Richard Cohen, founder of the Distant Village Packaging company, based in Chicago, is in high demand these days. Germany’s Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development invited him to sit on the organizing committee of a global think tank. Sales were up 40% in 2010 over 2009, and the company has completed substantial packaging projects this year for online retailers Greenheart and That’s Caring, sustainable cleaning product company PortionPac, and branded projects for Mighty Leaf Tea and Hershey’s Dagoba Organic Chocolate brand.
On top of that, the Distant Village sister company in the Philippines was recently recognized at the 2010 Philippines International Eco Show (PINES) for the Best Eco Corporate Social Responsibility CSR Program. The award recognized the company’s efforts to empower and support local communities while developing mutually beneficial relationships with artisans in remote villages through fair and ethical business practices. “Since our founding 10 years ago, our CSR efforts have been central to our mission,” says Cohen. “It is a great honor to be recognized for these efforts."
Many bottom lines
Cohen’s vision starts from the source—the artisans who handcraft unique packaging from natural sources around the globe. Southeast Asia is the main Distant Village overseas source today, for both the raw materials and the artisans employed. Whenever possible, the materials come from invasive species of grasses or parts of abundant foliage not normally used. “I think what we’re doing is an interesting model for the packaging market,” Cohen says.
“A lot of our clients are very sincere about their commitment to sustainability,” says Cohen. The clients are willing to be flexible in their specifications if it helps the process along more efficiently, and looking at the full life cycle of the components is always wise. Cohen’s aces in the hole, so to speak, are industrial designers at top U.S. boutique firms that moonlight as Distant Village designers.
When he started the company, Cohen was trying to combine his passion for environmental preservation, his affinity for helping the underprivileged, and his deep appreciation of fine craftsmanship. He was amazed to find so much under-utilized talent out there in small communities in the Pacific Rim, and he noticed that handiwork minimized both fuel consumption and production waste. For instance, for many Distant Village packaging projects, machine silk-screening is cost-prohibitive compared to hand silk-screening. On a broader scale, he feels it would be a shame if long-held artisan traditions were lost to the march of “progress.”
That’s Caring’s commitment
That's Caring is an online store providing environmentally responsible gift packaging solutions to their clients. The company creates eco-friendly gift baskets with two goals in mind: satisfaction of the person getting the gift and protecting the environment. To establish a leadership position in the ecofriendly gift basket industry, That’s Caring selected Distant Village for a recyclable, compostable, and reusable packaging that reinforces their strong brand identity.
Jamie Pritscher, co-founder and CEO of That’s Caring, explains that earlier this year the company decided to advance its environmentally friendly reputation even more and elevate its eco-conscious commitment further. Specifically, That’s Caring wanted to improve upon previous packaging, where some components had a low amount of recycled content.
The Distant Village artisans construct the new, distinctive keepsake packaging from 100% natural fast-growing and abundantly renewable natural plant fibers following triple bottom line standards. Distant Village's team professionally designed and produced gift boxes in line with fair trade principles, environmental preservation, and sustainable practices.
The That’s Caring boxes are handcrafted by artisans in a remote village in Southeast Asia, allowing for economic empowerment of this community. The packaging starts with 100% recycled chipboard for strength and sturdiness in shipping and finishes with tree-less papers. The paper-like material is fashioned from a blend of banana plant fiber and an invasive species of wild grass. In addition, all dyes to color the papers are non-toxic and the wastewater from production is cleaned and recycled before reintroduction to the soil.
The two reengineered box designs, nested during shipping from Southeast Asia, reduce the total shipping volume by 50%, dramatically decreasing the carbon footprint and storage requirements. To further impress green-minded customers, coconut excelsior, a natural biodegradable packing material, fills the boxes to replace 30% to 70% of the recycled paper filling. The all-natural coconut “hair” from the coconut shell has an unusual character that is surprisingly functional: cushioning and securing fragile objects of varying shapes and sizes. Finally, the aesthetic appeal and sturdy construction mean that reuse is likely, allowing the box to have a second life—such as saving photos, letters, or other memorabilia—in customers’ homes.
When Pritscher was first introduced to Distant Village, she immediately thought: “Why haven’t we been doing this? It makes perfect sense.” She was amazed when the project was turned around in just over eight weeks. The initial order was 1,300 total pieces in two sizes ready for shipping. “The packaging sets us apart,” Pritscher explains. “It completes the whole gift story with the products we have inside.”
