Veteran with nearly 30 years of experience in the natural products industry, director of merchandising for online retailer Thrive Market Jeremiah McElwee has extensive experience across all stages of the business and supply chain, âfrom seed to shelf,â he shared with We First.
A Lead with us example Thriving market, now the largest non-GMO food retailer in the United States, not only offers more than 6,000 items on its site, but it is also the industry leader in eco-consciousness. Its objectives, to be certified zero waste by 2022, plastic neutral by 2023, and completely carbon negative by 2025, are ambitious but achievable, given his record. In 2020, he became the first online grocer to win B Corp certification.
Thrive Market is one of the first brands to launch regenerative organic products while focusing their activities on zero waste. It is committed to adopting policies such as âno air travelâ and 100% recyclable shipping materials, among others.
It is also socially responsible. A great champion of the fair trade movement. And you can go back to any natural disaster in the past six years and find Thrive helping out in one way or another, without looking for fanfare.
The Californian company aims to compete not only with Whole Foods, but with the online juggernaut Amazon. The ever-increasing level of confidence in e-commerce, says McElwee, and âThrive Market being a place where you can only buy the highest quality, best-stocked, and most ethical productsâ will do just that.
A guy who doesn’t thrive
McElwee tells We First that he grew up in southern New Jersey – an avid surfer – with a single mother and not much money. “I ended up living on the standard American diet, a lot of fast food, the cheapest calories we could get our hands on.”
Subsequently, McElwee developed a number of peripheral health problems, eventually ‘self-diagnosing’ irritable bowel syndrome and a disease similar to Crohn’s disease, about a generation before these diagnoses became as ubiquitous as ‘they were finally used in traditional medicine.
The suboptimal diets and inactive lifestyles of the Western public have resulted in high rates of obesity, overweight and chronic diet-related illnesses, according to medical experts and the US government, including cardiovascular disease, hypertension, dyslipidemia, type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, and even some types of cancer.
McElwee had resigned himself to remaining in poor health until he attended UMASS Boston, where the “young Jersey worker”, looking for a job, found one at a local juice bar and health food store. Within months, he became addicted to natural foods – most of which had never been encountered before on the Long Beach Island Boardwalk, which focused on pork rolls, hoagie, and disco fry.
Her boss was a leader in the natural food movement. Anthony Harnett, who owned Bread and Circus in the New England area with his wife, had recently sold the company to Whole Foods Market and started another business called Harnett’s Homeopathy and Body Care. Educating himself through extensive research and cross-reference, as well as informally interviewing patrons at the high-traffic juice bar, McElwee was also putting into practice the healthy eating habits he had seen modeled at Harnett’s.
âAnd about a year after these drastic changes,â he says, âI started to see dramatic results and started to feel energy in my food, I started to beâ regular â. He was also “seeing a lot of other people go through these pretty drastic changes to their diet and everyday lifestyle in the health food store.”
âI ended up dropping out of college just to evangelize and keep doing it,â McElwee says. “It was so transformative for me that I had to get the word out on the scale I could.”
This attitude catapulted him to one of the country’s healthy food epicenters: Boulder, Colorado. He ended up opening the first Whole Foods store there and remained with the company for 16 years, eventually managing their private labels and becoming an executive global coordinator for the beauty, apparel and wellness categories. Along the way he managed Whole Foods & 365 private labels.
Then came 2013, the best year to date in Whole Foods history in 35 years. Yet the the company almost collapsed in the fourth quarter, its stock collapsed after missing revenue and lowering its forecast. Shaking ensued.
âIt was time to move on,â says McElwee. During a “sabbatical year” of counseling and soul-searching, he met by chance Nick Green and Gunnar Lovelace, two of the co-founders of Thrive. âThey had ‘this idea of’ How to pick up where Whole Foods kind of put it and expand access to all Americans,â says McElwee.
Gunnar and Lovelace hired McElwee as a consultant. It was a 30 day contract. He stayed in their little apartments in LA. He quickly became a member of Thrive’s initial startup team, where he organized Thrive’s first catalog offering and developed the quality guidelines that still guide product purchasing today.
McElwee is grateful to be a part of the company’s mission – “It’s a gift” – to focus on democratizing access to healthy products for all Americans, which “will create a ‘training on other issues for people, nationally and internationally “.
Why isn’t natural food more abundant? The âconsumer cultureâ that began in the 1950s was the death knell for natural products, says McElwee. âBecause we wanted consistency, we always wanted the same experience. And that has also led to a lot of shortcuts and a lot of people trying to cut the bottom lineâ¦ And with that, a lot of headaches. Because you move further away from “as nature intended”, more toward convenience and speed “and, ultimately, the lack of access for many to high quality natural and organic foods. Thrive, says McElwee, is trying to right this wrong.
A thriving supply chain
For McElwee, it all starts with sourcing. Right off the bat, Gunnar and Lovelace gave McElwee âcarte blancheâ to be able to shape what we do in supply chains, and how we source and how we avoid outsourcing costs, âhe says.
The company was one of the first to embrace âthe new concept of being mindful all the way down the supply chain, right down to the farms and the humans who grow the food,â he says.
Today, McElwee’s 20-person team “has that little twinge of heart every day because we talk to great brands that work with all of our competitors, physical and online,” he says. âAnd my team keeps telling me, ‘I asked the brand this question about their sourcing or this ingredient. And they said no one had ever asked them that before! ‘ “
“How is it possible?” McElwee asks.
How to flourish in the Lead with us space out
McElwee, who has advised and guided several entrepreneurs in successful businesses, offers these three tips to those who want their businesses to present themselves in a way that is more responsible, ethical and useful to society and the environment:
- Stick to the main mission. At Thrive, âit literally means making a healthy, sustainable lifestyle available and affordable for all Americans. This is the main mission. And with that comes the responsibility not to do it in a way that does more harm or more harm than good along the way. Basically, this main mission motivates everything we do … thinking around our impact on waste, our environmental impact, our impacts on the supply chain, all those other departments that feed the hub. It’s what we do, integrated with what we do.
- Don’t stop at certifications. There is a lot of greenwashing and purpose washing in business today. Be authentic. âCertifications should be the starting point. So USDA Organic is still very meaningful, Regenerative Organic very meaningful, Fair Trade – I’m quite fair for life. All very significant starting points. But the thing is what you do after that, building on that and not resting on, ‘Well, it’s certified, so we’re good.’
- Give back. Thanks to his foundation arm, Thrive’s has donated over $ 4 million to sustainability causes since 2015 – âA year after a year, when we kind of knew we had something that was going to live on and we could do more. Members give an average of 4% of their annual payment or expense to lead initiatives. âWe use this charitable arm to literally step up whenever there is a natural disaster. Whether it was the fires that happened in California, the recent Hurricane Idaâ¦ We have teamed up to send trucks, food and water to Louisianaâ¦ A lot of people think e-commerce companies are that entity. nameless and faceless that no one knows. And we take a different approach, which is this radical localization – wherever we are, we are in your community. We also want to help you.
If you want to dig deeper with more targeted companies like Thrive Market, check out the Lead with We podcast. here, so you too can build a business that transforms consumer behavior and our future.