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A leadership-development fellowship in Guatemala exposed Deborah Schimberg to chicle, the natural ingredient that was once the raw material behind chewing gum. This initial inspiration led to the founding of her company, Glee Gum (GleeGum.com), and to a career as a green-business entrepreneur.
"I feel inspired by the ever-growing number of other green companies with similar values as ours, traveling similar paths. Together we’re helping to make the marketplace more eco-minded, and that’s a great, shared goal," says Deborah. "Green America is such a dynamic and supportive community. Thanks to the helpful advice and recommendations of our fellow members, we’ve connected with new distributors, placed our products with new retailers, and found a partner for our tree planting program, Trees for the Future."
We asked Deborah to tell us more about chicle, sustainable chewing gum, and the challenges of making green go mainstream...
Tapping the chicle in Guatemala.
Green America: What does your business do, and what is your most popular product?
Deborah Schimberg: We are the manufacturers of natural Glee Gum and Make Your Own Candy Kits. Our most popular products are the Make Your Own Chewing Gum Kit and Peppermint Glee Gum.
What makes Glee Gum a green business?
Deborah: We source chicle, a sustainably harvested tree sap, from the Peten region of Guatemala and Mexico to give our gum chewy texture. We use natural, GMO-free ingredients like Fair Trade certified sugar. We package our products in recycled, compostable cardboard, printed with water-based coatings and food-grade vegetable inks (no blister packs!). Even our Mini Glee Variety, an assortment bag for Halloween and the holidays, comes packed in compostable cellophane. In partnership with Trees for the Future, we also plant a tree for every box of gum registered at gleegum.com/trees. In our Providence headquarters, we use recycled paper for printing and faxing, recycle newspapers for packing material, keep a compost pile, ride bikes to and from work, and avoid air conditioning. (Even when it's really hot!)
What did you do before you started your own green business?
Deborah: Shortly after graduating from college, I founded the Southside Community Land Trust, a nonprofit, urban agricultural organization in Providence, RI. I then trained as an educator, co-founded an international charter school in RI, and later served as a school principal in Costa Rica. In 1983, I received a fellowship from the Kellogg National Leadership Development Program that allowed me to explore models of sustainable development. In the rainforest of Guatemala, I learned about the sustainable harvest of chicle. This tree sap was once the basis of the entire chewing gum industry, before synthetic gum bases became the norm. I felt inspired to create a new product with chicle, to help the harvesters continue to earn a living and to aid in the conservation of this vital rainforest region. It took a little while to design the Make Your Own Chewing Gum Kit, after much experimenting in my kitchen with my kids, and to found my company, Verve, Inc. Since then, we have introduced two more Make Your Own Candy Kits for kids (Chocolate and Gummies) and a full line of Glee Gum.
What have been some of the biggest challenges of maintaining high standards of social and environmental responsibility?
Deborah: The biggest challenge we’ve faced, and continue to face, is the acceptance of green products as the norm rather than a niche. This is especially true in the case of chewing gum—everyone expects gum to be up by the cash register, but that area is really controlled by the conventional (read: gigantic!) confectionery companies. Why shouldn’t everything you see on a grocery or convenience store shelf be as environmentally friendly and as natural as possible? Instead of relegating these products to specialty stores and sites, they should be mainstream—and we want to see this happen both as manufacturers and as consumers.
What has been your proudest moment as a green business owner?
Deborah: When I hear from teachers who have used the Make Your Own Chewing Gum Kit to great effect in lessons on rainforest conservation, or the Gummies Kit when talking about oceanography, or the Chocolate Kit when talking about Latin American history, it's such a thrill. It's so important that children understand where food comes from, how raw materials and natural resources can be used responsibly, and how we're interconnected on a global level. I'm proud to have created a line of products to highlight that connectivity in a fun—not to mention tasty!—way.
What advice would you give to other green entrepreneurs just starting out?
Deborah: I’ve found that all the idioms are true in this business. Don’t take “no” for an answer; persistence pays. When one door closes, another opens. If you are passionate enough about what you’re doing, others will be, too.
What's the next green step you're working on right now? What's inspiring you?
Deborah: We have been researching a new formula for our Glee Gum that will make it tastier and more sustainable than ever. Stay tuned!
What green product(s) can you not live without?
Deborah: My bicycle! I bike a lot, even when wearing a business suit and heels. I don’t necessarily recommend the heels!