Interview: Honest Tea Tea-EO Seth Goldman (Part 1)

March 20th, 2008

Big news hit the organics world in early February, when Coca-Cola took a 40% stake in Honest Tea, the nation’s best selling and fastest growing organic tea company. Seth Goldman, Honest Tea’s co-founder and “Tea-EO” sat down with OrganicMania in March at Honest Tea’s light filled, eco-friendly headquarters in Bethesda, Maryland for this interview touching on sustainable packaging and the organics movement.


Note: With my background in corporate marketing, I’m accustomed to seeing CEOs flanked by their PR people. Given Coke’s considerable stake in the company, I half-expected a visitor from Atlanta to join us. But it was just Seth and yours truly for 45 minutes. Here’s what was discussed:

OrganicMania: What sparked your interest in organics and sustainability?

Seth Goldman: I’ve always had environmental awareness. I’ve always spent a lot of time outdoors. I worked at Calvert Group where they had environmental screens. I was leader of a campus group for students for responsible business, now called NetImpact, although I was more focused on economic opportunity than environmental issues.

After starting Honest Tea, it was only natural to get more focused on and more concerned about the environment and agricultural practices. One of the things I learned is that tea is one of the few products that is never rinsed. If you have a tomato or an apple, you can easily rinse it before eating it. But if chemicals are sprayed on tea leaves, the chemicals stay on the tea leaves until hot water is poured in the teacup. In countries like China and India, there is a lot less oversight. Unless there’s an organics inspector, it’s safe to assume atrazine is used, which is the herbicide believed to be responsible for dual sex frogs. There are concerns about safety and the affects on people. So it was in the process of learning about tea for Honest Tea, that I learned about organics. We looked at every responsible option available to us. And the beginning was the use of organic sweeteners.

OrganicMania: What about packaging? One of the main issues that bothers green consumers, like those who come to OrganicMania, is that even if you take the time, energy and money to seek out an organic or green product as an alternative to a traditional product, odds are the organic or “green” product will still be packaged in plastic or some other environmentally-unfriendly packaging. How long will it be until we have biodegradable packaging for organics and green products? What kinds of strides are being made in that area?

Seth Goldman: It’s an evolution. There are no simple answers, although technology is advancing, and that will help. One example of this is corn resin, which can be made into biodegradable plastic for some products. But that won’t work with Honest Tea, because we heat up to 180 to 190 degrees and biodegradable plastic couldn’t withstand that kind of heat. Some biodegradable plastic will work with commercial composting, but not with home composting, and commercial composting is not yet widely available. You can’t put biodegradable plastic in a recycling bin because the plastic is not a PET, and so that bottle contaminates the waste stream.

There are some interesting ideas being proposed, for example, to increase the use of recycled content. Coca-Cola is doing a lot of this, and through Coca-Cola, we’ll now be able to increase our recycled content. Can we get to over 20 percent recycled content in our bottles? I would love to see us go further in that direction. On our own, Honest Tea doesn’t command enough attention from suppliers to make them supply us with recycled content in our bottles, but when we are associated with the world’s largest beverage company, we have a better chance to get their attention.

There are other advances in packaging that are exciting. For example, looking at second uses for products. What about peeling off the skin on a product? So that even if the outer skin couldn’t be recycled, the inner skin could be recycled. These are just ideas, but again, this is part of the reason I’m excited about our deal with Coca-Cola. The Coca- Cola R&D centers are doing a lot of interesting research in these areas.

Visit tomorrow for Part 2 of this interview with Honest Tea co-founder and “Tea-EO,” Seth Goldman, where he’ll continue the discussion about plastic packaging, sustainability, and Honest Tea’s deal with Coke.

What do you think about Seth’s viewpoints? Leave a comment and share!

— Lynn

Copyright 2008 OrganicMania