By: Liz Barteldt
Many of us know the feeling of leaving a business conference with our pockets filled with business cards and promotional items from A-Z, knowing deep down we will never actually use them. In the business world, corporate swag often lacks unique character or usefulness, and so is rarely used.
Michael Stausholm has an antidote for drab, wasteful office items. Stausholm is the CEO of Sprout, the world’s first and only producer of a pencil you can plant. No matter your age, he believes seeing plants grow is a fantastic feeling. Consumer or corporate, users of Sprout pencils are given the power to spark conversations about sustainability with what used to be an ordinary, everyday product.
Planting the Seed
Although Sprout is a Danish company, Stausholm sees it as a global company that grew up in Denmark after being born in the United States. The original idea came from three MIT students who put their invention on Kickstarter. Stausholm, who was working as a sustainability consultant in Europe at the time, stumbled across the product on the crowdfunding platform. Immediately, he saw the pencil’s potential: a vessel for illustrating circularity and exemplifying sustainability. So in 2013, Stausholm made a deal with the MIT students to sell and distribute the Sprout pencil throughout Europe and soon took on Sprout full time. In late 2014, he acquired the rights to the Sprout pencil and the patent for plantable writing instruments.
Even though the product changed hands, the model remains the same. The pencil is made of sustainably harvested wood and has a seed capsule in place of an eraser. When the pencil has reached the end of its useable life, you can put it in soil. The seed capsule dissolves the first time it is watered, and before long, your pencil begins its second life as a plant! Sprout offers pencils with seeds ranging from cherry tomato, forget-me-not, basil, wildflower, spruce tree, and more. In fact, the seed capsule holds up to 15 seeds, ensuring success even if you’re convinced you don’t have a green thumb.
Sprout grew rapidly thanks to the patent, which allowed them to operate in a “blue ocean” (without any competitors). Additionally, a budding desire from companies and consumers to be more sustainable directed a lot of positive attention toward the company. Now, Sprout has sold over 50 million pencils in more than 80 countries. 75% of its sales are business-to-business, including notable brands like IKEA, Coca-Cola, and Bank of America. Companies can customize the pencils with phrases, so the writing implement can act as a “green messenger” to demonstrate their strides in sustainability.
As a business card of the future, the Sprout pencil acts as an intriguing ice-breaker during an exchange between business colleagues, sparking discussion about corporate and personal actions on sustainability.
Part of the pencil’s intention as a “green messenger,” especially when customized with facts or phrases, is to inspire people to think about how products can be given a second life. Watching the news nowadays, it’s easy for individuals to become overwhelmed when hearing about the state of our environment. Sprout pencils spread the word to consumers that small actions add up to make a big difference. Known as the “Salami Method” to Stausholm, when there is a big problem and you don’t know where to start, begin by cutting it down into small slices.
Growing a Green Company
By the very nature of the product, Sprout was founded on a sustainable mission from the beginning. Nonetheless, sustainability has been a journey and efforts have improved as the company has grown. Sprout did not have 100% sustainable practices from the start. What makes Sprout different, though, is that they acknowledged this and emphasized transparency. While Stausholm’s main focus in the beginning was scaling and selling, he was working behind the scenes to develop a more sustainable supply chain for its global market. For the American market, raw material sourcing and production are done in Minnesota as that’s where the MIT students found a producer for the pencils. For the European market, it’s done in Poland.
Beyond sourcing locally, Sprout has collaborated with Polish state forests to implement a completely non-commercial tree planting project. Next year, the company plans to plant 12,000 new trees with no intention of cutting them down. While it may be hard to believe, a single tree produces approximately 175,000 Sprout pencils. Further, by cutting down a single tree, they potentially create 175,000 new plants. On top of the trees they plant in the Polish state forests, the plentiful number of new plants created from the pencils proves that when it comes to sustainability, Sprout walks the talk.
