Humans at Bolt – Libby Sommer, Director of Corporate Responsibility
At Bolt our goal is to make unprecedented, more sustainable materials that buck the status quo, and yet are highly desirable and functional. We believe that by integrating sustainability into every stage of the product creation and development process, we can develop materials that realize this lofty target. It’s one that we could not reach without the right people, processes, tools and benchmarks along the way. Meet Libby Sommer, our Director of Corporate Responsibility, who is guiding and developing our corporate responsibility strategy and turning it into action.
A key component of Libby’s work is to gather enough information to help our team of engineers, scientists, and product developers make informed choices and prevent trading one problem for another without understanding and weighing the consequences. Making sustainable materials is a complicated and nuanced journey, and Libby helps keep us on the right path.
“We need the vision and aspirational thinking, and we also need the tools and the specific details that help our research, product, and process development teams implement that thinking into their day-to-day work.”
Her interest in sustainability started when, as a child she saw the immediate impact of environmental changes on her parents’ beekeeping business. The family had 2,000 bee colonies located on farmland in western Nebraska. If they weren’t notified ahead of time when crops were sprayed with pesticides, these hazardous chemicals, intended to kill pests, would destroy their beneficial bees. Libby also noticed how changes in the climate affected their business. Less rainfall meant fewer blossoms, and fewer resources for the bees to get nectar to make honey.
“In my childhood, I thought the way to be an environmentalist was to be an activist – that’s how it showed up in my life. But when I went to college, I saw another way, and that was in the concept of creating competitive advantage by making business more sustainable. Both forms of environmentalism are really necessary, but the latter felt like my life’s calling.”
How did you get started in corporate responsibility?
“I’ve worked for the government, Fortune 500 companies, other publicly traded companies, and as a small business owner. But the common theme throughout my career is business and sustainability and, in particular, Green Chemistry.
I worked at the EPA for 8 years in the Design for the Environment Program, where companies would come to us for recommendations on greener chemicals. They could then use that information to develop or revise their products. A lot of that work was really collaborative. I worked with people across the value chain and with different perspectives, trying to come to agreement on ways of understanding Green Chemistry, and applying Green Chemistry principles to consumer products and product design. That work continued when I went to Nike. As a small business owner, I was a consultant advising different companies on their chemical strategies.”
What made you want to join Bolt?
“At the EPA, I talked a lot about integrating sustainability early in business decision making. I probably gave more than 90 presentations during my 8 years at the EPA, sharing tools to make products more sustainable and enable good choices while creating something people will want. We were giving businesses the information, but it was still up to them to implement those tools.
Also, at well-established companies, the work of a sustainability professional is often to remake systems that already exist. You already have vendors and supply chains that you’re trying to reshape rather than start from the ground up. The opportunity to build anew is something you don’t really get when you work for a larger company. Getting into the nitty gritty of how to do things right from the start is really where I ultimately wanted to be.
At Bolt, with its mission to make more sustainable products, this idea is fundamental to our existence. How we think about the chemical impacts, the life cycle impacts, the social aspects, including the labor and workforce, is equally important to what we’re making and how desirable it is. It’s part of what we’re doing from the start. Coming to Bolt meant I could move away from preaching and actually walk the talk.”
What is your approach to sustainability for Mylo™?
“My job is to think holistically, looking across the whole lifecycle from the beginning to end, from the grow stage to how we process mycelium to the end of life. We use sustainability tools as early as possible while we’re developing Mylo™to identify those impacts and make informed choices. I also help determine what significant factors we should focus on and what sustainability goals we’ve set for Mylo™.
There’s been a lot of work done in the Green Chemistry field to create tools that help us gather and analyze data on toxicology. A Life Cycle Assessment is usually applied after the fact, but it really should be applied earlier, while the product’s being made. I bring those tools forward in more of a prospective application than retrospective application.”
What is your advice to other companies who want to create a better future for our planet?
“Start with what you can influence, and start with small wins. Use both of those ideas to build momentum. I think sometimes when we start, we get intimidated by the magnitude of the problems that are out there, and feel confused about where to go. And I think we all need the small wins initially to feel a sense of purpose and commitment to continue the work of sustainability and making a better future for our planet and ourselves.
There’s another piece that I articulate more when I speak to individuals, which is that we can get wrapped up in these small issues like, ‘What kind of shopping bag should I use? Is it better for me to use a cloth reusable bag or recycled polyester bag?’ I want to encourage individuals and companies to ask themselves, ‘Is this going to make the biggest difference? Can I make a bigger impact, for example, by advocating with my elected officials, and voting in local, state, and federal elections?’ There’s an element of significance that I really encourage companies and individuals to think about in terms of sustainability.”
To learn more about the team behind Mylo™, stay tuned for our next update!