Going green doesn't have to cost more.
That's the message a Long Island manufacturer of disposable items is working to spread to its customers.
Emerald Brand in Syosset makes and sells "tree-free" towels, toilet tissue and other disposable items such as single-use utensils. They are made from sugarcane and wheatgrass byproducts such as the stalks, referred to as bagasse, instead of wood pulp and plastic. The company says its prices are comparable to — and sometimes lower than — prices for similar paper and plastic products.
Emerald worked to develop technology that refines bagasse-based materials so they can be used in finished products, said Jaclyn McDuffey, 28, co-managing director and daughter of company founder and CEO Ralph Bianculli Sr.
“The machinery in our industry and the technology that has been built over the last 100 years was all built to work with tree fibers and/or petroleum-based plastics,” McDuffey said. “There was a lot of technological expertise that had to be built from the ground up."
Consumers and businesses have growing acceptance of the need for more sustainable products, but many assume those products will cost more. Spreading the word about Emerald’s portfolio and its mission continues to be a struggle, said co-managing director Ralph Bianculli Jr., 29.
“The biggest challenge we face is educating consumers and educating decision-makers in the business world that they should be using this, that they don’t have to sacrifice quality, that they don’t have to sacrifice cost,” he said. “We’re not selling, we’re telling.”
Emerald Brand's tree-free towels sell for $56.99 for 30 rolls on the company's website, which breaks down to $1.73 per 100 sheets. In comparison, Bounty paper towels can be purchased for $1.77 per 100 sheets on Amazon.com, while Sparkle towels sell for $1.40 per 100 sheets.
To educate customers, Emerald uses a sales team dubbed the Eco Squad to spread the word about its products and help business customers with sustainability programs. The Eco Squad numbers two dozen people spread across the country. Team members work with clients to integrate Emerald’s products into offices, educate employees on municipal laws about sustainability and help customers change their habits, including sorting food waste for composting facilities.
Among Emerald's clients is American Express, which works with the Eco Squad to spread awareness among employees about its sustainability efforts. The company, based in Manhattan, is one of Emerald’s largest customers. It uses Emerald products, including their tree-free towels and flatware, in its five major U.S. facilities. In 2019's first quarter, American Express reported using 2.3 million of Emerald's tree-free napkins and 62,000 of its cold cups.
“With this Eco Squad — they’re very engaged,” said Robert Seth Gordon, vice president of workplace services at American Express. “So they’ll come, they’ll talk to you and they’ll explain it [sustainability]."
Because numerous other companies market products as environmentally friendly, it's still tough for companies like Emerald to stand out from the crowd, said Andrew Forman, a marketing and international business professor at Hofstra University’s business school.
“It became such a selling point for companies ... to become more environmentally friendly, more eco-friendly,” he said. “So the companies that are legitimately doing something — sometimes that noise can wash them out.”
Forman advised Emerald Brand and others to double down on their marketing efforts.
“A company that from the ground up embraces the sustainability aspects ... those are the ones that are in a much better position to use that and gain a competitive advantage,” he said.
Recent legislative changes also stand to give Emerald a boost.
Nassau County Executive Laura Curran signed a Styrofoam ban into law in June, which will make it illegal to sell or distribute polystyrene products in the county as of Jan. 1, 2020. Similar measures are already in place in Suffolk County and New York City. Emerald sells tree-free clamshell packages designed for food takeout as well as tree-free cups as alternatives to Styrofoam containers. The company also recently launched a tree-free hot cup.
When Ralph Bianculli Sr. founded Emerald in 1997, his goal was to use materials other than paper and plastic. The company’s first product was a disposable towel made from recycled paper. Bianculli Jr. said it took another decade for the company to develop and refine the machinery needed to make completely paper-free products.
“It was really, really tedious and strenuous over a period of two decades to implement the brand,” he said.
The U.S. sanitary paper product industry, which includes facial tissue, paper towels, napkins and toilet paper, is projected to generate revenue of $12 billion in 2019, according to IBISWorld. Although exact numbers for the eco-friendly slice of that market are not available, the alternative products are gaining popularity, according to Grand View Research, a San Fransico-based market research company.
Today, Emerald has 57 employees, including 30 in its Syosset headquarters, with others at facilities in California, Florida and New Jersey. The company produces some items on Long Island through a contract manufacturer, including tree-free towels and cleaning chemicals, while the rest are manufactured at other locations around the United States.
Revenue has doubled over the past five years, with annual sales ranging from $50 million to $75 million, according to McDuffey. Bianculli Jr. said he expects 25 percent to 30 percent growth this year, based on newly signed national contracts.
“We are not going to stop until we displace traditional, non-environmental products and make what we’re doing the norm,” said Bianculli Jr.
At a glance
Company: Emerald Brand, Syosset
What it does: Manufactures and distributes sustainable “tree-free” products using sugarcane and wheatgrass pulp.
Year founded: 1997
CEO, founder: Ralph Bianculli Sr.
Revenue: $50 million to $75 million