Building a Climate Neutral Company and Changing the Tide of Water
Building a Climate Neutral Company and Changing the Tide of Water

"Our goal has always been from day one to eliminate as much of the need for as much plastic as possible. And you know, that keeps plastic out of landfills, but most importantly, out of our oceans." 

- Jess Page

This week, Elizabeth is joined by Jess Page and Nicole Doucet, the visionary co-founders of Open Water, a pioneering brand on a mission to combat ocean plastic pollution. Open Water has led the charge in the canned water category, offering 100% recyclable aluminum bottles and cans as a sustainable alternative to plastic. Jess and Nicole passionately share their goal of eliminating the need for 1 billion plastic bottles by 2030, the inspiration behind Open Water, and the significance of aluminum in their eco-friendly mission.

In the conversation, they talk with Elizabeth about the importance of consumer feedback and creating impactful products, discuss their innovative approach to water sourcing for climate friendliness, and highlight their commitment as a certified Climate Neutral company. Throughout their entrepreneurial journey, they maintain a positive perspective, driven by their greater mission of ridding the world's oceans of plastic pollution.


    Elizabeth Stein 0:00
    Hi, everyone. I'm Elizabeth Stein, founder, and CEO of Purely Elizabeth. And this is Live Purely with Elizabeth, featuring candid conversations about how to thrive on your wellness journey.

    This week's guests are Jess and Nic, co-founders of Open Water, a brand on a mission to fight ocean plastic pollution. Open Water pioneered the Canned Water category, offering water in 100% recyclable aluminum bottles and cans. In this episode, we talk about their mission to eliminate the need for 1 billion plastic bottles by 2030. They share their inspiration and journey building Open Water, why aluminum is a better alternative to cartons, the importance of listening to your consumer and making a product with impact, how their different approach to sourcing water is more climate-friendly, what it means to be a certified Climate Neutral company, and how they keep perspective in order to stay positive throughout the entrepreneurial journey. Keep listening to learn more.

    Jess and Nicole, welcome to the podcast. I'm so excited for our conversation today. I love what you guys are doing, and can't wait to dive into your story and your mission. So, let's start at the beginning of both of your journeys. Maybe Jess we'll start with you. What were you doing in your career before starting Open Water?

    Jess 1:33
    Very good question. It will be a fairly short answer, actually, because Nicole and I met while we were undergrads at the University of Miami and came up with the idea for Open Water while we were in school. I graduated a year ahead of her and worked as an art director for a commercial real estate company, while Nicole was raising some seed money for us to both go full-time.

    Elizabeth Stein 1:56
    Nice. Okay. So Nicole, then you met at school? Let's hear about how you guys met.

    Nicole 2:02
    Yeah. So we, we played soccer in the club team. And Jess needed some help with her Spanish homework. I’m originally from Mexico City, so it was very convenient. For her, I would say very convenient. We started Open Water without any previous experience, not just in beverage, but just overall. I think we didn't know what we were getting ourselves into. And maybe that was a good thing at the time because we ended up going into one of the most competitive categories out there. And it's been an uphill climb for us, especially at the beginning. And maybe ignorance, I would say that we had at the beginning made us start this.

    Elizabeth Stein 2:51
    Yeah, I think that there's something super important about being ignorant at the beginning and not having the knowledge. I've started that way. I think a lot of people, founders that I speak to start that way as well. And it's almost as if, if you had the knowledge, you'd have all the things in your head telling you not to do this, putting doubt in. But I think without the knowledge, it's creating you to be a little bit more fearless than you would be otherwise.

    Nicole 3:20
    100%.We were like, how hard can this be?

    Elizabeth Stein 3:24
    Right. We got this. We’ll have it figured out. So that's your route. What the inspiration was? Where did the idea start? And what were those steps that you had no idea what to do, what’d you do?

    Jess 3:39
    Yeah, so while we were in school, there was a small, independent movie theater on campus. And one day, we wandered into a screening and it happened to be a documentary about plastic pollution. This was in 2009. The plastic pollution conversation was not the same as it is now where we hear about this problem, essentially, every day. We both had an understanding through our own day-to-day lives, that plastic pollution was a problem, you would see it on the beaches, near our school, or on the streets. But it's such a large problem. But it's almost like this abstract idea. And seeing the documentary showed us visually what this wave stream looks like. It honestly just blew our minds. So we left the theater and we were shocked and disgusted. And very quickly our conversation turned to bottled water because it's a pretty large contributor to that waste stream. And in many ways, it's a pretty silly product. From a sustainability perspective, there are reusable bottles and tap water. That will always be the number one most sustainable way to drink water. Well, we started thinking about the industry. And if you look at the numbers, it's grown every single year since the inception of the bottled water industry.

