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Katherine, Sustainability Strategist at Shellworks

Purpose-driven, brand purpose, purposeful marketing – all buzzwords in the corporate world over the past few years. 

But what does “purpose-driven” really mean? Especially in the context of business. 

Yes, businesses ultimately want and need to make money to exist. And many companies will say that their product or services make things easier for their customers. But being a purpose-driven business takes things a bit further. By focusing on benefitting wider social or environmental causes, and producing solutions that bring in fair profit with people buying into things, and not just buying things

Shellworks, a techbio company based in London and Pleo customer, is an excellent example of a purpose-driven business. We spoke with Katherine Manshreck, Sustainability Strategist, to learn more about the problem the company is solving and understand how its strong purpose extends through the entire business, impacting operations and ultimately their bottom line.  

Spoiler alert: microbes are insanely cool.

Tell us about Shellworks! What is its mission? 

Shellwork’s mission is to create naturally derived materials and packaging to support businesses in transitioning to a waste-free future. We’re eliminating plastic waste through the development of our home-compostable and bio-based material, Vivomer, that is made and unmade by microbes. 

We feed these microbes renewable plant-based feedstocks and they build up granules in their cells, similarly to the way we (humans) store up fat in our bodies. By extracting it, we create a material that looks and acts like plastic – it’s rigid and able to be moulded into different product forms.

The beautiful thing about this material is that the microbes naturally exist in the environment. So, for example, if you put your Vivomer moisturiser pot in a home compost the microbes will see the material as a food source and consume it,  allowing the material to biodegrade back down into the soil.

Our very talented team of designers, engineers and material scientists craft products to replace packaging forms that are creating and generating a lot of waste – for instance, small-size or mixed material packaging.

Plastics with these characteristics typically aren’t captured or able to be sorted properly in the waste sorting infrastructure that we have now, and we want to provide viable solutions so that no waste is left behind in the environment.

This led to the creation of a packaging range for skincare called “Tubbies”. These are home compostable jars that are made from Vivomer. We work directly with beauty and skincare brands to provide them with sustainable packaging options that will allow them to eliminate waste within their product portfolio with a simple material change.

How exactly do you work with these different brands? 

We have a close partnership with these brands to ensure that the decoration on our sustainable packaging meets their business needs and as well as compostability requirements. Things like printing and pigments for colouring. 

But we don’t approach the brands we work with by assuming that we know their challenges. Instead, we focus on discovering what their struggles are and how we can incorporate that into our design and material principles to ensure that we’re giving them a product that is suited to the problem that they are experiencing: What pain points do they have with packaging? What have they identified as disruptive or waste-generating?

In your opinion, what does it mean to be a purpose-driven business?  

To be a purpose-driven business is to have identified a problem and a path to providing a solution. At Shellworks, our key purpose is eliminating plastic waste, which guides our business decision-making and keeps everyone aligned with our core values.

Being purpose-driven means we work with intention. It means that with each new stage of business progression, or each new contract signed or Vivomer packaging shipped – you can feel that tangible impact is being made to combat plastic pollution. 

Having that shared goal motivates our team to achieve our purpose and generate impact on a global scale. 

How is the purpose of solving plastic pollution integrated into your business strategy? 

The problem of plastic waste is a problem that exists in the market. Offering a solution to that also means we’re offering a solution to a business pain point. Thankfully, there’s a lot of attention to the plastic waste problem and a lot of demand for solutions. It’s a genuine need in the market. 

We can provide a material that solves these issues but still offers robust compatibility and performance requirements that brands require. 

Being able to provide a solution that solves an environmental and business challenge, is a win-win that drives sales for us.

Do you feel that having this clear understanding of purpose allows for the building of trust and authenticity within the business and with your partners? 

Definitely! Our purpose also improves communication with brands because it allows us to be very transparent in how we are achieving that purpose and solving the problem. 

We are very uncompromising in reaching that goal which means that every aspect of our offering, from a sustainability perspective, is scrutinised, vetted and scientifically validated. Having that robust process over our systems and technology, allows us to have a wealth of resources to pull from when communicating material sustainability with customers. 

The better we can equip brands with information on our material, how it works and how it’s making an impact, the better they can carry on and be transparent with their consumers. 

Overall, having that singular, guided purpose enriches conversation to build trust in both the process and the product.

And how does it drive innovation?

I think when trying to solve a problem, you ask the question: How can we do this differently? Because the nature of a problem is that the way something is being done now isn’t working – and maybe even causing another problem, such as pollution. 

In our case, we look back to nature and innovate from there. And taking inspiration from a tiny microbe can lead to beautiful packing options that will biodegrade back into the Earth! 

From the functionality point of view, you ask: OK, this product has been created traditionally this way to serve this purpose – so, what’s the functionality that is needed?  

Marrying those two concepts allows us to push forward the sustainability of nature while retaining the functionality of goods that we’ve come to expect as consumers.

What excites you about the future?

As we continue to learn more about the impact that humans are having on the Earth, there is a growing awareness of the consequences that this has on society, biodiversity and businesses  – it’s creating not just a want for change but a need for change.  

Excitedly, we are starting to see governments, citizens, and businesses driving systems change.  As we speak, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) is negotiating a plastic pollution treaty which is a multilateral environmental agreement to combat plastic pollution as a whole, with a focus on plastic pollution and waste in the marine environment. 

This brings us huge excitement to see more purpose-driven businesses entering the landscape and finding impactful solutions to better protect our planet.

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