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When Lilo Navales founded her artisan leatherwork company, Lilo Collections, she was inspired by her childhood spent in the mountains and coasts of Southern Spain.
From the start, Navales was determined to create a company that was ecologically conscious. She sources vegetable-tanned hides for her leatherwork instead of inferior hides with toxic chrome finishing. She only works with hardware companies that release yearly reports on their ecological impact. She monitors water, heat, and electricity usage in her warehouse to limit the company’s carbon footprint.
And when it comes to polybags, which arrive at her Midlothian, Virginia, warehouse by the thousands directly from manufacturers, Navales found a way to take responsibility for that waste, making sure it gets properly recycled rather than just turning around and sending it out into the world for her retailers and customers to deal with.
Reuse is key
Lilo Collections is headquartered in a business park, surrounded by big-name online retailers, including Amazon and Chewy.com.
“I was noticing a lot of lightly used cardboard boxes and other packaging supplies being thrown out,” Navales says. “Luckily, the boxes were branded, so I went to those companies and asked if we could re-use them.” Her business neighbors gladly agreed.
“We don’t scavenge; we have a collaboration,” Navales says of these partnerships. If Lilo doesn’t end up using the found supplies, the team breaks down the boxes and brings them to local recycling plants.
When Lilo Collections began attending Outdoor Retailer and learned about Plastic Impact Alliance, the team was motivated to look at what else they could do to reuse or recycle what they already had—mostly paper packaging that suppliers sent to the Lilo Collections warehouse.
“You can’t exactly take a crumpled-up piece of paper and try to reuse it,” Navales said. “[The challenge] was coming up with ways that were presentable to our customers and our retailers.”
After some brainstorming and tinkering, the company’s “burrito packaging” was born.
A different kind of packaging
The packing process involves cutting recycled paper to the length of a product and doing just what it sounds like—wrapping it like a burrito. The team has gotten so adept at this folding technique that they’re often able to secure packages without the use of tape. Navales says the technique is highly effective at protecting goods during the shipping process.
The biggest hurdle in this tactic is the presentability of the packaging. Labels from different brands on the paper have the potential to put off customers and retailers. If Lilo reuses a box from another company, it’s stamped with the message, “Reuse, recycle, repurpose this box as we’ve done with you.”
Another key tactic has been to include handwritten notes on the paper burritos sent to online customers. Messages include: “Please recycle this paper” and “Thank you for being plastic-free with us.”
The handwritten notes serve two purposes, says Navales: It personalizes the transaction and also gives Lilo a way to educate its customers. As for the inbound polybags sent to the warehouse, Navales and her team save them and take them in batches to a local recycling center.
Roadblocks to going completely plastic free
Navales admits that Lilo Collections is not entirely free of single-use plastics. She estimates that despite her efforts to get all of her suppliers, retailers, and customers on board with her plastic-free vision, about 5 percent of her transactions still include plastic.
Much to her frustration, one of her largest partners refuses to accept her products in anything other than polybags. She declined to name the retailer, but she did say that they have over 35 stores and cater to a particular outdoor sport.
Her team is in contact with that retailer’s warehouse logistics manager almost every time they send over a new shipment of products, hoping that they’ve changed their mind. “I think it makes them more aware that we keep asking,” Navales says. “I’m trying to insist but it just doesn’t work for them right now.”
With this particular retailer, Navales has even considered switching to more expensive alternatives to polybags, like cloth bags, but the retailer continues to insist on polybags. Navales is willing to play the long game: “I’m not giving up with them.”
Scaling up against plastic
For Lilo Collections, the question isn’t when they’ll scale up—the company is already adding 63 new retail storefronts this year—but how they’ll do so with this time- and labor-intensive shipping process. Navales has faith in her vision and says that as long as they keep turning a profit, she will continue to have the time and resources to stick to her unique, hands-on shipping method.
Navales says her membership in the Plastic Impact Alliance will continue to serve as a valuable resource moving forward and hopes that the group can work on more public efforts to bridge the information gap between manufacturers, retailers, and customers in the near future.
Navales wants to see Lilo Collections continue to drop its reliance on plastic. Within three years, she hopes to be 98 percent plastic-free, but that goal will be highly dependent on her present and future retailers’ willingness to—literally—think outside the box for plastic-free shipping.