Locally produced food is not only better for the environment, but it’s also better for you. It feels good to help the planet and be healthy in a time when the consequences of human actions are more and more devastating. For sustainable startup Hrbs., who are growing in the B. Smart City Hub, these two ideas of being healthy and helping form the foundation of their ecologically centered business. Hrbs. is a circular, subscription-based service that delivers locally grown culinary herbs, grown without pesticides or herbicides. But unlike the countless washed, harvested and boxed up fresh food delivery businesses, Hrbs. delivers your herbs as living plants, still in the reused growing trays that they were born in. Along with their own line of furniture that houses these trays, the herbs continue to grow with the customer until the second before they are needed, quite literally ensuring the freshest herbs possible.
Hrbs. combines its fundamental product with a wider customer experience, involving them in the growing process whilst simultaneously greening the work environment. And the experience is everything. It encourages people to reconnect with their food and in turn makes us ask important questions; where does our food come from, why is awareness important, what effect am I having on the Earth and how can I and others reduce this impact. We need to ask these questions. In short, Hrbs. is a necessary business.
Tessa Duste started Hrbs. with her co-founders Philip van Traa and Nina Sickenga in 2017 having been in the sustainable startup world for three years prior. As a seasoned entrepreneur, she is optimistic, driven and passionate. At the same time, she is overwhelmingly realistic about the market and world she works in. Current global systems are not built for circular models and even sustainability as a word is a problem. With companies now using it to greenwash themselves in the hope of increased profits, it’s harder for positive drivers like Hrbs. to convey their genuine mission. And having a product which is living presents its own challenges. How do you market a product that depends on its taste and smell in a world which is always online?
How did Hrbs. start and how has it developed?
In 2014, Nina Sickenga and I started a business based on the fact that we live in a growing city whose green spaces are disappearing and will continue to do so. We thought it was a foolish loss for so many reasons. Our response was to look at the unused surfaces in Amsterdam (which is in most cases roofs) which could be used to grow greens, plant trees and bushes, and bring back bio diversity. It was very much a startup and it was a lot of fun, but it was a niche market, not everyone can afford green their roofs and not everyone wants to do it.
At the same time, we met Philip who was running GrownDownTown (a company that was one of the first businesses to rent an office space from B. when they started) which was involved in indoor greening, tropical gardens and edible greens. It was interesting because we were operating in the same field, and our missions were very similar, but our networks didn’t overlap and we had different products. We saw this as an interesting opportunity, so in 2017 we merged our running business. We then looked at our existing names and operations and split them up into two new, different entities. The first one became Moss (makers of sustainable spaces) and the other one was Hrbs.
Hrbs. started from an idea that Philip had a long time ago when he was asked by several chefs if he could help them grow food on the roofs of their restaurants. They wanted to show people they were using and cooking with locally grown, fresh produce. They knew they were working in a city, but still wanted that connection and that outlet. The first solution was to simply put a substrate on the roof and grow the herbs there. It was really interesting because the chefs then said they would like to be involved in growing the food. But we quickly realized chefs don’t have the time and often don’t have the expertize. A lot of the first projects we did failed because those two things were lacking. We also realized that the phase of growing between a seed and a plant that can survive in the Netherlands is the hardest part. Giving enough attention and care to a plant in that period is time consuming (and we knew that chefs didn’t have time). On top of that, once a restaurant used those herbs, they were gone and you were back to the beginning.
As a solution to these problems we came up with the idea of having trays. These were used by locally based growers to start the process, and then we could bring semi-mature plants to the roof of the customer where it would continue to grow onsite. Once they had been used, we could bring a new one. This was the next development in Hrbs., and from the beginning, Hrbs. has been one long experiment to find solutions for various problems and needs. The tray system worked well and there were benefits for everyone; chefs didn’t have to spend as much time caring for the plants but they could still be involved, they had something to show their customers and the herbs could be replenished. We suddenly had a business model, a recurring one.
Then winter arrived. The chefs pointed out that they couldn’t produce as much food during the colder months, but their use would still be the same. This was the problem that led to Hrbs. moving indoors, and that’s why we started designing the furniture that you see now. It was a way to bring our product inside and to continue the growing process (and our business model).
After that, we realised if the plants were inside they would needed light and water to grow or at least stay fresh, and restaurants are often quite dark environments. The furniture developed into a product that aided and sustained the plants’ growth, whilst also allowing them to be based inside next to the customers. And that is where Hrbs. is now. We realized the indoor model is more interesting than the outdoor model and it fits the market; not a lot of people have outdoor areas in the city, it makes sense. Hrbs.’ entire development has been a continuous process of seeing what the market demands and finding solutions. It’s all about solutions that are beneficial for the customer and more sustainable for the environment.
Is there ever tension between the needs of the business and Hrbs.’ ecological mission?
Definitely. Communication and having an end goal are so important to minimize those tensions. We’re a for profit business and that’s done on purpose. We don’t want to be dependent on subsidies and we want to survive ourselves and use the profits generated to invest in our product. Having that clearly in our minds helps build a healthy business, and with a healthy business you can have more impact. Of course, that can sometimes be difficult.
For instance, we’re currently looking at the Belgium market but to enter a market abroad, we need to be sure the market needs and wants something like us. Testing the market in Belgium would entail a transitional phase where we wouldn’t be able to maintain the level of locality we have here because we would be transporting plants across. It’s those transitional phases that can put tension between the business expanding and the ecological values of Hrbs.