As a new B-Corp member, Sprout now has third-party verification for the abundance of ways they are making an impact. For example, the company emphasizes its commitment to sustainability by having a Chief Sustainability Officer as a part of the management team. Further, Sprout is climate neutral on a product level and has dedicated time and resources to life cycle assessments (LCAs) and research on science-based targets. Now, Sprout is strategizing ways to reduce its scope 3 emissions, which include those produced by employee commuting as well as the distribution and use of the product. Sprout has already made strides to reduce scope 3 emissions since most employees travel to work via bicycle, highlighting the employees’ support of sustainability goals.
A Look Into Stausholm’s Story
Despite Denmark being known as one of the world’s most sustainable countries, Stausholm discovered his interest in sustainability in Asia. While working in the garment and textile industry, Stausholm witnessed horrible working conditions of factory workers. In the late ‘90s, American companies like Nike and Walmart, pushed by shareholders, began pressuring their Asian partners to improve working conditions, and Stausholm witnessed how truly simple it is to do the right thing. He soon applied this mindset to environmental sustainability, which was a growing movement by the time of the late ‘90s and early 2000s.
Now a successful CEO of Sprout, Stausholm still realizes the importance of creating a good work environment. Built completely organically and without venture capital, Sprout grew incredibly quickly, so it was important for Stausholm to get the right people on board. He credits the continued success of Sprout to his fantastic management team.
“Surround yourself with smart, passionate people, and the company will build itself.”
— Michael Stausholm
Dealing with growing uncertainties has been one of his greatest challenges as the founder and CEO. The combination of COVID-19, the war in Ukraine, and mounting inflation could make any entrepreneur’s head spin. Stausholm said that despite these problems, he focuses on keeping sustainability high on the global agenda.
Even with this constant whirlwind of uncertainty nowadays, Stausholm has a lot that he is grateful for. At Sprout’s Copenhagen office, there is a balcony filled with bees pollinating 100 yards worth of sunflowers, cherry tomatoes, and other plants grown from Sprout pencils, where Stausholm enjoys walking in the morning to see the Sprout pencils come to life. What he loves the most, though, is looking at pictures of people planting their pencils and seeing the excitement on their faces. Even after eight years, Stausholm still shares the same excitement as customers do when he sees the pencils grow.
A Growing Sustainability Movement
As sustainability starts to take center stage in the private sector, especially after COVID, Stausholm hopes that Sprout can act as a lighthouse for corporations beginning their sustainability journey. Most importantly, he wants to show people that it is not impossible to run a company sustainably. It is simply about dedicating resources and investing in processes such as LCAs, certifications, and so on. Further, it is about understanding that sustainability is a necessary investment, not a money pit– as it has never been so important.
Stausholm is seeing more and more that large companies truly want to make a change and not merely greenwash their operations. However, it can be difficult for them to know where to start and focus since their supply chains are large and complicated, and the process doesn’t happen overnight.
While the private sector holds remarkable power to push society in a more sustainable direction, there is a significant need for governments to make a change, said Stausholm. His home country, Denmark, has a goal to reduce emissions by 70% by 2030. Stausholm said he hopes that Denmark, similar to Sprout, can act as a lighthouse for other countries, especially the United States and China, to sense the urgency and act on it.
Recently, Sprout began exploring different avenues with its patent. This past year, they launched makeup eyeliners and browliners that bloom into wildflowers. Makeup is an untapped market for Sprout, as it is sold solely to consumers rather than corporations, which comprises 75% of the company’s typical sales. Sprout plans on marketing its new makeup line differently than typical makeup brands such as L’Oréal or Estée Lauder, as Sprout pencils have a unique story to tell.
In addition to exploring this new market, Stausholm plans to continue growing Sprout, as billions of people still don’t know about its innovative products. Thanks to Sprout’s marketing and PR team, the brand is striving to reach new audiences in creative ways. By doing so, Sprout continues to sow the seeds for a more fruitful tomorrow.
Interested in buying a Sprout pencil for you or your business? Check out their website: https://sproutworld.com/
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