Welcome back! Spiffy here, your interplanetary journalist reporting from Planet Earth with an eye on entrepreneurs working to make this world more equitable. Today I’m super excited to learn how Tamara Mekler and her co-founders are tackling SDG 12: Sustainable Consumption and Production with some really COOL ideas. Her company Fortuna Cools makes coolers from sustainable materials—so chill out and read her world-changing story.
Spiffy: Tamara, thanks for meeting me. What challenges are you addressing?
Tamara: My pleasure, Spiffy! Plastic foam boxes are the go-to packaging solution for temperature-sensitive goods, yet these boxes are always breaking, ending up as small plastic beads that blow out to sea and pollute our oceans. Meanwhile, nature has been keeping coconuts cool for years with tough, insulative husks. But after the coconuts are harvested, the husks are burned as waste, emitting tons of CO2 into the atmosphere. Fortuna Cools seeks to replace plastic foam once and for all with upcycled coconut fiber insulation.
Spiffy: What motivated you to start this?
Tamara: We spent months living with fishing communities in the Philippines, learning about their life and work, and partnering with local NGOs to promote sustainable fishing practices. The fisherfolk became our friends and advocates, encouraging us to develop affordable coolers to preserve the quality of their catch. We realized that we had an opportunity to develop a better, eco-friendly cooler with our coconut fiber insulation – one that could increase the income of artisanal fishers and coconut farmers.
Spiffy: How are you working toward a more equitable world?
Tamara: Fisherfolk and coconut farmers are the two poorest sectors of Filipino society. Fortuna buys farmers’ leftover waste, giving them and their families a crucial, consistent lifeline. Meanwhile, we’re cutting packaging costs for fisherfolk since our coolers last much longer than foam boxes. And just as importantly, we’re designing and building our products in rural areas alongside local communities, bringing brand new opportunities to places that don’t usually receive much attention.
Spiffy: You’re helping so many people! What’s a milestone you’ve reached recently?
Tamara: We recently launched a new product: the Nutshell cooler. Nutshell is a collapsible cooler for true lovers of the outdoors. Made from the same coconut husk insulation in our packaging product, this recreational cooler will popularize our natural insulation and demonstrate to companies and consumers alike that there’s a better way to make products, and it starts with better materials. From the design to the disposal, Nutshell is a step forward towards a circular economy.
A pile of leftover coconut husks, ready to be processed into Fortuna Cools' natural insulation. (Image courtesy of Tamara Mekler)
Spiffy: That sounds like a fantastic idea. How have you faced down failure to get to this point?
Tamara: Due to COVID-19, I had to return to the US from the Philippines. The sales that we had lined up in the Philippines for our sustainable packaging fell through, and we were far from our production partners and customers. It could’ve been the end of Fortuna, but instead, we developed new coconut coolers for eco-conscious consumers in the US. If you are passionate about your work but are stuck, look for new opportunities that are within reach and find creative ways to pivot in that direction.
Spiffy: You’ve used your passion excellently! What’s a lesson you’ve learned unexpectedly?
Tamara: I learned a lesson from a teenage environmental activist on Instagram: Living a sustainable life, and creating sustainable products and companies, is a stepwise process. That means you might not reduce your waste to zero on day one, or build your first product with a negative carbon footprint, but you can set ambitious goals for yourself and your company and work towards those targets. Those long-term goals help you make everyday decisions, and over time each small change and effort accumulates into impactful results.
Spiffy: Thanks for reminding us that the long-term goals are what we need to keep in mind. And thanks for taking the time to tell us about your amazing work, it’s been an honor!
Tamara is the co-founder of Fortuna Cools, a startup building sustainable coolers made from coconuts. Tamara earned a B.S. in Human Biology and M.S. in Sustainable Development from Stanford University and has worked in conservation and education in the US and her home countries, Spain and Mexico.
© 2021 Ladderworks LLC. Edited by Elias Ross Trupin. Spiffy’s illustration by Shreyas Navare. Follow Spiffy’s interviews of founders building a more equitable world here.