    Elizabeth Stein 5:00
    When did the bottled water industry begin roughly?

    Jess 5:06
    There were very small brands that started in the 70s or so. But it ramped up in the 90s and early 2000s. But yeah, every single year, it's grown. Despite us all having a cabinet full of reusable bottles, which we all do, because we get them at school events, and you open a bank account, and you get a reusable bottle, people continue to buy bottled water. So what we realized from that was that there's a huge convenience element that goes into the way that we consume and purchase this product. So we thought people wanted the convenience of traditional bottled water. But we need to find something to curb the amount of plastic waste that is being created from this product. So we started looking at different available packaging options. We became a little bit obsessed, we looked at everything on the market. Like plant-based plastics, recycled plastics, tetra-pack cartons, and glass. As we learn more and more about aluminum, we are like this is an incredible material that gets recycled more than twice as often as any of those other materials out there. It's infinitely recyclable. So, it's 100% efficient in the recycling process. Basically, one can become a new can without losing any volume or quality in the recycling process. And nobody was using it for water. Like, this is perfect, will curb plastic waste in this packaging, and will have the highest likelihood of getting recycled and made into a new package again. And this is where being naive came into play.

    Elizabeth Stein 6:48
    You have this idea. Where did you go with it? What happened next? What was the amount of time from seeing that documentary to landing on let's do something with aluminum?

    Nicole 6:58
    I would say it took a few months, and we were toying with a lot of different ideas. We knew we wanted to do something on the bottled water site. But we thought maybe we should do these refill stations where people have their reusable bottles, and they can return them and get a new one. But it would be washed and then returned to the same store. So we came up with a bunch of ideas before we landed on this one. So, I would say a few months between when we watched a documentary to when we finalize the idea. It took us a while to land it because fliptop cans have been around for a very long time. But when we think about people using bottled water and the way that we use it, we tend to drink from it and then put it in our bag, in our backpack, and then take it with us through the day. The reclose ability itself and the portability seem so important for water. And it isn't that important for other beverages, or some reason for water, we interact with it differently. And so we said, well, cans are not resealable, if we put water in a cannon are people going to are people going to purchase it? Because we're going to lose that. And so, we started looking for suppliers for aluminum bottles specifically. And there wasn't much available because we wanted something lightweight. We wanted the cap to be aluminum. Some providers had aluminum bottles, but the cap was plastic. We wanted the cap to be aluminum. So there were all these considerations that we had in mind to find a supplier that would work for the bottle. And once we found one, that worked. And we thought the cost would work for a product like ours, and then that's when the idea became more tangible. Because we knew this is a package, this is what we're gonna do, et cetera.

    Elizabeth Stein 8:59
    Well, I love that you come up with a concept, by listening to how the consumer uses it. Because you're so right. People want to put the cap back on and put it in their backpacks. And as much as the most sustainable thing would be to have your water bottle and fill it up, the reality is that's not how we live and you're out and about and you need to get a bottle and you're traveling. I was just on a trip to Santa Fe and they had your water bottles in the hotel. And I thought this is such a cool thing that the hotel is being so forward. You guys have done such a good job getting to them and having it there where the consumer needs it and being able to intersect at that space in time.

    Nicole 9:46
    Yeah, I think the most sustainable solutions fail or they do not have the impact that they need to have because they do not take into account how we as humans work, and sometimes there needs to be that thinking about how we interact with this product. What do people are looking for? Because if you want to have an impact, sometimes you have to go halfway in terms of the sustainability side. So, we always encourage people to use reusable bottles, we always encourage people to refill our bottles and reuse them as much as they can. But there's this understanding that for most of us, there will be times when we find ourselves without a reusable bottle, without access to a refill station, or we just don't feel like carrying our bottle around. So those are the times where we're saying, we want to give people a better choice.

    Elizabeth Stein 10:34
    I love that philosophy. Let's talk more about your greater mission is certainly helping to eliminate plastic in the world, in the ocean. I guess what does that look like today? I know you certainly saw that documentary. And some pieces were pretty staggering and curious, like where we were then, versus where we are today, and where we're headed.

    Jess 10:59
    Yeah, unfortunately, the amount of plastic that we're using worldwide has not slowed down, it's increased essentially every single year. From our impact perspective, we've eliminated the need for about 2 million pounds of plastic elections.

