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Authority Magazine: 5 Things You Need To Create a Successful Food or Beverage Brand with David Lemley

David Lemley, Founder and President of Retail Voodoo

David Lemley had the chance to be interviewed by Authority Magazine on his thoughts on what food and beverage brands need to be successful today.

Authority Magazine, a Medium publication, is devoted to sharing in-depth, and interesting interviews, featuring people who are authorities in Business, Pop Culture, Wellness, Social Impact, and Tech. They use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

They believe that good stories should feel beautiful to the mind, heart, and eyes.

Check out the entire interview on Authority Magazine’s website.

David Lemley

David was two decades into a design career with a wall full of shiny awards and a portfolio of clients including Nordstrom, Starbucks, Nintendo, and REI. His rocket trajectory veered when his oldest child faced a health challenge of indeterminate origin. Hundreds of research hours later, David identified food allergy as the issue and convinced skeptical medical professionals caring for his child. Since that experience, David and Retail Voodoo have been on a mission to create a cleaner, healthier, more sustainable food system for all.

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Do Third-Party Certifications Matter for Food & Beverage Brands?

I was recently talking shop with a friend who works for a retailer about how they choose new brands to carry. Off the cuff, she mentioned that the organization was questioning the value of certifications in their selection process.

Our conversation mirrored some thinking I’ve been doing about how certification applies to my own business.

So I thought I’d use this piece to process my own perspective and raise questions you might consider for your brand, as well.

Are Food & Beverage Brand Third-Party Certifications Worth It?

3 Types of Certifications for Food & Beverage Brands

First, let’s look at the different types of third-party credentials a food or beverage brand might carry. These endorsements are often represented by a graphic or logo on the product package.

1) Ingredient-related

Some marks represent information critical to a consumer’s choice of product — like gluten free or allergen free. Others indicate how ingredients are grown or made, such as USDA Organic, Certified Grassfed, Certified Biodynamic, or Non GMO.

2) Values-related

These certifications might correlate to sourcing issues like fair trade or animal welfare. Or they might reflect dietary or lifestyle values, like Whole30 Approved or Certified Vegan.

3) Business ownership-related

Increasingly, consumers want to buy from businesses whose founder/owners come from underrepresented communities. Brands can be certified as WOB (women-owned business), MBE (minority business enterprise), VOSB (veteran-owned small business), and the like.

In and of themselves, certifications are not bad. They were initially designed to be a shorthand to help consumers looking for particular need states or values to align with. Consumers will choose brands that align with the types of businesses they want to support, and they’ll find those brands through all the different channels: social media, websites, and product packaging.

Certifications and Brand Positioning

There are a lot of brands out there that start buying all the certifications and wind up with a Girl Scout sash full of badges on their boxes and bottles. These brands let the certifications do the heavy lifting of communication rather than focusing on positioning.

It’s a lazy marketing tactic, frankly, to stamp a Fair Trade logo on your carton if your brand isn’t full-on, end-to-end passionate about ensuring living wages and social justice for everyone involved in the production, transportation, selling, and consumption of your products. If your brand leans too heavily on third-party endorsements for credibility instead of being well-positioned within your category, you have a brand strategy problem. And it won’t be long before consumers sniff out the hypocrisy — and then move on to another brand that carries the same Fair Trade logo.

In other words, a slew of certifications that don’t reflect your brand’s true values puts you at risk of commodity status, easily replaced by another brand in the consumer’s mind.

The Trouble with Certifications

What really chaps my hide about third-party certifications for food and beverage brands is the pay-to-play nature of the whole thing. Securing these badges ain’t cheap. And I’m not just talking about the application fees.

Well-funded brands have all the resources it takes to secure a certification. That means researching and documenting ingredient sources. Aligning manufacturing with certification requirements. Auditing and reporting on practices. Getting legal guidance on corporate structure and governance.

But for small or emerging brands, even those passionate about a cause or aligned with a particular diet or free from allergens, the cost and time involved in getting certified is a major hurdle.

For our business, securing B-corp certification was a 4-year process that consumed a significant amount of staff time. We are now considering certification as a Woman-Owned Business, and we could probably buy a used car for what it will cost us in fees to attorneys who can advise us on the proper ownership structure for Retail Voodoo.