She also likes the way the new packaging structure creates the traditional reveal of opening a gift, where all the components are immediately visible. “We really wanted that ah-ha moment,” she emphasizes.
At the heart of Greenheart
Greenheart is a Chicago-based, eco-fair trade, non-profit shop that carries both fair trade and eco-friendly products. In searching for a gift packaging solution that could be used for both consumer products and corporate gifting, they found that Distant Village matched their mission.
Greenheart had previously used standard crafted paper tote bags for their gift packaging. Distant Village's team professionally designed and produced gift box sets made from 100% natural fast-growing and abundantly renewable materials. The Greenheart boxes are similar to the That’s Caring boxes in structure and materials. One small exception is the hand-carved coconut shell button, which serves as a fastener device. The button and natural fiber thread draw attention to the distinct look of packaging, helping to elevate the Greenheart brand.
Katherine Bissell, general manager at Greenheart, explains how the boxes are very popular with Greenheart’s customers, and how the green heart on every box extends their company’s brand. “Customers love the fact that the boxes are strong and can be used for shipping,” she says. “Many people like the fact that the boxes are keepsake boxes meant to last. Customers keep them for variety of uses.”
Beyond material sustainability gains, forwardthinking design is also instrumental. The three Greenheart boxes and the small tote bag are all designed to nest in one large box, reducing the carbon footprint and storage space needed at the Greenheart store. Bissell notes that requesting shape variations is not a significant cost issue because every box is handmade. Greenheart usually mails the boxes by simply wrapping them in brown paper and affixing an address label, saving excessive shipping materials.
Caryn Stets, marketing director at PortionPac, recalls the fateful event when her company and Distant Village crossed paths. PortionPac has a long history of supplying concentrated cleaning products with a minimum of water for more efficient shipping. Stets had been looking for a sustainable alternative to a promotional package that they had been using, which was constructed with customary UV-coated white paperboard.
Earlier this year, the founder of PortionPac was speaking before the Chicago Sustainable Business Alliance. Luckily, Stets was there and connected with a Distant Village representative in attendance who asked a pointed question about sustainable packaging. They found that they shared a common mission. “We very much believe in people, planet, profit,” says Stets. “That’s a level we hold ourselves to.” PortionPac was established in 1964 on a foundation of environmental stewardship and social responsibility.
Stets explains how consumer perceptions have changed to accommodate sustainable thinking. Whereas 20 years ago, PortionPac’s approach to cleaning might have needed explaining, now end-users and consumers get it pretty quickly. In a similar way, Stets wanted the impact of the Distant Village element of the recent promotional packaging to have an intuitive appeal to the recipient.
The outer package is made of 100% recycled material and printed with water-based inks. The package is actually more compact than the previous design and more durable. Finally, the package is now more inline with the sustainability message of the company, which is communicated both non-verbally and verbally.
No end game
Practicing his own version of “kind capitalism” to combat the faceless, unaccountable corporations, Cohen would love to introduce an American-made product. However, a living wage in the U.S. is usually too high to make affordable products for his clients. Besides following international fair trade standards in Southeast Asia, Distant Village supports the artisan community through regular scholarship sponsorships from Distant Village and their clients, annual community events, and disaster relief support when needed.
“We are absolutely and completely transparent about our sustainable operations,” Cohen explains. The company is certified by Green America, the Chicago Fair Trade Association, and the Chicago Sustainable Business Alliance. Cohen feels his company has been vetted thoroughly and is standing ready to obtain further certifications based on client requirements, but due to Distant Village's extensive transparency approach clients have not made certifications a point of contention in doing business. He feels part of the reason is that his clients know the public is more interested in authentic sustainable commitments, and not necessarily impressed with a certification seal.
“We seek to eliminate or reduce the need for packaging,” explains Cohen. “Our intention as minimalists is to design and produce only what is absolutely essential for the brand. Although we are developing a line of mass market sustainable packaging solutions, our reputation has been built on presentation and gift packaging. Our solutions don’t cover every packaging need for all of a client’s product lines, and I’m fine with that. Clients come to us for best-in-class, authentic sustainable packaging to differentiate their sustainable brands.”