the whole paper industry toward sustainability. Whether realistic or not, we want to lead by example and see the market follow. Those numbers probably underestimate the actual impact. Time and again, large players have followed us in environmental specs, where we would launch a grade with better specifications, and find competing companies jumping in to follow. So the big picture is actually much bigger than our own sales. In the face of all this, it’s exciting to look at those numbers, but the battle is really only halfway over at best. The bigger challenge is to see a bigger shift in the industry.
SC: How far off is that, do you think?
JM: Hard to predict. If it wasn’t such a commodity, AND it’s shrinking, so it’s extremely hard to predict. There have been great strides in sustainable forestry, awareness, and use of high recycled content papers. What we really need to see is more investment in the sustainable design of the industry. That’s when we’ll see long term shift going on.
SC: Is there resistance to this kind of waste and cost savings within the industry at large, and if so, how come?
JM: Yes, because it’s hard to get a return on investment in building new capacity and changing the business model. Margins are low because it’s so commoditized. Paper usage is dropping in some categories, too. Overall that’s a good thing environmentally. There’s no bad people, just bad situations, and sometimes in these industries, people are in a tough spot.
SC: Many of your products are for consumers, but clearly you have quite a few offerings for small business owners. For our audience of small business owners, you have productivity tools, printer paper, etc…, perhaps you can give us an inside scoop on the coolest things they can purchase through NLP that are cost-competitive and superior environmentally?
JM: NLP’s history and focus has traditionally been in printing papers, which mostly are bought through their printing companies. So, many companies see us as a way to brand themselves as more sustainable because our Eco-Audit is prominently displayed. We’ve found that a lot of companies have asked their printers to work with sustainable papers, and we provide that to them through those channels. The easiest way for small business owners to work with us is to work with their printing companies. Inkworks, GreenerPrinter, etc., are companies that stock our paper.
SC: Clearly they’d want to minimize paper use and waste first, and then for whatever is left, they can purchase eco-friendly paper like yours. What do you tell small business owners that are looking to cut their paper use as the first steps for them?
JM: Main thing is that your printed materials can be really focused and to the point, with more in-depth discussion of your business proposition on the web. Small businesses can also get away with really short runs. The cost looks higher per unit at first, but since this stuff gets outdated quickly, it gives small businesses the opportunity to be quite versatile and adapt their messaging quickly without wasting paper. Big companies often end up with a lot of waste in terms of outdated marketing materials after they do big runs.
SC: As someone who is a key decision maker at a small, sustainable business, what have been your greatest challenges, and how do you handle them?
JM: For the majority of our existence, we’ve been a pioneer. Head and shoulders better products than our competitors. Now, we have more competition from the big guys, and now we’re not so much a pioneer as a leader. For us, that means shifting our focus to our core products and shifting emphasis away from new product development and experimentation. The other big thing for us is bringing the company to scale. I added someone to my staff that knew how to run a business so that I could continue to focus on vision, strategy, products, etc. I don’t want to pretend that I’ve ever done something like bringing a business to scale.
SC: Any closing advice for the small green business owner in terms of strategic vision?
JM: The blessing of a small business is that you have a lot of flexibility. You have a lot of control. But that’s also the curse. To be really disciplined and honest on what you want to be doing with your time and your life. Hire people around you to do the other tasks. Small business run well is a phenomenal experience. Small business when you’re behind the 8 ball is another story altogether.
I’ve been really impressed with the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE). Between them and Green America, I think there is tremendous support out there for small business owners.
SC: Jeff, thank you and keep up the great work!
Scott Cooney (twitter: scottcooney) is an adjunct professor of Sustainability in the MBA program at the University of Hawai'i, green business startup coach, author of Build a Green Small Business: Profitable Ways to Become an Ecopreneur (McGraw-Hill), and developer of the sustainability board game GBO Hawai'i. Scott has started, grown and sold two mission-driven businesses, failed miserably at a third, and is currently in his fourth. Scott's current company has three divisions: a sustainability blog network that includes the world's biggest clean energy website and reached over 5 million readers in December 2013 alone; Pono Home, a turnkey and franchiseable green home consulting service that won entrance into the clean tech incubator known as Energy Excelerator; and Cost of Solar, a solar lead generation service to connect interested homeowners and solar contractors. In his spare time, Scott surfs, plays ultimate frisbee and enjoys a good, long bike ride. Find Scott on Google Plus
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