Founded in 2006, Vegware has quickly risen to prominence as the UK’s only compostable packaging company. Mr. Joe Frankel, Founder and Managing Director, tells EatSleepDrink about Vegware’s market-leading credentials and exciting plans for the future.
As a pioneer in the development and manufacture of eco-friendly catering disposables and food packaging, Vegware has taken great strides since its formation five years ago. Offering stylish and functional products is just part of the company’s appeal – all of its products are both sustainable and economically competitive. Indeed, the Vegware range spans cutlery through to tableware, napkins, hot and cold drink cups, as well as take-away packaging. By offering quantifiable reductions to its customers, the company has established itself as the only UK packaging firm to offer a comprehensive range of compostable products.
Given Vegware’s rise in the UK packaging industry, one could be forgiven for assuming that the company had been operating for years. However, as Mr. Frankel explains, Vegware’s origins only date back to 2006. “At the time, I was working in California, in a completely unrelated field. I was always interested in the environment and had been reading about these new bio-plastic materials that were being developed. I did some research and discovered that there was no-one using these kind of materials in Europe. Consequently, I moved back to the UK to set up what became Vegware”.
As any fledgling business understands, market research is integral to a successful operating strategy – something that Mr. Frankel keenly attests to. “I spent the initial two years researching and getting prototypes made-up, as well as sourcing the materials from around the world. The first product we worked on was a range of cutlery, which proved fairly successful. By 2009, we had set the foundations for a serious enterprise – we acquired funding from institutional investors and, by that point, we had really established what our brand was and what we wanted to do. We used this as a springboard to achieve what has been very quick growth – we have effectively doubled our sales every year since 2008,” he affirms.
“My background was actually speech technology, which largely involved building automated systems for speech recognition and searching audio archives,” Mr. Frankel tells us. “So, although this field was very different to the packaging sector, I had a good understanding as to the nature of research and the peaks and troughs it entails. Inevitably, we had lots of failures, but each time we got a little better and, eventually, we were happy with our product and brand identity. I actually found the process very rewarding and I was able to use my background to develop our business model”.
Much like Mr. Frankel’s experience with speech recognition systems that have different modules that interact with one-another to achieve one overall goal, Vegware was designed with this modular style in mind, as he continues. “I still like to think that this system is maintained today. Indeed, despite the recession, we were able to grow our business because of this modular structure. It enables us to keep costs down, as all parts of the business model are working towards one goal, which facilitates efficiency and allows us to go to market with highly competitive costs”.
The best-possible solution
Mr. Frankel’s interest in ethical products has also acted as a catalyst for Vegware, as he is keen to underline. “As we built volume, we were able to build the organisation in such a way as to make it profitable and robust, as well as making products as ethically and environmentally-sound as possible. There is a common misconception that products are manufactured in Asia because labour is cheap. My experience is that the production is there because that’s where the expertise is and, similarly, that’s where the capital investment has been made. Unfortunately, we have not seen very much of this investment in the UK over the last few years, but, hopefully, we can change that with our manufacturing facilities in the UK and Ireland”.
With ethical and environmental principles so high on Vegware’s agenda, it comes as little surprise to learn that the company does not just buy on price, but also seriously takes into account its carbon footprint and what is best for the local environment, as Mr. Frankel continues. “What we found was that shipping finished products from Asia by ocean freight, and by using an ISO 14001-certified shipping line, actually has less of a carbon footprint than transporting it via roads in central Europe. For us, it is really a question of considering all of these factors in order to arrive at the best possible solution, from sourcing materials right through to delivering the finished products to our customers”.
Although many packaging companies offer biodegradable packaging, Vegware is the only company in the UK that has achieved the full gamut of certifications, confirming its compostable credentials. Indeed, compostable packaging has to break-down within 10-12 weeks – something that Vegware and Mr. Frankel are understandably proud to affirm. “A few years ago, it was perfectly acceptable to claim that your products were compostable without being certified. Unfortunately, this lead to confusion in the market-place and ultimately the customers suffered.
