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Trendsetters: The Forest and the Trees

There are some things in this world that seem destined to never change. Paper, for example, has remained essentially the same since the ancient Egyptians created a writing material from papyrus in the third millennium B.C.

But never say never. Because now, 5,000 years after papyrus appeared on the scene, Edward Kennedy and Michael Nilan have one-upped the ancients and an industry that for centuries has made paper by cutting down trees.

The pair have invented a process to produce paper without using a single tree. Instead they use a recycled sugarcane waste fiber called bagasse to produce a multipurpose copy paper that is recyclable, compostable and biodegradable. Their company, TreeZero Paper, was founded in Atlanta in 2010.

“We believe we can contribute to the betterment of the world through sustainability,” says Nilan, TreeZero CEO. “We are the first company to launch a significant tree-free paper initiative in North America. We will wake up the industry with our products and what we do.”

In a few short years, they’ve done more than awaken the industry and their target market, sustainability-minded colleges, universities and Fortune 2000 companies. They’ve made them believers.

Two of those early believers are recognizable Georgia names: Emory University and Ted’s Montana Grill, the restaurant co-founded by businessman/environmentalist Ted Turner.

To win over these early adopters, the pair had to prove their product was not only sustainable but also of the highest quality. They have succeeded beyond everybody’s expectations.

“We have never once had a single complaint relative to quality,” says Nilan of TreeZero paper, which looks and feels exactly like paper made from trees. “It’s been tested and certified by RICOH, the world’s largest copy machine manufacturer. It’s also been certified by HP, Canon and Toshiba.”

With validation from these key global brands, Nilan and Kennedy tapped into distributors like Office Depot that ship office supplies nationwide to grow the company’s client base.

“Ted’s Montana Grill orders their office products through Office Depot,” Kennedy says. So they contacted the retailer. “That’s what started us on our long journey with Office Depot and their distribution throughout the United States.”

Other academic clients now include Pepperdine, Arizona State, Auburn and the University of Massachusetts. Corporate accounts are also climbing onboard, including RICOH (the company must have liked what they saw when they certified the paper), FedEx, Oracle, IBM, Cisco and Post Properties. More are coming. TreeZero’s paper has been so well received – Nilan won a 2013 Metro Atlanta Chamber Business Person of the Year Award and 2016 revenues are projected at $10-$15 million – that the partners are planning significant product and staff expansions.

By the end of the year, they plan to add new office product lines and product categories such as dinnerware. A future product launch will focus on stationery and paper products for the gift industry. To handle the growth, all tree free, they are quadrupling the Atlanta office from five to 20 people.

One other impending major change will be a shift in marketing strategy. Currently, they sell their paper under the name TreeFrog. They chose that name, Kennedy said, because “Tree frogs live in the rainforest and send a signal to the forest when there’s danger, such as people coming in and knocking down trees.” While the name fit their mission, it required an explanation. As a result, all products will be branded under the TreeZero name by year’s end.

Even with globally recognizable brands endorsing TreeZero, perhaps the most rewarding validation came after a presentation to potentially tough critics: elementary-school children. After Kennedy gave a talk about the company’s tree-free paper, the kids sent him a thank-you note written on the inside of a tree-free TreeZero packing box.

“They get it,” he says with a smile. “And they are the future.”

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