Breaking Trail: Jim Osgood, Klean KanteenAugust 12, 2013
Sustainability is becoming impossible to ignore in the outdoor industry. In this series, we look to our industry leaders for guidance, inspiration, and best practices in sustainable business in the outdoor-product space. Breaking Trail is an Outdoor Retailer series that is powered by Walden Hyde. Here, Walden Hyde speaks with Jim Osgood, CEO and Chairman of the Board at Klean Kanteen about working to replace single-use items, becoming a B Corp, and keeping employees motivated.
What does sustainability mean to you? To your company?
Thinking about the literal definition of sustainability, it’s to give more back than we consume or take. We also apply this in a more philosophical sense.
Klean Kanteen is based on reducing plastic and Styrofoam waste from single-use items. Replacing single-use bottles and food-storage containers with safe, reusable alternatives is our mission. Anything “single-use” is in our strategic sandbox.
And we don’t just stop at thinking about the resource and disposal side of sustainability. Instead, we think about how to run our business in a sustainable fashion. It’s not just input and output—we want to make sure our folks have a career here that’s aligned with and supports their professional and personal journeys.
We want people to not only execute a project, but also be able to look back and be inspired and motivated to do more projects like it again in the future. If they just get a job done, but are burnt out afterwards, that’s not sustainable. So how we go about it is just as important as what we’re trying to accomplish. These considerations drive decision-making. In our annual performance reviews, not only do we access and celebrate the goals achieved (the what) but, equally important, we measure and recognize HOW the goals were accomplished.
How does Klean Kanteen’s history and growth tie into this focus?
Klean Kanteen started as a small, humble company where everyone was doing everything. In 2008 Klean Kanteen experienced a surge in sales as public awareness and concern over BPA spread from Canada into the US. With few BPA-free options on the market, our folks were working very hard to meet demand and deliver great product. People were doing the best they could, but our systems had a lot of inefficiencies, or “waste.” We realized that we were spending 90 percent of time chasing data and only 10 percent of time critically thinking about what the data meant. We were wasting both human capital and time.
Sustainable growth means we’re able to scale with our growth. So we made the important decision to pause and focus on our systems and infrastructure in 2012. As a result of that inward focus, we built out our strategy and are now enjoying double-digit growth.
Now, instead of just working hard year by year, we’re equipping people to think about where we are going … three years out, five years out. It’s a purpose-driven company, and transparency and vulnerability are part of our culture.
I’m a testament and beneficiary of this openness and vulnerability. Klean Kanteen is a family-owned company, but the owners were open and courageous enough to realize that they didn’t have all of the requisite skills, knowledge and experience to grow and support all that was needed to achieve the company’s mission. It says a lot about [owners] Michelle and Jeff and how they put Klean Kanteen’s needs ahead of their own. There were no egos about it; they were simply committed to the best way get there, so they decided to hire a president.
What motivates Klean Kanteen to be committed to sustainability?
Klean Kanteen is a brand committed to making a difference. It shows through our mission and work internally, as well as our support of our non-profit partners such as 1% for the Planet, 5 Gyres, NatureBridge, Breast Cancer Fund and others.
We believe that sustainability is principally built on a foundation of trust. Klean is a trustworthy, values-driven organization. We actively focus on how to build and maintain trust. Adhering to core values makes decision-making relatively simple and obvious for us and, ultimately, reinforces and builds trust. Trust is one of our core values, and our people want to be a part of what we’re doing because they personally share our values and mission.
In fact, these shared core values were a primary motivator for me to move my family from Colorado to Chico almost two years ago to join Klean Kanteen. When I was approached about the position, there was an instant connection and a spark to learn more. It wasn’t just about my own professional opportunity; it was about the prospect of being part of a company that is so committed to creating and sharing lasting legacies with and for our kids. It gave me permission to believe that a company can exist today that’s about more than just making money. Klean didn’t pioneer this standard or mindset; we were inspired by others that came before us. And now we are making it our own. We are still in our infancy and making our fair share of mistakes. Even so, we are not deterred. It will take time, and there is much more work and progress ahead. Back when I was considering joining Klean, the more I learned, the more I found that Klean Kanteen is truly authentic. That is even truer today as I now view it from the inside. Like all companies there are tough days for sure, but it’s great to be a part of an exciting and growing company.
