ASHLAND — EcoTeas long ago staked out its reputation as a fair trade company, friend of farmers and the Earth. The Rogue Valley tea and yerba mate purveyor has tacked on another component to live up to its name, converting to waste-free packaging for its products sold at 3,000 retail outlets across the country.
EcoTeas' Zero-Waste Tea Bag Line earned it the 2012 Responsible Packaging Award from the Responsible Packaging Project, which annually recognizes organic and natural industry achievements and innovations in green packaging.
EcoTeas ships 300,000 tea bags monthly — 3.6 million annually — to retailers and online customers. It's the top-selling yerba mate nationwide, and it's also the No. 1 fair trade tea.
"We've been working on this seven or eight years," said Joseph Chermesino, who co-owns the company with Stefan Schachter and Brendan Girard. "Because we started on a shoestring our interim packaging was based on whatever we could get our hands on. Slowly, our packaging evolved into a more professional-looking product and became more aligned with our values."
EcoTeas' crew gradually increased recycled content into its packaging until it reached 100 percent post-consumer material.
"Then we switched to a material that didn't even exist when we started," Chermesino said. "Basically, it's an all-natural cellophane made from trees called biofilm and it's totally compostable. I put it in my compost pile with other scraps and the chickens peck away at it; in a few weeks it disappears."
Its tea bags contain no chlorine bleach, staples or glue and its tea is certified organic, fair trade and doesn't contain genetically modified organisms.
When the biofilm packaging took hold, the Responsible Packaging Project took notice. The nonprofit collaboration of the Sustainable Food Trade Association, Independent Natural Foods Retailers Association, National Cooperative Grocers Association, Organic Trade Association, United Natural Foods and Whole Foods Market's Green Mission, decided EcoTea's innovation was right on the money.
"Basically there's nothing wasteful in the whole box off the shelf," Chermesino said. "It's cool technology ... . The funny thing is that when we switched from foil wrappers to biofilm, we actually saved money."
The company acquires about 75 percent of its tea product from Argentina, where it developed a fruitful relationship several years ago. Another 20 percent comes from South Africa and 5 percent comes from India. There are five employees in Ashland, and three or four, depending on the season, at the company's warehouse in Montague, Calif.
"Our growth has been slow and steady," Chermesino said. "Every month we see small year-over-year increases."
The economic downturn may have stunted EcoTea's expansion, but it also produced a more efficient company.
"It forced us to develop better business practices, becoming more efficient with our packing and shipping," Chermesino said. "Now that the things are picking up, we're a better business for it."
Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.