D2C Proteins' Thermal Insulation Sits at the Intersection of E-Comm and Sustainability

This e-comm startup hit the big time only a couple of months ago. A big step in getting there was bolstering its package sustainability profile to better align with its brand positioning.

Headquartered outside of Toronto, truLOCAL was founded in 2016 as a monthly subscription platform for meat and food delivery that’s uniquely tied to independent local farms, butchers, and clean-meat processors. At its core, it’s a platform for a business like an organic farm or a neighborhood butcher shop to go Direct to Consumer (D2C)—something increasingly valuable when the pandemic has consumers nervous about stepping inside a supermarket.

“People had started looking for value-added meat products with qualities like 100% grass-fed, pasture raised, or organic,” says Marc LaFleur, CEO and co-founder. “And it was always really tricky to find those things. You either had to drive out to the farm or find a specialty butcher or settle for something like Whole Foods, which doesn’t really focus on local.”

LaFleur had first-hand knowledge of the emergence of the value-added meat trend as a door-to-door meat salesman in a previous life. He realized there was no good channel to deliver such goods, so he created one.This e-comm play for specialty and value-added proteins like wild-caught fish, free-range poultry, and grass-fed beef uses a striking printed corrugated shipper that’s fully recyclable.This e-comm play for specialty and value-added proteins like wild-caught fish, free-range poultry, and grass-fed beef uses a striking printed corrugated shipper that’s fully recyclable.

“There was nobody in the online meat business borrowing best practices from e-comm, SaaS [Software as a Service], and online real estate,” he says. “With e-comm, you're looking at things like paid customer acquisition. And you look at SaaS, you learn about user onboarding and customer retention. Even highly applicable lead-generation practices can be learned through real estate. No one was really doing that. So we figured why not take these proven business models and apply them to a niche market like online meat. We quickly realized we were solving a problem on the supplier side, too. The producers of these meats didn’t know where to sell their product. We’re trying to be the best company at connecting buyers to a source, and that should benefit both the consumer and the supplier.”

Recently, truLOCAL ’s growth has exploded, with business already expanded to four locations in both the U.S. and Canada when we spoke with founder Marc LaFleur in December of 2020. And as of Dec. 31, the company was acquired to the tune of nearly $17 million by EMERGE Commerce Ltd., an acquirer and operator of niche e-commerce brands. And while the company story is an interesting one, the packaging went through a transformation of its own that’s worth noting.

Packaging transformation
As attractive as e-comm and D2C might be, consumers see them as sources of excess packaging waste. Leadership at truLOCAL had to address that perception.

As a cold-chain shipper of perishable meat, the company initially was using unrecyclable expanded polystyrene (EPS) for thermal protection during transit. Customers indicated that they didn’t like that the containers couldn’t be recycled; it defeated one of the purposes of shopping local to begin with.

“Like a lot of startups, [packaging] was the furthest thing from our mind when we started. The path of least resistance was what was already an accepted cold chain food delivery—EPS boxes. That was sort of an industry standard,” LaFleur says. “It wasn’t until we started getting that customer feedback and saw it for ourselves in our warehouses and seeing these stacks and stacks of EPS, that it really became front-of-mind.”

So truLOCAL set out to replace the coolers with a sustainable alternative that still protects shipments and maintains freshness. After all, the founders always wanted to be a business that did good, something accomplished by connecting consumers to these more boutique and niche producers by delivering value-added meat products. “But our packaging wasn't lining up with that,” LaFleur says. “So that's where we started realizing that we need to make a change.”

The company entered a year’s worth of testing, using the latest cooler materials running the gamut from lint-filled bags to corn-based insulators, even a few lowly crumpled-paper solutions (which LaFleur initially dismissed out of hand). The company needed a thermal solution to be flexible enough to handle their wide range of products, yet protective enough to maintain proper temperature range during transit—the success metric was 48 hours of rock-solid frozen product using dry ice.The secondary packaging system is curb-side recyclable in any municipality that uses full curb-side recycling. It consists of a printed corrugated outer box, paper insulation to allow dry ice packets to keep temperature, and a recyclable (in Alberta and BC; material not specified) bag to keep the corrugated and insulation from getting soggy due to any condensation in transit.The secondary packaging system is curb-side recyclable in any municipality that uses full curb-side recycling. It consists of a printed corrugated outer box, paper insulation to allow dry ice packets to keep temperature, and a recyclable (in Alberta and BC; material not specified) bag to keep the corrugated and insulation from getting soggy due to any condensation in transit.