    Elizabeth Stein 11:18

    Jess 11:19
    Thank you. That's why we started the company in the first place. So our goal has always been from day one to eliminate the need for as much plastic as possible. And that keeps plastic out of landfills. But most importantly, out of our oceans.

    Nicole 11:32
    Speaking about those staggering figures, I think one of the things that depressed us and made us want to do something about it is that there's a fact that is crazy to think about, by 2050, there's going to be more plastic than fish in the ocean, and that to me is insane. It is such a visual way, you imagine what that looks like and it's scary. That's why we wanted to do something about this. But we have very ambitious goals in terms of where we want the impact to be. And so, we've set the goal to eliminate 1 billion plastic bottles by 2025. We hope to get there and continue growing from there and just eliminate as many plastic bottles as we can.

    Elizabeth Stein 12:17
    Amazing. Congratulations. For people at home and what they can do, certainly, plastic water bottles are one of the biggest contributors. What else are some of those big contributors? Or what else can people be doing in addition to having the reusable bottle, buying your product when they're out? What are some of your favorite tips to be doing the best that we can? And to your earlier point, like we know we can't do everything, what is realistic for us?

    Nicole 12:47
    It's so hard to eliminate plastic because it's everywhere. One of our advisors, when we were just starting, he was telling me a story about how he goes to the supermarket with his young daughter. He hates going to the supermarket with his young daughter because his daughter will not let him buy anything that has plastic in it. And he's like, I just come back with an empty cart because we’re looking for something that doesn't have plastic in it. It's sad, but there are a lot of opportunities to eliminate plastic in your day-to-day lives. One of the things that I like to remember and remind myself of is that sometimes these choices that we make, seem so small. You say I'm gonna take our reusable bag with me instead of using a grocery bag, or I'm going to buy a bar shampoo instead of a shampoo bottle. And when you think about the problem, it seems like such a small, insignificant thing. I think we all need to remind ourselves that we're part of a collective. If we're all doing our part to that small, insignificant step, it is very significant and just gets multiplied by millions of people. It's like voting. I think when people say like, well if I vote this, my vote is gonna matter. It's like, well, likely your vote isn't gonna change the election. But when we all do it, it can move mountains. And I think that's what I like to keep in mind when making some of these kinds of small choices in day-to-day life.

    Jess 14:21
    I was gonna say, Nicole, it's funny that you brought up the idea of voting. I was going to say, as consumers there are things that we can do in our day-to-day lives to eliminate waste. But when you're making purchases, you're also voting with your dollar to let companies know what you value. It might seem like a small contribution to eliminating a plastic bottle of water. But these things add up and they start to influence things on a larger scale when you put them all together. And so, I think that's an interesting way to view your purchases that you're making on a day-to-day basis.

    Elizabeth Stein 14:58
    Yeah, it’s all about where you're putting those dollars. And on that topic, curious to hear what the reception has been for you guys and getting into the market and from retailers and partners. As I mentioned, I found you before that but the hotel that had you, what has been the reception from the marketplace?

    Nicole 15:20
    Things are very different now than when we launched. We launched back in 2014. When we launched in Chicago, this is where we started a company. Our days used to be me and Jess taking my car, driving to the warehouse, filling it up. I think we could fit 42 cases, which was the maximum payload that we could fit. And we would drive around the city and try to sell our product to whatever type of accounts we get into. I think most beverage founders, thought, okay, we need to get into retail, we need to get into grocery. And that's the product needs to be. We got into a few convenience stores, we got into a few retail stores. And the product wasn't resonating. People didn't understand why should they replace plastic, why aluminum was better, and why was this an issue. The value proposition wasn't resonating because people weren't aware of the problem. Back in 2014, it wasn't part of the conversation. And we realized if we want to be successful in retail, there's gonna be a lot of investment in education that we're gonna have to make. And we don't have the resources to do that. Maybe we're too early, the consumer isn't there right now. Those car rides that we would take every morning, we would also hit up these different types of accounts. We got a few gyms to buy our water, we got a few museums, we got some hotels and restaurants. And those accounts, they were working like that the product was resonating there. And so we decided to completely shift away from retail, back then, and focus on-premise accounts, which are these kinds of accounts like offices, restaurants, events, etc.

    There we started seeing some traction. So I would say, it depends on what time period we're talking about. We decided to go back into retail and get the product into that channel in 2020.

    Elizabeth Stein 17:28
    Before or after the pandemic it started?

