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Podcast

Jeremiah McElwee
Thrive Market


Jonathan speaks with Jeremiah McElwee, the Chief Merchandising Officer at Thrive Market. They have a great conversation in this week’s episode as they talk about Jeremiah’s passion for healthy food and sustainable farming practices and how he has helped grow the catalog at Thrive. They talk about the mission of Thrive Market to democratize healthy products to all Americans.

Thrive has a little over 5K different products ranging from packaged grocery to grass-fed meat & seafood to organic and clean wines, as well as nutrition and beauty. Jeremiah talks about his  27 year career in the space and how he is at the stage where he couldn’t imagine doing anything else. His passion started earlier in his life as a result of his health challenges. After experiencing the benefits of clean eating, “I felt I had to spread the word, the gospel, of living naturally and avoiding the standard American diet of processed food,” said Jeremiah. He joined the Thrive team in 2013 and has built a community of relationships where he can learn every day. He says he did not grow up in a hippie commune and that most people that do what he does have some roots in that. He grew up surfing and skateboarding and embraced anti-establishment early on. 

“We’ve been conditioned to be exposed to advertising; but at the end of the day where you chose to spend your money drives what we do more than anything,” said Jeremiah.

He looks at sustainability as a way to create real change and involves the suppliers of their products in the conversation. They start by asking a lot of questions. They are fortunate to have a whole merchandising team that talks to suppliers every day – whether 3rd party or private label and talks through how brands can get on Thrive Market place. They love 3rd party certifications, USDA Organic as well as ethical trading certifications and the myriad of others. All are fantastic and show they’re paying attention.

So much of what’s done and what happens in our food system is a byproduct of “that’s how it’s always been done before”. They realized early on that as soon as they had any sort of scale, the best way they can raise the bar was through a private label. They’re able to keep products cost way down, 15% to 40% less than with a leading brand. What makes their products unique is that they never look for the highest margin to sell.

Jeremiah talks about how they’re not trying to solve one problem and create several others. They’ve been able to run the gamut of products and be involved all the way down to the farm level and all the way up to amazing sourcing agents. For him, it’s very exciting as a food geek, because they are able to work with really small scale farmers. They don’t have pressure of brick and mortar. 

They view themselves as member owned and explore how they can offer greater value. Most members save their fee in the first two orders. The coolest part is that customers are doing good for farmers around the world. By drinking a cup of coffee you’re helping a co-op of 14 farmers across the Andes have a better life – not just achieve baseline economic sustainability but actually have abundance. They have tons of american farmers we work with too. 

They are working on pilot programs to do a few things like label all products on how to recycle them and the path you take to end its life cycle and look at how to reduce packaging. 

They believe that reduction is the first step. They are working with a number of partners who take plastic materials and any painted or non-recyclable materials to figure out how to upcycled into building materials so it becomes a usable durable good. They are also working to reduce plastic across the supply chain and how to use the most recyclable form of plastic.

They emphasize not letting the perfect get in the way of the good — it’s about the evolution toward the perfect. You won’t be on day one. It’s important that you move in the right direction – if we all work to incrementally improve we’d get out of this whole much faster. Organic is the first step, but it’s become a monster. It used to be regional or local but now the demand is so high that it’s led to traditional farming methods (i.e. monocropping) that impacts the earth, depleting it with every harvest that you have.