I get it: This whole vetting process exists because someone somewhere fudged about their ownership in order to get a chunk of business. But doesn’t it seem ludicrous that I need someone else to rubber-stamp that I’m an owner/operator of our firm? Or that a Black woman is the owner/operator of hers?

Which brings me back to my conversation with my friend in retail. Her organization is doubling down on sourcing from women-, minority-, and veteran-owned brands. It’s a commendable effort, for sure. However, their procurement process relies heavily on WOB, MBE, and VOSB certifications. And, she tells me, they’re realizing that those certifications present unintended biases and barriers for small businesses that don’t have the time or funding to jump through the hoops to obtain those acronyms. By filtering out non-certified brands, are they overlooking companies whose products deserve to be on the shelf? If you’re a Black-owned business and you have to pay for certification to verify it, is this yet another way that marginalized people have to prove their value?

Like I said, I agree that third-party certifications have value. They help consumers navigate a whole shelf full of options. They can warn people about ingredients that can impact their health. They help us find brands whose values align with ours. And they can elevate companies owned by historically disadvantaged people.

But I wonder: Have we created unforeseen roadblocks for the very companies we’re trying to lift up?I don’t have the answer. But I’d sure like to hear what you think. Let’s talk

Diana Fryc

For Diana, a fierce determination to pursue what’s right is rooted in her DNA. The daughter of parents who endured unimaginable hardship before emigrating from Eastern Europe to the U.S., she is built for a higher purpose. Starting with an experience working with Jane Goodall to source sustainably made paper, she went on to a career helping Corporate America normalize the use of environmentally responsible products and materials before coming to Retail Voodoo.

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Becoming a Green Company: 4 Examples to Guide the Way

Over the past few weeks, we’ve been publishing a series of articles about sustainability for food and beverage brands … moving from relatively low-stakes/low-impact (packaging) to mid-stakes/mid-impact (brand mission) and now to high-stakes/high-impact (corporate environmental responsibility). Product to brand to company.

4 Sustainable Brands to Inspire Your Company to Become Green

This is part of a series of articles we’ve published on sustainability for food and beverage brands.

The Road to Sustainable Packaging is Long. Start with These 5 Steps.

How Sustainable is Your Food or Beverage Brand, Really?

If you’re just starting as an organization down the path to environmental sustainability, it may seem impossible to consider making every. single. aspect. of your business operate with environmental consequences in mind.

But it is possible. And, I’d argue, imperative.

Taking a corporate-level environmental stance means it’s not just your packaging that is quote-unquote recyclable. It’s not just your brand on the mission. It’s every business unit, every employee, every decision. Until a sustainability mindset is part of your organizational DNA. In fact, it may not even be something you actively market to consumers. It just is.

(If you need to better understand the magnitude and breadth of the materials economy, I recommend watching the short documentary “The Story of Stuff” and the other resources from the Story of Stuff Project.)

What does this kind of commitment look like? Patagonia, the outdoor outfitter that’s “in business to save our home planet” is a common avatar for corporate environmental stewardship. But there are other companies in other categories — outside food and beverage — that CPG brands can look to for inspiration. Here are 4 mini case studies — including one “what not to do” example from our own food & beverage industry.

1) FLOR

When you’ve finished reading this, go watch the TED Talk by Interface-FLOR founder/CEO Ray Anderson. Behind the genteel Southern drawl is a steely commitment to zero waste. An industrial designer by training, Anderson founded a company to manufacture commercial carpet tiles in the 1970s. Then, in the 1990s, he happened upon Paul Hawken’s book “The Ecology of Commerce,” which opened his eyes to the role that business and industry play in wrecking the environment — and the role they must play in healing it.

Anderson recognized the false choice between environment and economics. Then he asked, “Why not us?”

He set out to transform a petroleum-intensive company to take as little from the earth as possible and only what the planet could regenerate—not a single drop of fresh oil—and do no harm to the biosphere.

The “take-make-waste” industrial ecosystem is extractive and linear; Anderson aimed for renewable and circular. From manufacturing and sourcing overhauls to creating a reverse logistics system through which customers could return used carpet tiles for recycling, Interface-FLOR proved the business case for environmental stewardship. Twelve years into the initiative, in 2009, Anderson reported that costs were down, sales were up by two-thirds, profitability had doubled, and cost savings had paid for all the expenses of the transformation. FLOR’s products were better than ever, thanks to a culture of innovation. Employees were galvanized around the shared purpose. And, he noted, no marketing campaign at any price could have yielded the marketplace goodwill that the company’s mission had generated.

