Santiago Navarro, CEO & co-founder of Garçon Wines tells us about sustainable wine packaging.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Santiago Navarro: Thanks for asking. I am fortunate that everyone on my side is doing fine. This includes both me personally but also those connected with me professionally. In what has been now more than a year that we have faced the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, I am very aware that this is not the case for all, and so my thoughts are mostly with those for whom this is and has been a particularly challenging time. This period has been important for me to take time to concentrate on the positive things in my life, which means mostly focusing on my growing business. It has also been a time to remind oneself of the simple things in life that are accessible to most, like enjoying a good book.
Tell us about you, your career, and how you founded Garçon Wines.
Santiago Navarro: My professional life has now been around two decades-long, with the first of those decades dedicated as an employee to a multinational media company mostly engaged in sales and sales management. The second decade is the more important one for me, as it is the one where I have been dedicated to my entrepreneurial journey. This started in 2010-11 with building my first business, Vinopic Wines. Vinopic Wine was an online retailer that was the world’s first to use scientific analyses, in addition to expert tastings, to rate and score wines for their intrinsic quality. It was while building and scaling this business that I became increasingly aware that the heavy, fragile, and spatially inefficient wine bottles we were all users of across the industry, were a 19th-century technology and were completely unfit for purpose when packaging and shipping wines through complex modern supply chains of this century. I became acutely aware that the largest opportunity in the wine industry might actually be to innovate in the common denominator – wine bottles. This experience led me to develop a 21st-century wine bottle and launch Garçon Wines, which is now globally recognized for introducing cleantech wine packaging founded on sustainable, flat wine bottles.
How does Garçon Wines innovate?
Santiago Navarro: We at Garçon Wines, a London-based but internationally operational startup, exist to make the wine industry more sustainable in a 21st-century world through impactful wine packaging innovation. Our IP-protected sustainable flat wine bottles are bringing about the most significant advancement to the traditional round glass bottles in the past two centuries. Step change innovation is needed here to make wine packaging better suited to modern supply chains, changing purchasing behaviors, and combatting climate crisis. This last point is particularly important, as many are not aware that glass wine bottles are the single largest contributor to wine’s carbon footprint. The wine industry is also more threatened than most by global warming, as grapevines for producing wine are highly sensitive to temperature.
Our multi-award-winning, planet-friendly bottles are uniquely flat to save space and made entirely from recycled PET, pre-existing not single-use plastic, to save weight and energy. The shatterproof bottles are an advancement that is respectful of the wine industry’s heritage and a packaging industry benchmark of shape innovation, best-in-class material, and recyclability by design.
Our full-sized bottles are 40% spatially smaller than round glass wine bottles of the same volume through shape innovation. They pack like books to reduce wasted airspace in transportation, helping reduce carbon emissions and logistics inefficiencies. Made from 100% recycled PET, our bottles put pre-existing material back to good use and are easily and widely recyclable to help mitigate waste or litter in our environment. Compared to using glass, the carbon-reducing benefits are amplified from lightweight as our bottles are 87% lighter than an average glass bottle. Recycled PET also uses far less energy to produce than both virgin PET and glass.
Today, we find ourselves in a critical era not only in terms of the pandemic but in which climate crisis, caused by rising CO2 levels in our atmosphere, is not just a problem but an existential threat. Our packaging aims to help mitigate its potentially devastating impact on our planet, helping to safeguard the wine industry’s prosperity and ensure future generations can enjoy wines as we do today.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Santiago Navarro: The year of COVID-19 to Q1 2021 has been one which saw our business grow in volume by more than 20 times. This is partly due to the fact that so much wine was consumed during this time when many people were locked up at home. One of our key offerings is Letterbox Wine®, offering seamless delivery of full-sized wine bottles into consumers’ homes through an average UK letterbox. Due to the contact-free nature of this delivery format, Letterbox Wine® was particularly sought after over the course of the last year and enabled many to raise a glass, whether together or apart.
Alongside circumstantial demand, which we’re very grateful for, this growth is, however, also partly due to the fact that we are a highly innovative business. Businesses that innovate to be better prepared for the time they are operating in have better chances of doing well and/or surviving a crisis. Unfortunately, the opposite also applies, and those that did not innovate during good or normal times are likely to have been the ones who were worst hit by this crisis.
Although we have grown, it still has been challenging for us. An external black swan event such as COVID-19 naturally makes company executives even more risk-averse than they would usually be. As we operate in a new product development area, this includes more unknowns than the status quo and with this innovation process comes risk. As such, some of the projects we were working on pre-Covid have slowed down or been put on hold, and we look forward to them resuming when things open up again.
As a young company with highly different business projects, we operate better as a team working together from a shared office. This has not been possible due to lockdown restrictions, and so we have missed this part. Working remotely and the broader conditions of the last year have been challenging, and we look forward to it being over so that we can focus on ‘building back better’ as a team sharing the same office space. It will also mean we can share a glass of wine together at the end of days which were either very challenging or highly rewarding. Building a business is more enjoyable when done with professional friends.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Santiago Navarro: The hardest choice during the pandemic was to slow down our expansion and focus on what we already had in place. Not growing our cost base at a time when we might not have been growing our revenue was the responsible thing to do. We took a responsible approach due to this being a once-in-a-century crisis. We wanted to understand whether it would last months or years, and what the world might look like after, and what this might mean to fund our growth further.
This also meant stalling our expansion in the US, which is something we are already working hard to resume. As it became increasingly clear that the pandemic may have lasted several years, then we decided it would be the right thing to do to be more cautious and measured than one might usually be as a start-up entrepreneur.
What specific tools, software, and management skills are you using to navigate this crisis?
Santiago Navarro: Video calls have been the standout technology that has made the crisis workable. It has allowed us to get together every morning as a team to share how we are all doing and to share what we have planned for the day. It has allowed us to meet to discuss matters as a team as though we were operating in the same space. It has allowed us to connect with customers and suppliers, meeting face to face, although we were mostly all confined to our homes. It has, however, lacked any opportunity for collateral benefits or serendipitous learnings that you get in person.
We have also used other communication and management tools like Salesforce, Slack, Trello, and more. Tools and software aside, this has been a time when caring and thoughtfulness have been more important than ever. Patience, persistence, empathy have been valuable leadership skills to have.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Santiago Navarro: What we offer is innovative and novel, and the uniqueness of what we offer means we do not have direct competition. However, as most wine gets packed into the current status quo of round, glass bottles, this format is our primary competition. We plan to stay in the game and grow considerably, and we plan to achieve this by offering a packaging solution that is a sustainable, scalable advancement of the status quo.
Wine is impacted by global warming, and, as mentioned above, the majority of wine’s carbon footprint can be attributed to glass wine bottles, their production, movement, and recycling. We offer a solution to this which also offers triple bottom line sustainability benefits for people, profit, and the planet. Therefore, we plan to prosper by offering a best fit, scalable, sustainable solution for our wine industry that is most suited for the 21st century.
Your final thoughts?
Santiago Navarro: The pandemic will have been devastating in so many ways. I hope that it has shown us how vulnerable we all are on this planet and that it has put into perspective that if we continue to treat nature and our planet so badly, then we risk being the catalysts to our own extinction, a doomsday scenario that looks increasingly likely. But, more positively and as demonstrated by the COVID-19 vaccine currently being deployed so successfully, human ingenuity can produce great results. So, I hope we can use this same approach to restore planetary health and do so without further delay. It’s in our best interests to do so and to be successful at it.