A Copenhagen, Denmark-based supplier has transformed a staple of the promotional products industry – writing instruments – into a sustainable alternative.

SproutWorld dba Sprout USA (PPAI 833302, Standard-Base) is the company behind the plantable pencil, in which the pencil’s eraser has been replaced with a seed capsule.

  • Once you’ve whittled the pencil down to its stub, you cover it with soil, water it and the seed will emerge.
  • Sprout USA offers a plethora of seeds that can grow into fruits, vegetables, flowers, herbs and more.

With many companies organizing Earth Day activities, February through April is the supplier’s busiest time of the year. However, Michael Stausholm, founder and CEO of Sprout USA, which has an office in Boston, still found the time to chat with PPAI Media about the innovative product and the state of sustainability in the promo industry. Note: The following conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

PPAI Media: How did the plantable pencil come about?

Michael Stausholm: “The idea came from a trio of MIT students in 2012. In one of their design classes, they were tasked with creating a sustainable office product and came up with a pencil that you can plant. They took their idea to Kickstarter, which is where I saw it.

It’s the essence of sustainability: When you’re done writing, instead of throwing it out, you give the pencil a second life by planting it. I made a deal with the students to distribute and sell the product in Europe. Within one year, it was very successful. In 2014, I made a deal with them to purchase the patent for writing instruments that you can plant. The students went on to build robots in different places throughout the U.S.”

PPAI Media: The most recent data shows that more than 65 million plantable pencils have been sold in more than 80 countries. How have you been able to grow this product into a global success?

Stausholm: “I thought it was a great product for schools, but they have limited budgets. Initial interest came from a lot of retailers who thought it was a novelty. I was working from home back then, way before it became popular, and had orders of about 50,000 delivered to the house. Trust me, that takes up a lot of space. My wife back then hated me for a period until we got the kids to repack and put them into different boxes to distribute.

Then, companies inquired because you can imprint and engrave logos and messages on the pencils. I used to work for a promotional company in Asia, so I knew it was a big business. Today, about 75% of our revenue comes from the promotional products market.

You can say that we’re competing with plastic ballpoint pens, which has always been a huge hit in promo, but it’s also a horrible thing for the planet. If I give you a plastic ballpoint pen, you’ve seen it so many times before that you just put it in a drawer with all the other pens. As an advertiser, your exposure is very limited. But the plantable pencil is an ice breaker – you can start a conversation about sustainability and what you’re doing as a company.”

PPAI Media: What's your take on the state of sustainability in the promo industry?

Stausholm: “Until a year or two ago, we were seeing an upward trend in sustainability. Unfortunately, because of inflation, high interest rates and other factors, we’re seeing promo firms cut corners, looking at quantity rather than quality. Some players would rather promote 20,000 plastic ballpoint pens from China rather than natural products.

At the same time, customers are demanding more focus on sustainability because of the whole net zero discussion. In Europe, we have new regulations starting next year that all large companies must submit their carbon footprint, including Scope 3 emissions, as part of their annual non-financial accounting. So, I must have my carbon accounting in order, even though I’m not obliged to by law, because my customers need my numbers.”

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PPAI Media: How has your company benefitted from being a Certified B Corp?

Stausholm: “It’s something that tells the world you’re not trying to be the best in the world, but the best for the world. The process wasn’t very difficult for us because everything is 100% natural. In Europe, everything we produce is from Europe. Same for the U.S. Our North American production facility is in Pine City, Minnesota. We want to produce where we sell. That’s why we don’t sell in Asia because we’d have to ship from Europe or the U.S., and that makes no sense.

It's great to be a part of the B Corp community and it tells the rest of the world that here’s a company that actually cares and has gone through the rigorous process. It also helps with hiring. In fact, it’s always been easier for me to attract management and leadership talent because you want to work at a place where you feel you can make a difference.”

PPAI Media: Are there other products that Sprout USA offers?

Stausholm: “So, we have this patent for writing instruments that you can plant. We have a large number of female employees, and one of them suggested eyeliners, lip liners and other forms of makeup. It turns out that in legal terms, because you’re writing on your face, that the makeup is covered by the patent. It’s a huge market, and we’ve seen great success with this product line. It was conceived as a consumer product, but we’re seeing traction in the B2B space because it’s being used in gift bags. Originally, I thought it was a horrible idea because how many eyeliners are women using? Well, they’re using a lot!”

PPAI Media: Where do you see the promo industry heading this year?

Stausholm: “In the 10 years that SproutWorld has existed, we’ve experienced two-digit growth every year except for 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Since then, we’ve seen in-person events come back, which is good for business. I’ve heard a lot about digital advertising taking market share from promo, but we’re starting to see digital marketing becoming so expensive. It’s also difficult to get through the noise, so we’re seeing a reverse trend where customers are allocating more marketing spend to physical products.

You’re bombarded with advertising on the internet, but how often do you actually get a promotional item that you remember? The SproutWorld pencil is fantastic because you want to take it home, plant the damn thing and see your sunflower. I see great times ahead for the promo industry, but we have to move away from the cheap T-shirts or lousy USB sticks and toward things that are actually good for the planet.”