How are you tackling the huge mission to make single-use bottles obsolete?
Klean Kanteen knows that we’re not just tackling this on our own.
We harness the power of collaboration by partnering with other for-profit and non-profit organizations. So instead of diluting our resources, we are working to maximize our impact by focusing and consolidating our giving in specific, strategic areas.
5 Gyres is our strategic partner related to the impact and education about the effects of plastic pollution on our oceans. The organization focuses on education and awareness. Why? Once the general public, and especially kids, know and understand the effect of plastic waste – namely single-use plastic—it changes behavior. It’s not just “buy this instead of that,” it’s saying here is the reason behind this reusable solution by Klean Kanteen and others.
Awareness is key, so we’re tapping into and supporting research and education. We bring this awareness to the general public through industry forums, media, press, and community awareness.
Another of our strategic partners is the Breast Cancer Fund. It is committed to the science and research behind environmental causes of cancer. Klean Kanteen is committed to bringing healthy and safe consumer products to the market and was working with Breast Cancer Fund long before the general public was even remotely aware of the effects of BPA and other hormone or endocrine-disrupting chemicals. This partnership helps advance Breast Cancer Fund’s research within the scientific community while also helping Klean assess and determine the best materials for use in our products and fulfill our promise to our customers.
At every Outdoor Retailer, we support one of our non-profit partners through the sale of our stainless steel pints. These pints also feature the logos of the non-profit organization as well as other sponsoring partners. We enjoy wonderful relationships with other like-minded partners, such as Osprey, Patagonia, and Clif Bar, in selling and promoting these pints. We hope that every time someone sees a stainless steel pint at OR, it’ll motivate them to choose a reusable cup rather than a disposable one both at the show and when they return home. And, of course, we hope that the awareness we bring for the non-profit stimulates interest to learn more and offer additional support.
We support environmental education and stewardship programs, such as NatureBridge, which connects urban youth to the natural world and inspires responsible action to sustain it. These future leaders go on voyages in National Forests and Parks, where they experience a transformation provided by nature. This experience creates a great sense of self-reliance, courage, perseverance and beauty. It instills pride and a commitment towards stewardship.
The Conservation Alliance supports a different aspect of environmental stewardship, through its conservation and protection efforts. It’s very important and we’re proud to be a part of it.
Supporting all of these organizations is an important part of fulfilling our mission of environment stewardship and social responsibility.
In addition to partnerships, how is Klean Kanteen connecting with people?
Our greatest impact is through our one-on-one relationships with people. Part of this involves attending music festivals, races, and sustainability-minded events where we have conversations with folks about the impact of single-use, the importance of using reusable solutions and, of course, the available options from Klean Kanteen.
Because so many of these events are held in remote locations, having drinking water on site is a major issue. At these events, we typically provide 2-3 water stations so that people can refill their bottles. Even just having a water filling station at an event and providing access to water provides a way to build a relationship. Once people truly learn and experience the benefits of reusable bottles and pints, they become advocates.
We also work with our retail partners to deliver training and education about our brand to their sales associates. Understanding what we stand for and why helps sales associates become strong advocates of our brand. We care so much about the elimination of single-use bottles, cups, and containers that we say, “If you don’t choose Klean Kanteen, please at least choose another reusable solution.”
You’re not afraid of losing customers through this?
Telling people that even if they aren’t choosing Klean Kanteen to choose another reusable option is still part of our mission and ultimately has a halo affect. We are not just a company selling widgets. We are fulfilling a mission of providing solutions built to last a lifetime. There are lots of reusable bottles from which to choose; we are proud of our offering and the passionate following we enjoy. So long as we are bringing people in from the sidelines and getting them to switch from single-use to reusable solutions, there is room for all of us. I think we can all co-exist so long as we are truly committed to transforming behavior. We need to all work together as I believe the consequences of not reversing this single-use behavior is far too great.
What do you think about collaboration in the industry?
There is a wonderful candor and openness in the outdoor industry. It’s amazing how companies that have pioneered so much in the world of sustainability—like Patagonia and Clif Bar—are so willing to share their knowledge and experience, all in the interest to accelerate the learning curve for others.