Visit the website for FLOR (the company’s consumer division) and you’ll see high-style carpeting made for modern homes. FLOR leads with design; its minimal carbon footprint is a secondary selling point.

2) Alcoa

When Paul O’Neill took over the aluminum manufacturer in 1987, the company was tanking. It had a poor reputation for product quality, underpinned by a litany of serious employee safety problems. O’Neill spent time investigating how the company operated and asked loads of questions. Rather than focusing on products or customers, his turnaround plan focused on safety. The board of directors, shareholders, and fellow C-suiters questioned how safety would translate to sales and improved margin.

O’Neill remained committed. Across the company, new safety policies were put in place. The culture shifted as employees realized that the CEO was invested in them. They started caring about their work and their fellow employees. Productivity went up. When there was an error, O’Neill accepted personal responsibility, took action, and set an example.

By the end of his tenure in 1999, just under a decade later, Alcoa’s market value had increased from $3 billion to more than $27 billion. O’Neill found a value that the greater company could get behind, and he never wavered. Business case studies call this a “keystone habit.”

While Alcoa’s mission was safety-minded rather than planet-centered, the keystone habit offers a powerful model. Find a value that’s tangible and ownable — the more specific you can be, the better. Put your neck on the block, do what you say you’re going to do, and stay the course even when it’s difficult or costly.

3) Alden’s Organic Ice Cream

Alden’s was a client of ours; they came to us as a regional operation in the Northwest with a dream of expanding. Ice cream — organic at that — what’s not to love? But the company struggled with low brand recognition.

Their brand position was earnest and earthy, overly serious in the way that some better-for-you brands can be. Unfortunately, they didn’t explain the value of organic ingredients in a treat like ice cream.

As we dug into the 360° Brand Development process, we discovered a single value woven into the business that virtually nobody inside or outside the company knew about.

Alden’s sources organic milk from a co-op of 40 family farmers. And so, we found the “keystone habit” — to protect the integrity and financial sustainability of those family farmers. Only the people in procurement really knew about this commitment and what it meant to the farmers.

We created a new mission for the company: “supporting family farms.” We broke down internal silos and made sure that everyone in the company, from the workers on the production line to the financial analysts to the marketers, knew about the mission. It wasn’t just about selling ice cream. It was about honoring and preserving the livelihoods of farmers who followed sustainable, organic practices. That became the company’s flag in the ground.

As with FLOR, the corporate commitment to sustaining farmers paid off: In just 24 months, this small NW regional brand became America’s best-selling organic ice cream.

4) Oatly

Here’s our “what not to do” example. Companies that adopt strong pro-environment positions don’t have to tout their green chops in marketing campaigns. FLOR doesn’t lead with it. But woe be to the company that does make sustainability a marketing platform … and then fails to back it up in business practices.

Oatly has lately landed in hot water, with environmental activists calling for a boycott of the company’s oat beverage products. The Swedish company is built on the promise of radically changing the food system in order to tackle humankind’s greatest challenge: climate change. Oatly’s marketing and product platforms are anchored in making it cool to be vegan — they sell upcycled clothing with the brand logo, and adopt a slang-y millennial brand voice and illustration style.

The company’s financing, though, raises eyebrows. In 2020, it sold a 10 percent stake to Blackstone, a private equity group that has come under fire previously for allegations that it’s involved in businesses that contribute to the deforestation of the Amazon. It’s a complex issue (a big chunk of that same financing deal came from “green” bank loans that come with sustainability requirements). Oatly issued a “yeah, but” statement that said, basically, “Yeah we accepted this potentially questionable financing, but at least the money is going to green projects instead of to fossil fuels or something else that’s bad for the planet.”

A company leader was quoted as saying: “We know some people may see this as unexpected, but it was very purposeful. We’re at a stage where we need to scale up. Scale requires investment and big investment. If we’re able to change mainstream capital into greener projects, we will start to see a new level of change.”

The lesson here is that companies need to be steadfast in their commitment to sustainability, always and in every way, not just when it’s convenient.

