These days, some of the best stories a manufacturing CEO can tell are about the purpose of their companies. And when it comes to the power of an overarching narrative that provides not only a raison d’etre for a business enterprise but also something that will engage and inspire American consumers, there may be no better story right now than Newlight Technologies.
That’s because Mark Herrema started his Orange County, California, company for the very reason of helping solve the world’s struggle with climate change. In the process of “starting with why,” Herrema discovered, developed and has commercialized an industrial powder made out of aquatic microorganisms that suck greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere.
Other CEOs might be able to learn from Herrema’s success in creating a purpose for Newlight this compelling to modern consumers. Even if companies aren’t producing something as pristine as a carbon-negative plastic substitute, leaders must strive to reshape their products and processes to fit the often-overriding sustainability concerns of today’s public – and then effectively tell them about it.
Newlight’s ingredient, AirCarbon, represents an ultimate sort of sublimation of an environmental problem into not only a plus for sustainability but also a commercial solution. This year, Target Stores debuted Newlight’s Restore brand of disposable, completely biodegradable straws and cutlery made out of AirCarbon, just as more and more Americans – many riveted by concern about mounting plastic wastes around the globe — are looking for environmentally friendly foodware products.
“We had a theory that if we could use greenhouse gas as a source for making a product, and if we could compete on a performance basis relative to incumbent materials, there would be a big market, and we could give consumers a pathway to healing the environment,” Herrema told Chief Executive.
Next up: a wider variety of foodware products and a diversification into AirCarbon-based handbags, wallets and eyewear. “Our mission is to help see the end of accumulation of plastics in the ocean in this generation,” Herrema said. “In the next five to seven years, we want to roll out [entries] into more than 90 percent of the product types that end up in the ocean, to show there is a pathway for coming close to ending this problem.”
What Newlight manufactures is a fine white powder that can be melted and used as a replacement for plastic in many applications. “But if it ends up in nature,” Herrema explained, “nature recognizes it as a food source and consumes it.” AirCarbon is a polyhydroxybutyrate, or PHB, a biopolyester that is a member of the PHA family and is produced in many microorganisms as energy and carbon-storeage compounds.
AirCarbon is producing 24-piece packs of wrapped straws for Target and three-piece cutlery packs with a natural fiber carrying case. They’re now sold at Target Stores nationwide and online. SCS Global Services has certified the products as carbon-negative, meaning that they reduce the net amount of carbon in the air through production.
Herrema graduated from Princeton University in 2004 with a determination to do exactly what he’s done. “People were talking about taxing and burying carbon then, but nowhere near the extent of today,” he said. It took about a decade for Newlight to develop and perfect the technology behind AirCarbon, and when Herrema revealed it, he said, “We had outreach from many different brands wanting to use our carbon. There were 50 different projects running in 50 different directions right away.” Herrema chose foodware, he said, “because that’s responsible for most of the products accumulating in the ocean.”
With about 90 employees, Newlight Technologies is pursuing Herrema’s narrative. Now he’s finding out if consumers want to do the same.