    Nicole 17:34
    Well, you can imagine, all of our business was on the premises. The pandemic hit, and 95% of our customers closed. So we thought what do we do now? And so we said, well, maybe the consumer wasn't there back in 2014. Or maybe they're there now. And we saw a lot of companies in different industries, whose value proposition was getting rid of plastic, and they seemed to be doing well. And the consumer was receptive to that type of message. And so we said, well, maybe now's the time to try it again.

    Elizabeth Stein 18:07
    And so now that you've been in retail, has the consumer shifted? Are they there?

    Nicole 18:12
    Yeah, I think there's been a huge shift. I think people are actively trying to get rid of plastic in our daily lives. And that changes everything. And there's been all the educational investment that we would have had to do in 2014 was done little by just this conversation around the plastic crisis. And National Geographic putting it on the cover and John Oliver is talking about it. And it's just become part of the conversation. So much so that I think if you talk to anyone about plastic, they know that it's an issue.

    Elizabeth Stein 18:48
    All about timing. We started off talking about where you were, not knowing anything, getting into the beverage industry, the water industry. It's a massive, billions of dollars category. How has that been for you just navigating? It's an uphill battle being a new brand, a small brand, whatever you're in. But then it must be that much more complicated being in such a massive category with these huge players.

    Jess 19:25
    It is a challenge. It's been a challenge. And I think that by going into the market and a little bit different way, when this on-premise focus, it allowed us to communicate and educate the businesses and the partners that we were working with, in a more hands-on way that we might not have been able to do otherwise. And we would have had a hard time competing, as we saw when we were on the retail shelves initially. But we've had these opportunities to grow the business mindfully and to position the brand alongside partners who also share our values. So from a consumer perspective, if you were to find Open Water at your local kava restaurant, it's a very different experience discovering Open Water there than it might be if you were to pick it up at a local convenience store for the first time.

    Elizabeth Stein 20:16
    Totally. I think it was a great strategy that you guys had. Being in those on-premise spaces is a special experience and something that you take home and go elsewhere with that.

    Nicole 20:32
    I think it's also talking about the competition and the size of the companies that we're up against. It's interesting because we offer a product that they've been so reluctant to offer. We have set ourselves apart from the big players in the category. So we differentiate the products very easily. I think the bottled water industry is very much built on plastic. So when you come into the category with a product that breaks against that mold, the competition is a little bit different, because if people, whether it's consumers or businesses, they want to get rid of plastic. Now you're not competing with the big guys. So maybe that has made things easier for us. But we see this all the time. There's exclusivity, contracts, or sponsorships. There's a lot of money in the industry. And it's been a challenge, but I think that it's also an opportunity for us to say, we're not them, we're different. And these are our values. This is why we started the company, we've always done this because that's the other thing. It's like, as the consumer has moved, I think that the tides are changing against plastic specifically. I think some of the players that have been in the category for longer are starting to think like, oh, my God, what do we do? What's our step here? And there's a difference for someone who has always said sustainability is one of our core values, this is what we've always done, it's a very different brand, I think, and the consumer sees that than a brand that maybe sold billions of bottles plastic and loses the authenticity. And so I think that that makes Open Water very unique.

    Elizabeth Stein 22:35
    Absolutely. Well, one of the other things I think that makes you very unique is that you're also climate-neutral, and certified, which is so cool. Can you explain what that means and how you are achieving that?

    Jess 22:50
    We talked about wanting to reduce the impact of the packaging as much as possible. We started off focusing on recyclability and which package had the highest chance of being recycled into a new package. From that perspective, aluminum was the clear answer. But like all physical products, our products still have an environmental footprint. And the effects of climate change on oceans and the way that oceans interact, and bolster our ability to work against climate change, the effects of climate change, is super important. So we wanted to make sure that we were doing everything we could to affect that as well. So we started exploring. This was back in 2019 when we started exploring ways that we could offset the emissions impact of our products. And we looked at a lot of different organizations, and there's a lot of them out there. But we wanted to make sure we were doing it to the highest level possible. And we resonated with this group called Climate Neutral. And the reason is that there are three components to the process. The first one is measuring the emissions created by not only your products but also your organization as a whole. It's taking into account everything from the products themselves, the transportation, but also employees, commute times, travel for business, all those different things. It was a holistic view of our impact. The second step is reduction. This is one of the things that was cool. There's an active need to continue to improve to maintain certification. So every single year, you are required to think about and implement ways to reduce the emissions that you're creating. And then the third step, of course, is offsets. It's been something that has become important to who we are as a company.