It Must Be Possible

Your company has a large environmental footprint beyond product packaging. To become a truly green company, it should be ready to review every part of the business. This is not a brand exercise. It’s not a marketing initiative.

When decision making is siloed throughout an organization, all those decisions will focus on the performance of the individual business unit. Manufacturing for speed and efficiency may save costs, but it increases waste. Sourcing cheap paperboard may save budgets, but it increases forest usage. True sustainability requires system thinking.

Those costs eventually get passed along. To the consumer, in higher prices. Or to the environment, in terms of climate change and biosphere degradation. Which do we prioritize?

As Anderson notes in his TED Talk, if something exists, it must be possible. And if it’s possible for one company, than it must be possible for every company.
Where are you on the path to sustainability? Whether you’re looking at packaging, reframing your brand mission, or evaluating every aspect of your corporate operation, we can help you take the right next steps. Let’s start a conversation.

Diana Fryc

For Diana, a fierce determination to pursue what’s right is rooted in her DNA. The daughter of parents who endured unimaginable hardship before emigrating from Eastern Europe to the U.S., she is built for a higher purpose. Starting with an experience working with Jane Goodall to source sustainably made paper, she went on to a career helping Corporate America normalize the use of environmentally responsible products and materials before coming to Retail Voodoo.

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How Sustainable is Your Food or Beverage Brand, Really?

An article we published recently noted that food and beverage brands often tout their sustainability and package their products in “recyclable” materials. In the real world, though, most food and beverage packaging is not actually recyclable in any practical sense. And even if it were, we’ve put the burden of dealing with all of this plastic and paperboard and film on the consumer.

We’ve made it so easy for people to buy our products. Shouldn’t we also make it easy for them to dispose of the stuff our products are wrapped or boxed or bottled in?

That article shared five practical steps brand leaders can take to reduce their environmental footprint, focusing on their packaging.

But of course, there’s much more to sustainability than packaging.

So how can brands create an authentic sustainability platform without greenwashing or faking it? How can they make meaningful, systemic changes, and how do they present that position to their audience?

Consumers Demand Sustainability

First, understand that consumers are driving corporate interest in sustainable practices. Take a look at the trends:

More than 9 million people globally belong to the Freecycle Network, which aims to trade and reuse goods instead of purchasing.

Peer-to-peer marketplaces like eBay, Craigslist, and Facebook Marketplace allow consumers to buy and sell used items directly from one another.

Sites like Poshmark, Thred Up, and Rent the Runway allow fashionistas to buy or rent pre-worn clothing, some of it from high-end labels.

As a marketer, you also know that consumers are incredibly fickle. And sometimes irrational. They love the idea of buying less and reusing more, but they’re still buying a ton of stuff. They expect environmental responsibility even as they buy single-serve products with excessive packaging just because they’re more convenient. They want brands to be do-gooders, but they balk at paying a premium for that position.

So what is a mission-driven, better-for-you food or beverage brand to do?

4 Steps to Becoming a Sustainable Food & Beverage Brand

Do It Because It’s Right

We advise our food and beverage clients to move in a sustainable direction not because it’s trendy or because it builds their cred on social media — but because it’s the right thing to do. Every brand is different, and that means they have different needs and bring different strengths to a sustainability story.

For every “environmental hero” brand — Patagonia, Lush Cosmetics, and Seventh Generation are brands anchored in environmental activism — there are thousands more that are starting to work sustainability into their platform. This shift in focus risks greenwashing, and unless you do it in a way that’s authentic and logical for your brand, consumers will sniff that out in a hot minute.

4 Steps to Becoming a Sustainable Brand

So how can brands add an environmental position in a legit way?

1) Understand where you are today. Establish an internal working group tasked with defining your brand’s environmental footprint across business units: ingredient sourcing, production, packaging, distribution, retail, end-of-life, all of it. Examine not just environmental issues but also human ones: wages, safety, etc. Then begin to tackle reducing waste and improving practices wherever you can.

2) Anchor environmental commitment in your capital-B Brand. We define Brand as the promises you make and the way you keep them. Your organization must decide on your brand promise and the role that sustainability plays in it. Some brands lead with sustainability and don’t have other values; others focus on other issues like equality or health and then figure out how to bolt sustainability onto that.

