Shampoo Sachets Are Not Plastic as They Appear

Team of MIB and MALD students works closely with Earthshot Prize winner, Notpla, on sustainable packaging
Team of MIB and MALD students poses together

During a trip to the rural corners of India, Shruti Rao (MIB 2023) was most struck by one thing: plastic.  

Traveling through remote villages in Bihar, Rao said, “The only litter I could see on the streets were Unilever’s shampoo sachets.”

Unilever is a multinational consumer goods corporation, owning household brands from Hellman’s to Ben & Jerry’s, Axe to Dove. Throughout the global south, their beauty products are distributed in small plastic sachets, intended to sell inexpensive micro-portions of everyday products to low-income customers.

“These villages don’t have any significant plastic waste except those sachets,” she said. “Unilever is, I feel in so many ways, more effective than governments in providing modern-day products to the bottom of the pyramid customers in these faraway regions.”

Thus, when Rao met a group of likeminded MIB and MALD students—Kathy Hu, Nino Sakvarelidze, Pragya Handa, and Riya Mehta—in a corporate finance course, they were quick to unite and think about business solutions for a more sustainable world. While tracking various business competitions, they learned about the MIT Retail Case Competition, and it was an instant fit for their interests. MIT asked participants to propose new sustainable packaging for the products of their partner: Unilever.

Entrants are judged based on their proposal’s financial viability, environmental sustainability, and the ease of use for consumers. The Fletcher team homed in on Dove products as their target and reconceptualized the packaging along a “refill at home” model, using biodegradable material.

“We understood that the ease of use of plastic is unbeatable,” said Rao. “It’s water-resistant, heat-resistant, leakproof, and inexpensive. Many people over the last decade have tried to come up with alternatives to plastic but nothing has gained a large-scale commercial acceptance. Our major objective was to find what would be the best alternative to plastic."

Quickly, seaweed stood out. Not only is it entirely biodegradable and a strong substitute for plastic, but its cultivation sequesters carbon from the atmosphere: one hectare of the ocean can yield 40 tons of dried seaweed, absorbing up to 20 tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually. Studying the entire value stream, Rao’s team envisioned that developing countries with vast coastlines, like Chile and Indonesia, would be able to scale the production. Beyond the environmental benefits, a new industry around aquaculture and processing would support the livelihood of coastal communities, which have been increasingly threatened by climate change.

Their research led them to Notpla, a UK-based start-up that uses plants and seaweed to design biodegradable packaging for everything from ketchup packets to energy gels, distributed at the London Marathon. The Fletcher team consulted with Notpla, and with their support developed a thorough proposal based on existing technology. Notpla provided critical insight on the financials, and the Fletcher team is keen on bringing their product to the scale of a corporation like Unilever.

Through their model, the team balanced financial viability and environmental impact, projecting 95% less plastic use and cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 36%, all while maintaining a 41% profit margin. Culturally, the product could also inspire a refill culture and transform consumer behavior. 

Competing against teams from business schools around the world, the Fletcher team advanced to the final round, where they ultimately placed second. Unilever expressed particular interest in their idea, impressed by the novel concept. The team’s success would not have been possible without the support of Notpla and Fletcher’s curriculum and community.

“All of us have interdisciplinary backgrounds and varied interests. I come from a consulting background, another member specializes in finance, somebody else is focused on environmental policy, another on international law,” said Rao. “Because we study at Fletcher, we understand how international the supply chain is, and how seaweed cultivation is going to have positive externalities on coastal communities. Our technical skills are matched with our broad interests in issues of sustainability, public policy, and social justice, and that makes our approach more holistic.” 

The passion among the team members is evident; they’ve come to Fletcher hoping to effect positive, sustainable change in business, and through their coursework and mentorship from faculty, have been dogged in their pursuit beyond February’s competition. In an impact investment course, students were assigned to develop an investment case for a company that they believe in. Naturally, the group selected Notpla, ultimately sharing their report with the start-up. Team members have gone on to win other international competitions, named runner-up in the Morgan Stanley Investment Challenge and winning the Fletcher Political Risk Group Case Competition. In the coming months, they are competing in the Wharton Turner Impact Portfolio challenge.

Given the team’s enduring commitment, they were thrilled by news on December 2 from the Earthshot Prize: in a major ceremony hosted in Boston, Notpla had been conferred the prestigious award to build a waste-free world.    

Every year, the Earthshot Prize recognizes five winners in different categories, from cleaning our air to reviving our oceans, awarding the winners one million pounds to scale their work and solve climate issues this decade. Dean Rachel Kyte served as a member of this year’s host committee. 

“The Earthshot Prize brilliantly encapsulates the challenges ahead of us—to prosper by valuing our earth. Earthshot Prize winners represent the ingenuity and determination we need to rise to that challenge,” said Kyte.

The team is excited by the positive impact that the Earthshot Prize will have on Notpla, as the recognition can help them raise critical funding and scale their operations. And with more competitions on the horizon, the team is hopeful that collaboration can continue.

Read more about Fletcher’s MIB Degree Program.