How Bemis Built a Strategy for Impact by Embracing Imperfect Advocacy
Have you ever thought about what’s holding together your favorite outdoor jacket or pants? The answer is probably not… But when you think about it, that’s a product playing a key role in your everyday life. Our Partner In Advocacy for the month of May is Bemis, and they just so happen to be the glue that holds our clothing together by creating an adhesive that replaces sewing. Bemis is a family owned company built off the principles for making people’s lives better–from making more comfortable and functional clothing, to being better stewards and advocates for our communities and the landscapes we recreate on. Bemis has also played an incredibly active role with POW including attending lobby days and bringing more brands into the POW community. Most recently, the brand has double downed on its support by introducing a Challenge Grant to support fundraising efforts.
Embracing Imperfect Advocacy
For Steve (Bemis’ Chairman) and Ben Howard (Bemis’ Director of Sustainability), climate advocacy work stretches far past their office spaces. This is also work that they integrate into their personal lives as well, and they recognize that tackling the climate crisis can feel intimidating at first. Steve recently attended POW’s inaugural CEO Summit in March and said the concept of Imperfect Advocacy was a recurring theme.
“Brands are starting to move past just working on their Scope 1 and 2 emissions and diving into Scope 3, which is where things get complex and where most emissions are coming from. Often there’s a sentiment of needing everything to be figured out and in place before going public” said Steve, “I think Imperfect Advocacy is when you do these things simultaneously. It doesn’t need to be perfect to make progress, and it’s okay to publicize the progress that you are making, while acknowledging the work that is still needed.”
The underlying theme is that you don’t need to be perfect to have an impact and every company needs to start somewhere. For the Howard family, the starting point for Bemis’ climate journey was their passion for the outdoors. But it took time to build the brand’s climate journey to where it is today.
“The first 35 years of my career was about building Bemis as a business. There wasn’t a connection to the environment. It was all about winning,” said Steve. “But in the back of my mind, I knew the impact of emissions and what it was doing to our environment, so about seven years ago I really started thinking about ways I could support climate advocacy, and that’s when we restructured our business plan. Rather than focusing solely on our own products, we wanted to do more in other areas of our business.”
A Strategy Built for Impact
About a decade ago the brand’s climate initiatives were primarily focused on compliance, chemical management and certifications. “This was the foundation, but these things are considered fundamental today,” said Ben.
It wasn’t until 2017 that Bemis began to build out its sustainability and social environmental impact strategy where it started to consider greenhouse gas emissions and how the brand’s product was having an impact. Being an adhesive company, Bemis is cognizant of how its product is impacting the environment.
“We’re a plastic adhesive company with very highly technically engineered products. There aren’t widely available biobased, recycled or other low impact materials on the shelves that we can just toss into our products” said Ben. “It’s challenged us quite a bit in terms of how we think about material development, R&D and investments to improve impact there.”
Bemis has found that one of the ways it can have a positive impact is through investing in sustainable material technologies that the brand can incorporate into its own supply chain. “We made an investment into Novoloop, a startup company that takes polyethylene waste, breaks it down to the monomer level and then up-cycles it into a highly technical product,” said Ben. “We’re actively working on that development with them and hope to eventually roll it out across a range of our products..”
Bemis is also participating in one of Alante Capitals Venture Funds, which is a group that invests in the intersection of sustainability and apparel. “Their research on more sustainable materials is a key input to the pipeline of new technologies we explore and hope to bring on board,” said Ben.
All of the above is Bemis’ foundation for impact, but the brand is doing a lot more than just that. The company was built for the purpose of improving people’s lives and with that, a large part of Bemis’ sustainability and social impact initiatives revolve around community service and engagement.
“When the foundation of our company is to improve lives, and then you start to do all this stuff as it relates to environmental impact, the work starts to cascade a bit deeper, reaching more stakeholders, more employees, their families, your customers and suppliers,” said Ben. “It’s this flywheel that continues to build momentum and create impact over time.”
Bemis Takes POW on the Road
Climate work is more than just a sustainable business practice for Steve. He’s also Incredibly active with POW on a personal level. In fact, he outfitted a POW-branded van designed by Chris Benchetler to travel around in for both POW events and to meet with Bemis customers.
When the Covid19 Pandemic grounded everyone, Steve had a personal wake-up moment where he realized he didn’t need to fly everywhere to meet with clients. During the peak of the pandemic in summer 2020, he decided to outfit an old sprinter van that had been sitting in his yard and use it to do some good.
The elections were coming up, and it was not a pretty time from my perspective,” said Steve. “So, myself and my son’s now wife came up with this idea to do a New England college campus tour in the fall for the presidential election.”
Steve traveled to eight different college campuses representing POW around the northeast handing out stickers and talking to young voters about the importance of registering to vote and getting out to the polls on election day.
“We talked to approximately four and five thousand students, asking them to register to vote and probably 95 percent of them had either registered already or were committed to registering to vote,” said Steve. “Just having those conversations with the kids and hearing their passion for the outdoors and their recognition that we need to do something was inspiring.”
The college tour then snowballed into something bigger. Steve, his partner and dog then began taking it around the country to meet with brand customers. While he’s there to talk business, he also has another goal in mind: to learn more about what other businesses are doing about climate change and to talk about where they are on their own climate journey. The van serves as not only a conversation starter, but awareness for the work that Bemis is doing with POW.
“Bemis is pretty well known within the outdoor trade industry. I want to tell other brands what I’m doing and that I’m not just a donator,” said Steve. “I’m a supporter of spreading the message and doing something about climate. I try to motivate them by demonstrating what Bemis is doing. “
Bemis’ Belief that Brands can Influence Change
Steve has a firm belief that brands can be more than a business. Brands can use their platforms to be conduits for change, and CEOs can be spokespeople for initiatives they care about. Brands have a large reach and can influence millions of people, lawmakers included. The passage of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) is just one example of the influence brands can have on policy.
“The IRA is something we’ve been striving for and although it’s not perfect, the reality is that billions of dollars are ready to be invested in electrifying the country and we need to get that up and running,” said Steve.
Steve says the best way to help support the implementation of bills like the IRA is by leaders of major brands becoming vocal climate advocates because people look to them as trusted sources. “Large companies can help by taking a stand and talking to voters and telling them where they can make a difference,” said Steve.
From there, once a CEO makes a public statement, employees and customers alike can make a connection between the work that they’re doing or with the things they are purchasing to what’s happening with the climate. “It makes people start thinking about the different decisions or things that they can do to help influence climate advocacy work,” said Steve.
Author: Stacie Sullivan
Stacie always knew she wanted to pursue a career in the ski industry from a young age, having first clicked into skis at the age of 4 and writing her 8th grade career project on being a professional skier. While her dreams of becoming a professional athlete didn’t quite pan out the way she planned at […]