To make your environmental position externally legitimate and internally “sticky” it must flow logically from your brand promise. It doesn’t have to be your only mission, but it shouldn’t be one of many missions. Don’t try to be a better-for-you, organic, shade-grown, equality-minded, sugar-free, donate-a-product-for-every-one-purchased, environmental warrior brand; consumers will struggle to understand an overly complex brand position.

We call this concept being a “citizen brand” — if your brand exists as a citizen of the world, then it has to behave admirably in all respects. Your environmentalism doesn’t have to be the lead horse, but it’s part of your value system to do the right thing.

3) Infuse sustainability throughout your operations. When this effort is part of the brand’s core belief system, it informs every aspect of your business. And you recruit, train, promote, and fire employees based on those values. That’s how you make sustainability matter deeply to the entire organization.

Not every brand has the discipline to do what Patagonia did – to review every single business activity in every single unit so that every product has a minimal impact on the environment. But if your brand is committed to sustainability, you should behave accordingly in all aspects of the business, not just when consumers are watching.

One way to do this is to apply for B Corp status. Overseen by the nonprofit B Lab, the B Corp movement aims to change the global economic system to the benefit of people and planet. (We’ve gone through this process ourselves to achieve B Corp certification.) The standards are rigorous, and there are free tools companies can use to assess their impact. This alone is a helpful exercise.

4) Craft your sustainability story internally and externally. When a plan to reduce your environmental footprint is baked into your mission, it should become easy to authentically communicate that to your employees and fans.

Begin with internal messaging: encourage people to measure twice and cut once, to think before they act, to choose suppliers carefully, to decide whether we need an office copier. Training and nurturing the value across the organization will ground every decision in your brand values. That will still have a huge impact even if you can’t radically change your packaging tomorrow.

Then you start the dialog with consumers so they know you have a position, you recognize it’s a challenge, and you’re taking steps to make it better.

At the end of the day, brands have to become more sustainability-minded. Humanity is up against looming deadlines in terms of climate change and natural resource depletion. We can’t afford to delay.

Ready to start on the sustainability path, or move farther along? We’re here to help.

Diana Fryc

For Diana, a fierce determination to pursue what’s right is rooted in her DNA. The daughter of parents who endured unimaginable hardship before emigrating from Eastern Europe to the U.S., she is built for a higher purpose. Starting with an experience working with Jane Goodall to source sustainably made paper, she went on to a career helping Corporate America normalize the use of environmentally responsible products and materials before coming to Retail Voodoo.

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The Road to Sustainable Packaging is Long. Start With These 5 Steps.

Single-use containers. Individually wrapped items. Multi-material packaging. In our push to make our products so. very. useful. to consumers, food and beverage brands have sacrificed sustainability.

In doing so, we’ve relegated waste management to the consumer.

Since I attended the AmericaPack Summit in New Orleans in February, I’ve been thinking deeply about our role as food and beverage marketers in the interconnected problems of material sourcing, waste, and branding. For our industry, this won’t be a fix that’s quick, easy, or cheap.

The Road to Sustainable Packaging is Long. Start With These 5 Steps.

We Can’t Label it Recyclable and Call It Done

We talk about how sustainable we are, and even package our products in “recyclable” materials. Note that I’ve put the word ‘recyclable’ in air quotes: Most of this stuff isn’t actually recyclable in any practical sense. According to an article in Forbes, it’s nearly impossible for consumers to recycle food and beverage packaging:

The U.S. doesn’t have a federal recycling program and instead leaves it up to individual communities to make their own decisions and run their own programs. The result is a disjointed system with uneven access and unequal services, which is frustrating people and hurting the environment.

Research has found that 94% of Americans support recycling and 74% say it should be a top priority. But only about 35% of people actually recycle. Why the disconnect? It often comes down to confusion and inconvenience. People don’t know how to recycle, what can be recycled or what to do with it.

In many cases, companies put the burden on customers to manage their enormous packaging footprints.

We put the chasing arrows symbol on our boxes and bottles and call it done. That symbol is literally an expression of how futile our recycling system is.

Detangling a Complex Issue

Sustainability in food and beverage packaging is a complex issue with implications that span geography and industries. And the “good guys” and “bad guys” in the sustainable packaging debate change positions so quickly, it’s hard to keep up.