“From the outset, we set out to be the brand that provided genuinely compostable packaging,” he confirms. “Consequently, we embarked on the process of getting all of our products certified ‘compostable’. Biodegradable means that something will break-down, but doesn’t quantify the time it takes for the material to do so, such as wood. Compostable, on the other hand, means that something will break-down in this 10-12 week period. The other key benefit to compostable products is that they are beneficial to seed germination and the environment,” Mr Frankel notes.
The company has also been busy establishing the ‘Vegware Composting Network’ to create links within the industry in order to allow companies to find the best local recycler. “We have a philosophy that the interaction doesn’t end on delivery of the product but continues long into the future,” he explains. “In the last few years, we have been recognised by various publications and awards, which has enabled us to grow without spending massive amounts on advertising campaigns. Because our products have a positive impact on the environment and compete on price, we have been able to grow quickly and sustainably”.
The shape of the market
As well as growing its domestic business with remarkable success, Vegware has also established an American arm of the company – Vegware US, which has just been picked up by the fourth largest distributor in the United States. Indeed, when asked about the shape of the market in the UK, Mr. Frankel was unsurprisingly bullish about Vegware’s prospects. “The potential for future growth is massive in the UK and we are also looking to expand into central Europe to countries such as Germany, Austria and Hungary. At present, only a very small percentage of the UK packaging market could be classified as ‘compostable’, which gives us vast potential to expand.
“In terms of our customer demographics, we are to proud to have an even split of large-scale chains and independent caterers, farm-shops and delicatessens,” he continues. “At one end of the spectrum, we are nominated suppliers to two of the largest contract caterers in the UK, as well as tourist attractions, the NHS and all the way through to retail food chains. Each part of the market has something and unique – the larger chains are exciting to work with because of the volume and, obviously, when it comes down to it, the larger the contract the bigger the environmental pay off. On an independent level, we are able to deal directly with the owners of the company. For instance, the same person that places an order may also be the one making the coffee and working the till, so it really is an eclectic and exciting mix”.
When quizzed about the company’s major strengths, Mr. Frankel was quick to illustrate the number of ‘firsts’ that Vegware has created. “In terms of our products, we have created many firsts in the market that are eminently functional. There is no point creating a compostable bit of packaging if it doesn’t do its job effectively. If a product doesn’t work for our client then we take it back and refund them their money – this is why I class every sale as a success. We are ahead of the curve in our range of packaging and we are the only company with the proper raft of environmental certifications.
“We have also been undertaking life cycle analysis, which allows us to quantify the benefits to the environment when using Vegware,” he elucidates. “This means that we are able to go beyond well-meaning credentials and can deliver incisive, quantifiable results to our clients. Indeed, on our homepage (www.vegware.com), we list the amount of carbon and virgin material that we have saved our customers this year, as well as the amount of potential landfill diversion we save. Furthermore, our customers’ invoices also contain the amount they have saved by choosing Vegware. This year, we are on course to save 250 tonnes of carbon up from 110 tonnes in 2010, which is very encouraging”.
Moving towards a green future
Ultimately, Vegware’s forward-thinking innovation has enabled it to mature the UK’s packaging industry in a positive manner. “We have taken something that was previously used as a marketing tool and made in into a quantifiable resource that is genuinely affirmative and environmentally beneficial. We are trying to create a household brand; a company whose brand is synonymous with compostable packaging. People are already starting to use Vegware as a noun to mean environmental packaging, so that is definitely a step in the right direction”.
Given Vegware’s market-leading credentials, it is small wonder that Mr. Frankel is positive about the company’s future growth. “We are working on a few key products that will open up some key sectors for us. For instance, there is a real demand for a compostable product with a tight-fitting lid that can handle hot and cold food and prevent spillages, so we are currently working on something in that direction. We are constantly developing new products and designs to improve the functionality of our brand – innovation is part of our DNA. In terms of the future, we are in a very good place, so we are continuing to hire new staff to ensure that we can keep up with our expansion plans,” he testifies.
As it becomes increasingly synonymous with environmentally-sound, compostable packaging, Vegware is well-set on its path to a greener future. Indeed, with its comprehensive range of eco-friendly packaging, the company looks certain to continue to revolutionise the packaging industry.