My friends from other industries are learning from the outdoor industry’s collaboration in that regard. In that way, this work isn’t just specific to our industry; we’re influencing the mainstream.
Last October, Klean Kanteen became a certified B Corp, which was a benchmark for how well we were fulfilling our commitment to people, planet and profits. Transparency is in one of the principle tenants of B Corp, both internally and externally. So how well we run our business with respect to our triple bottom line is shared publicly, along with the information from all other B Corp members. Much of our work is supported through collaboration from being a certified B Corp and participating in 1% for the Planet.
Klean Kanteen’s mission is about more than just the bottom line, and B Lab – the non-profit that manages the B Corp assessment process – provided the framework and measures for accessing how we’re doing. This enabled us to look at our business objectivity; see where we are performing well and identify areas for improvement; and set a course for continuous improvement. Seeing the progress of others and understanding how they achieved their success helps us – and inspires us – to do better ourselves.
We’ve been lucky to learn from Patagonia’s transparency. They have the scar tissue that comes from being a pioneer, and they openly talk about what works for them, what it means to be focused on people, the tenacity and resolve they have towards environmental and social stewardship, what it means to be a B Corp, and how to continuously improve.
We’ve also modeled several of our employee benefits programs around Clif Bar, such as expanding our paid time off for employees to volunteer for organizations or causes of their choice, providing another way for them to give back to their community. We provide three days of paid time off every year. One of our goals for this year is 100% participation in using these volunteer benefits. It’s not complex, but we want to support and advance what will inspire people to be here and give their best. We think about how we can make deposits in our employees’ “emotional bank accounts” – we want them to be able to achieve both their professional and personal goals and do so with passion and balance.
Collaboration between B Corp companies offers a challenge to the industry. We are not satisfied with business as usual. This insight, sharing, and encouragement have motivated us to take risks and make investments. It’s inspired us to be more forward thinking and to take models that have worked for other companies and adapt them to work for Klean Kanteen.
Where do you see this going in the next 5 years?
I think that the outdoor industry is on the right trajectory. The industry needs to continue to band together and take active measures to protect, educate, and restore our environment. We must all be stewards of the outdoors. If the environment is destroyed, the impetus of our business goes away.
Most of us in the outdoor industry make and sell goods. Companies need to think about scarcity of resources and the energy it requires to make these products. I don’t believe all companies think about the entire lifecycle of product. Can it be disassembled at the end of life? Is it designed for a long life, or does the business model benefit from planned obsolescence?
Klean Kanteen designs bottles for life.
When you begin with a true life-cycle mindset to measure all of those elements that go into managing business, you have a better awareness and objective measures of your business. We can then make better and more deliberate product design decisions, investment decisions, operational decisions, and so forth, that serve the long-term, sustainable benefit of your people, our planet and, yes, profits.
We’re doing well, but we need to continue to raise our game as an industry. This goes from working together to preserve the outdoors, to being mindful of daily choices— including those plastic cups being used at OR happy hours. We need to be the role model of what we need to be. We need to “eat our own food.”
About Klean Kanteen
In 2004, Klean Kanteen released the first stainless steel water bottle onto the market to give people something better than plastic: a lightweight, re-usable, body-friendly bottle free of bisphenol A (BPA). Klean Kanteen has grown from a tiny, upstart company to a leader in the stainless beverage bottle industry. In addition to including environmental and fair labor consciousness in our business practices, we partner with local, national, and international organizations to support efforts toward health, clean drinking water, and protecting the environment. In 2008, Klean Kanteen became a member of 1% for the Planet, committing to donate of at least 1% of our annual sales to non-profits working to protect and promote the wellness of this one great Earth. Every time you refill your Klean Kanteen, you’re making a positive choice for your own health and for the health of our planet. For more information, please visit www.kleankanteen.com.
About Jim Osgood
Jim Osgood is the CEO and Chairman of the Board at Klean Kanteen. He moved to Chico with his family in 2011 to lead Klean Kanteen on its path to sustainable growth. Prior to his role at Klean Kanteen, Jim was President of Slickrock Concepts, a product strategy and development company in Colorado, as well as held executive management positions with numerous other consumer products and medical device companies, including The Coleman Company, Water Pik and Baxa Corporation.