Following an in-depth internal analysis of a multitude of different solutions, truLOCAL chose Ranpak WrapPak Protector, a paper-based thermal insulation solution for use with dry ice or gel packs. “Protector cross-pads have been transformative products for us,” says Lafleur. “Their flexibility and performance made it an easy choice to replace our unsustainable, bulky Styrofoam coolers.” But LaFleur took some convincing.

“It wasn't until we had one of the guys come down from Ranpak and do the whole demo that I started to come around to the paper solution. I still wasn't sold. And it wasn't until we tested it side-by-side with the other solutions that I started to come around. It was the only thing we used that actually kept product refrigerated and frozen the way that we needed it. And I must've given it more tests than any of the other options because I still wouldn't believe it. Eventually after just testing it a million different ways, it was the thing that beat everything out and we haven't looked back since.”

The Ranpak system includes the semi-automatic WrapPak Protector (video here). This rollstock-fed Kraft paper converting system creates waved paper pads at programmable sizes and increments. For fulfillment centers interested in box lining, the wide paper pads produced on the system can cover an entire box surface with just one insert. Wrapping, blocking-and-bracing, and interleaving are possible with the pads, and with a double layer as is used in the truLOCAL application, the air trapped in the waved Kraft paper provides sufficient thermal insulation for dry ice for 48 hours.

According to Ranpak, the features listed above mean the WrapPak Protector unit can replace a wide range of existing packaging materials that truLOCAL used to require, including corrugated shippers, dunnage, aluminum-coated plastics, tapes, and inserts. The WrapPak Protector converter is also highly programmable to match evolving needs, and it’s small enough to use at a pack table, either in-line or as a standalone unit.

The small piece of machinery was easily integrated into truLOCAL’s facility as it freed up nearly 50 sq m (520 sq ft) of space, previously dedicated to EPS packout, for more pack lines. But not only did Ranpak help with the storage space, it also made the packaging process easier and reduced the time needed to package boxes thanks to the on-demand delivery of the pads.

The response from customers has been equally positive, according to LaFleur. Social media posts feature customers embracing the experience of opening their truLOCAL boxes to enjoy their products wrapped beautifully and safely in Ranpak Protector pads. Consumers appreciate that the all-paper replacement solution is 100% curbside recyclable.

“People understand paper,” he adds. “Not only did Ranpak improve the unboxing experience for our customers, but we now spend less time packing our boxes. The on-demand delivery of the pads from the Protector makes the process so quick and easy. The simplicity of the paper is beautiful.”The specially developed waved-paper pad system is an effective and eco-friendly alternative to plastic dunnage or expanded polystyrene (EPS) thermal insulation.The specially developed waved-paper pad system is an effective and eco-friendly alternative to plastic dunnage or expanded polystyrene (EPS) thermal insulation.

No more excuses
Early on in the global adoption of e-commerce—especially for food or pharma in the e-comm cold chain—LaFleur says that the market and its customers had an understanding about sustainable packaging. There just weren’t a lot of sustainable packaging options on the market that could do the job without breakage or return, so sustainability would just have to be sacrificed at the altar of e-comm ease and convenience.

“But now, when you see there’s a solution like this one that gets you exactly where you need to be on both a functional and a cost perspective, there's no excuse anymore not to build sustainability into your packaging,” he says. “This e-comm wave is creating a lot more waste, a lot more packaging, and a lot more delivery trucks on the road. There's a lot more unrecyclable and unsustainable packaging being used. So if you can find a more sustainable solution that works, why aren't you using it? It’s no longer a compromise. It's something you can do and still run your business efficiently, protect your margins, and do what's right.” -PW

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