Another example is the trays are crucial to our circular model. They’re made from recycled plastic and we can use a tray 100 plus times. If it’s broken, we can break it down and reuse the material in producing new trays. At the moment, our logistics channel is built for circular trips to the customer, but if we expanded and worked with a bigger logistics partner who may only bring back trays if the quantity is big enough, that could put a strain on where the business is going and the current sustainable system.
It’s makes it harder that our economy is not built for circular models and adopting those systems requires a whole new way of thinking and doing. It’s a behavioral change and when the current behavior is not in line with the business’ behavior, it can be tough.
Do you think it’s difficult to make sustainable startups profitable?
In a world where sustainability isn’t implemented as much as it should be in business, it can be more difficult at the start. We run into costly problems because we want to maintain our ecological mission, but we’ve made the decision to do it this way because we want to be sustainable. Perhaps it’s not a question of is it difficult, it’s more about asking if it’s necessary. And even though it might be more difficult as a result of operating in this field, I don’t really care. In some ways for me it’s less difficult because I get more energy and fulfillment from doing something which is good, rather than only focusing on profit. Of course, I want to make it as sustainable and profitable as possible, and I really think that’s possible.
Hrbs. is a circular business that delivers fresh, locally grown herbs to customers, minimizing waste and its environmental impact whilst reconnecting people with food. It sounds a perfect solution, but what have been the hardest parts of starting Hrbs. and running a green business?
Because it was a new product, we had to establish our own market and that took a long time to do. At the start we didn’t have the financial support to just dive into designing the perfect product with a big dream team. We had to do it with our own time, energy and money. We’ve grown to a point where you see the product more and more, people recognize it and we have a showroom where people can come and see, smell and taste our product. Because it’s a living product, selling online has always been a challenge and still is. We’ve created something so physical that when we were in a small office without our own products next door like we do now, there was no way to explain it to potential customers that would do it justice, photographs online can’t communicate the quality, smell, taste and experience.
I think gaining recognition for your brand and your story at the start is also really tough. When you grow and that issue shrinks, others come up. Suddenly you need to build a team, the team has to function, you have to find the right people for the right jobs and logistics become more difficult. There are always new problems arising with growth. When we started we just had a mission, but now it’s much more than that. Saying this, even the issues we have now can be positive in a way; if you have an impact business, you often attract people who have the same mission and issues as you, and that can lead to amazing relationships.
What’s the worst part of being an entrepreneur?
I think the fact that you’re never finished can be hard. Work never ends, so finding a balance between work and life is incredibly important. When you’re a growing entrepreneur you can never lie back and say I’m done. Some have made it to a place where they can, but I’m not there and Hrbs isn’t. We’re always in a sprint and nothing is certain. When one challenge has been overcome, there will always be another one and that can be tiring. But I do think these things can also be the fuel for entrepreneurs. I guess sometimes the worst bits can be the cause of the best bits.
Do you ever feel that your efforts with Hrbs. are in vain because of the state of the earth today and where it’s heading?
I think about this a lot and in some ways yes. It would be easy for me to say that we’re only in the Netherlands, we only do this one thing and our impact isn’t on a global scale so how can we have an impact? But you can never understand how far your efforts reach. Hrbs. isn’t just a product; it’s a story and it’s a mission and a perspective on the world all wrapped up in a business. We have a team and everyone in that team has a network and they can inspire other people to act in different, more sustainable ways. You never know where the seed is planted and where those seeds can go.
Secondly, if we all start to think that our own impact doesn’t matter, then we have a much bigger problem. If everyone takes responsibility and does something in line with their responsibility, even on a tiny scale, it all adds up. You have to keep going and persist in those efforts, otherwise it’s easy to just get depressed about it all.
Do you ever feel conflicted about your own desires vs. having a positive impact on the earth?
Definitely. My boyfriend actually lives in Ghana so on a personal level I have to travel if I want that relationship to work. I can’t really travel to Ghana on a bike, but I’m very aware of the impact those decisions. With Hrbs. and through other areas of my life such as having a vegetarian diet, I try and reduce my impact as much as possible. As with a lot of people, I love to travel and I like to buy certain things, but I don’t think it has to be about doing nothing to reduce your impact. That’s not realistic, it’s about realizing your own behavior, being aware of what benefits the world and what doesn’t and then finding ways to reduce your impact where you can. That is doable.
I actually had an intense family conversation the other week about this where someone said you can’t label other people’s behavior as bad if your own actions aren’t perfectly in line with a sustainable way of living. But it’s the people who make change happen. If less people eat meat, less meat will be on the market. And for that to happen, there are going to be inconsistencies where people are doing both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ things in terms of sustainability and that’s okay. In reality, it’s so complicated and there is no one good answer, I’ve thought about it so many times.
What do you think of businesses that make no effort to be more sustainable?
It’s not of this time. If you’re not aware and you’re not doing anything, I think it’s shameful.
What’s the best bit of running Hrbs?
Two things. As I said before, with the growth of Hrbs. it’s become a real business; it’s not just growing plants anymore. Whilst that comes with its downsides, the more time I spend with the team, the more time I get to see them grow both collectively and on an individual level. When I see them take on more responsibility and stand in their own power, push their own ideas, that’s the most beautiful thing to see. Seeing people become confident, strong and happy is the best.
And then when I can see Hrbs. having a real impact, that’s a good feeling. If that’s through happy customers who are now part of the circle of fresh, locally produced food or through a reduction in the use of a certain material, then that’s definitely something to thrive on. We’ve all worked so hard on this so even the small achievements mean a lot.