One minute, plastic is evil — but recycled plastic is hard to come by and virgin plastic is cheap, so plastic becomes a lesser evil. The next, paperboard is evil — but recycled paper is hard to come by and, as paper manufacturers shift from printing paper to cardboard, virgin paperboard is cheap, and so paper is the lesser evil. Tetra-pak? Paper clamshells? Bioplastics? Compostables?

According to an insightful Greenpeace report, simply switching from one packaging substrate to another isn’t the simple answer to reducing overall global pollution. There are liners, adhesives, inks, closures, and all kinds of other elements to consider. What’s more, focusing simply on the end-of-life aspect of the package ignores all the upstream concerns about material safety and human and environmental impact.

5 Steps for Developing More Sustainable Packaging

I think we can all agree that packaging waste is a huge problem and that brands need to step up and take the burden of solving it off consumers’ shoulders. It’s also massively complex and expensive, and will take years to solve. So how can brand leaders even begin? Let me share five steps we can all take as we start down this path:

1. Shift your organizational thinking. Recognize that your packaging is a brand asset and not a cost of goods sold. With that mind shift, you’ll realize that the package is part of your relationship with the consumer. It communicates with them after they’ve made the purchase. When the consumer is disposing of the container, that is your goodbye. Find a way to make that transition easy and clear for them to navigate.

Consider the shift from plastic and paper bags to reusable bags at retail — those bags are brand assets. Every time you reuse them, you see the brand. It’s a little different with packaging, of course (unless it’s reusable), but the thinking is similar: The package is one of your important brand touchpoints. What do you want it to say to your consumers?

2. Decide what your brand’s legacy will be. Not just in next year’s financial report, but rather your brand positioning 5 or 10 years from now. If your organization looks at packaging as a COG instead of a brand asset, you’ll cost engineer it down to a financial line item instead of considering the life cycle of the package from start to finish.

If your brand is on it, you own it until its death. Your role as a marketer is to advocate on behalf of consumers and convince your C-suite to care about packaging — enough that they’re willing to pay an extra few cents per unit for a more sustainable container.

3. Understand what’s possible and start small. This initiative is more or less complex depending on the size of the organization. Small brands have far more flexibility; they can access supplies of innovative and novel packaging because their scale is more manageable. You don’t have to be an environmental warrior to make these kinds of changes.

If you do nothing else, do this: Map the life cycle of your packaging from source to end of life. You’ll see that it’s totally linear. Now, how can you add some curve to the graphic? How can you begin to create a loop?

You might start by reducing the amount of weight in the package, removing glue, eliminating the plastic window from the paperboard box, or ditching the foil lining on the paper packaging. Every step is a win.

4. Recognize the opportunity. Sustainability is a massive consumer-facing story. Look at your packaging as a key part of your brand narrative, a chance to build a different kind of relationship with your consumer. Consumers expect the brands they favor to behave admirably. They demand this from us — just as they demand that the products we sell are safe.

If you were to get a customer service call tomorrow asking what your brand is doing to resolve the waste problem, what will you be able to tell them?

5. Advocate and invest. Start to work within your major markets to advocate for public utilities to expand collection and processing. Take a public stand. Talk about this with your fan base. Try a new packaging option in a test market, follow the waste from store shelf to recycling center to understand how it moves and what the barriers are. Test, learn, repeat, roll out.

Especially in the U.S., our recycling system is broken. As marketers, we’ve done all the work to make it easy for a person to buy something. We’ve taken all the friction out of the purchase; you can see something on your phone and press a button and buy it. But once that’s done, we as manufacturers don’t care what happens. We don’t make anything other than purchase easy.

If we can make purchasing easy, we can make the rest of it easy. We just have to care enough to do it.

We’ve been working with several brands recently on sustainability initiatives. Let’s get in touch to discuss how we can help your team navigate this immense challenge.

Diana Fryc

For Diana, a fierce determination to pursue what’s right is rooted in her DNA. The daughter of parents who endured unimaginable hardship before emigrating from Eastern Europe to the U.S., she is built for a higher purpose. Starting with an experience working with Jane Goodall to source sustainably made paper, she went on to a career helping Corporate America normalize the use of environmentally responsible products and materials before coming to Retail Voodoo.

Connect with Diana