Everyone drinks water, a fact that unfortunately means everyone is, as a result, wasteful to a certain degree. This frightening reality is what drove Michelle Donnelly to leave her job to create Lark, a company focused on reducing single-use packaging connected to beverage consumption. She began her business by focusing on providing a sustainable option for consumers who drink sparkling water.
“I never drank plastic water bottles, we always drank the higher end stuff like Pellegrino and Perrier, that sort of thing,” says Donnelly. “So, I thought, why not start there to create a beautiful waste-free experience that really cuts away a lot of that single-use?”
So, how does it work?
Lark provides its customers with a delivery service that drops off its specially made drinks, which are packaged in sterilized, refillable glass bottles, to people’s doorsteps. The company then picks up the empty bottles for refill and the cycle continues. Donnelly says they make it a point not to use any single-use plastic at any step of the process.
“Our water never sits in plastic.”
“A lot of water companies, which I’ve visited, store their water in big plastic tubes. Ours comes from the spring into a stainless steel tank and is stored in our facility and goes into a glass bottle. There are no microplastics or any weird aftertaste.”
Recycling is at the core of Lark’s mission for increased sustainability. They state that more than 80 per cent of their equipment is reclaimed or refurbished.
“People will say, ‘oh this bottle is made out of sugar cane plastic,’ but it doesn’t matter, you’re creating new things,” she says. “It’s very wasteful to create things that are used once, even if it's paper or bamboo, or whatever. And so it's this whole mentality of what makes sense to be closed-loop [recycling] and what doesn’t.” However, Donnelly believes that plastic can often be unnecessarily villainized.
“I think reusable shipping crates and old milk cartons, things like that, are a great use of plastic.”
“They’re lightweight and can be used for thirty to forty years.” says Donnelly.
What’s more, water cannot be concentrated and often, it is being shipped from countries overseas, such as Europe, to be consumed here in Canada. Noting that the transportation sector generates the largest share of greenhouse gas emissions (roughly 30 per cent), Lark chose to settle at a facility in Etobicoke, one that is close to densely populated areas.
“I personally don’t deliver the orders, we have a small team that handles all of them,” Donnelly says. “It’s just a simple Squarespace, e-commerce platform. The orders go through there and then the team packs them at the facility. We do both the washing and bottling and separate sections of the facility.”
According to the company, Lark’s team collaborates with mixologists, brew masters, holistic chefs, chemical engineers, NSF food scientists, and fabricators from micro and mass brands to create their beverages. Their current flavours include, sparkling spring, still, or augmented water with florals, an all-natural ginger ale, and oat milk.
“I started this last March, when everything shut down,” says Donnelly. “It was really stressful. We didn’t plan on creating a community on social media. We were a B2B company and met a few hotel people and some chef and restaurant owners who said they'd swap their Perriers and Pelligrino for us. And that was kind of done. I was laughing, thinking, this business is rolling already and we haven’t even launched yet. And then everything shut down. Once that happened, we had to adapt as a B2C and figure out what that vibe was like.”
The company re-branded a bit, changing their colour palette to connect with people who were feeling uneasy and looking to nostalgia and a ‘“retro style” for comfort. Since then, Lark’s Instagram account has garnered more than 7,500 followers. Many are drawn by the unique and modern aesthetic of their products and posts, and hundreds have become regulars. That said, Donnely reveals that a lot of the shoppers aren’t actually that eco-friendly; they just like the visuals. Can you blame them?
“They became a part of it for convenience, aesthetics, and the taste and quality of the product,” she says. “We are closed-loop, but I’d say it’s not the entry point for a lot of our customers. The reason I know this is because they just order once. Part of it is kind of trendy to them so they just try it and post it on social media and then our regulars who order the most water never post on social media, which is ironic. We have customers who spend hundreds of dollars a month on water and then we have people who buy a six pack and sit on it for 60 days.”
Donnelly says that building loyalty and commitment with those repeat customers is essential and that being eco-friendly, in general, requires those kinds of relationships.
“I think people have missed the point from a business perspective”.
“We have a lot of repeat customers. If I was just selling single bottles of water, by now I’d probably be close to around fifty-thousand. But I don’t know if we would have gotten there if it was actually just single bottles, because we have loyalty.” She explains.
At the end of the day, Donnelly says that all of this is really about cutting out waste from the beginning, instead of thinking about the garbage after, which is what she claims the government and big corporations do. Sustainability through waste-prevention is something Lark has fought for since the very beginning and each recycled bottle is a testament to their mission.