    Elizabeth Stein 24:56
    That's so cool. We are currently in the process of working with Planet Ford, I don't know if you've heard of them, to do our first carbon accounting, and then start through that process of reduction. So we'd love to hear if were you surprised at the beginning of going through that process. And then secondly, what does that look like for you in terms of offsetting, and how do you think through what these partners look like to do so?

    Nicole 25:25
    I think the process has been interesting because it gives you visibility as to where your impact in terms of carbon emissions is coming from. And you cannot improve things unless step one is understanding and knowledge. And if you don't have that knowledge, then how are you gonna get better? And so I think the carbon accounting opens your eyes in terms of like, oh, not only which activities are having an impact, but which ones are the ones that are the most impactful where if you made changes, where you could have the highest impact. And for us, it's always been the packaging and shipping for beverages. Not just water, but any beverage accounts for a lot of the emissions for the product, because it's heavy. That has guided how we source our products. Then it's made us make changes.

    Elizabeth Stein 26:20
    Where do you source your water from?

    Nicole 26:23
    All of our products are made in the US, and all of our materials are made in the US. And our sourcing philosophy is very different than that of other premium bottled water companies. Because if you think about it, premium bottled water has been built on the idea that a single source is the best. So if you think about Evian, Fiji, VOSS, or any of the premium bottled water brands, what they're telling the consumers is, hey, we have this special source, and it comes from this uninhabited island and it goes through volcanic rock, and you need to buy this water. And it's the best water in the world. What that means from a mission’s perspective and a logistics perspective is that for you to get that water, our water is coming from that single source, no matter where you buy it. Whether you're buying it in the US, or you're buying it in Europe, doesn't matter. It's coming from that single source. So you're shipping water across the globe from that source. And that model just did not make any sense to us. Like, this is water. There’s a reason why we need to ship it from a Pacific Island, that doesn't make sense. We need to focus on taste. We need to make sure that we're making the best-tasting water we can. But we need to do it in a way that we can replicate where the source water doesn't matter. Instead, we have this specific process that we use, a specific mix of minerals and electrolytes that we use, where we can fill our product in different locations and get the same great-tasting water. And that has always been our philosophy from the beginning. But, when we were small, it was very hard to do that. You don't have the scale. So you have this grand idea about sustainability and sourcing all these things, but you're so small that it's like, this co-packer barely took us, because we're a non-existing company, we cannot divide our production into many locations. So we used to have one single facility where we filled in, which was in the Midwest. And now we work with four different ones. And we're adding two before the end of the year. So the idea is that, as we grow, we start making our product closer and closer to the end consumer. And by doing that, we're reducing our shipping emissions very significantly. And that's how it ties to the Climate Neutral conversation that we were having before.

    Elizabeth Stein 28:55
    That's awesome. That's so amazing, such a brilliant way to be thinking about it that I'm sure a lot of people hearing this right now are connecting the dots and thinking I don't need water that's coming from that island around the world. That makes no sense.

    Nicole 29:11
    I think people sometimes don't think about that. You buy it and you're so used to seeing it in different places that you might not even make the connection. But I think when you think about it, it's crazy.

    Elizabeth Stein 29:24
    Absolutely. That's super interesting. Let’s hear about the offsets and how that works. I'm sure people have heard of that word but don't necessarily know what that means. What does that mean, if you're buying offsets? What are you doing?

    Nicole 29:38
    Offsetting is practically you take your carbon emissions, and then you're supporting projects that are going to offset those emissions. Those projects can be anything from reforestation projects to protecting forests because forests are a carbon sink. It can be an alternative energy projects. So wind power, solar power projects, et cetera. They can be methane captured in landfills. These are activities that are going to suck carbon from the atmosphere. And the idea is that you balance your emissions out with these projects, and you're funding these projects so that they get made. There are some requirements for offsets to do what they have to do. Climate Neutral has a very stringent requirement in terms of which offsets they accept because they need to be, what they call, additionality when it needs to be something that wasn't being done before. Otherwise, you're just accounting for carbon that would have been taken away anyway. And so there's a few steps in the process that we need to make sure that we're meeting but that's the idea around that. We funded everything from reforestation projects to clean energy projects to landfill methane projects as well. So, we do a mix of different types of things.

    Elizabeth Stein 31:01
    It's amazing. So as you guys have built the brand over the years. Looking back, what's the one tip that you would give yourself that you could improve, that you could advise yourself?

    Jess 31:18
    I think that there are so many things that we could have done differently avoided a lot of headaches and a lot of stress, and gained a lot of sleep back. But I think one of the biggest things, when we launched the name that we launched with was different. It was Green Sheep Water.

    Elizabeth Stein 31:39
    Different nam

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