Social Justice Water
Since age 10, Jaden Smith has been passionate about sustainability. Now, at 18, his passion has morphed into a bottled water company that’s working to reduce waste in a wasteful industry.
You read that right. Eighteen-year-old Jaden Smith founded a bottled water company called JUST water. But you wouldn’t know it from a glance at the website, as the About page is devoid of any information about him. In fact, unless you dig deep into the employee directory, you won’t find any indication of Jaden on justwater.com at all. He’s listed way down in the S’s… right next to Will and Jada Pinkett.
The JUST water team wanted it to be more than just another celebrity cause du jour, so, until recently, they kept Jaden’s role a secret. But they needn’t worry, because JUST water isn’t just another celeb cause du jour. CEO Grace Jeon recently raised a substantial series A, proving the potential of a bona fide and long-needed disruption to an industry based on waste.
We talked to Grace about her mission, its meaning, and how the heck the Smith family found themselves knee deep in the water game…
I was just reading an article today that said that bottled water is the biggest scam in history. What do you say to that?
I get the viewpoint because water is free, so by all means if you have access to clean water, drink it. There should be more water fountains. In fact, the benefit of having a large opening on our bottles is that you can refill them. But the reality is that it’s not always available. If you need portable water and you want to pick up something on the go, you’re going to buy water.
What I don't agree with is using municipal sources and purifying it.
That was going to be my next question. You hear a lot of controversy about, say, Aquafina, which was forced to admit that it gets its water from a municipal water system—essentially from the tap. Why is that bad?
With municipal water, bottling companies are treating water that’s already been treated, which is incredibly wasteful. By the time it comes out of the tap, the city has already expended energy on treating it, right? Then it gets treated again. Not only is so much energy expended, but also there’s a lot of water loss. It’s very high energy and wasteful.
How is JUST water different?
Our water comes from upstate New York, fifty miles north of Albany, in a small town called Glens Falls. We’ve created a well, then we draw the water out into a flatbed converted into a water tank. Then it goes through a filtration system, which is a repurposed container. It’s only treated once.
How else are you disrupting the water industry?
It starts with the packaging itself. When we first launched, the bottle was fifty-three percent renewable materials, mostly paper. Then in April of this year we transitioned to plant-based plastic, so the shoulder and the cap are made from sugar cane. In less than a year, we went from fifty-three percent renewable materials to eighty-two percent renewable materials. Why that's important is that the more renewable materials, the better impact on the environment, and the lower carbon emissions there are.
"Sometimes change starts from a naive place."
Why would it have lower carbon emissions? When I think carbon emissions, I think power plants, cars, etcetera, but not bottled water.
It's the whole value chain. It starts with the raw materials and the conversion of those raw materials. In our situation, not only is the conversion lighter on the environment, but the way we build the bottles, with paper, requires up to seventy percent less carbon. In a traditional situation, often times you're trucking in blown bottles or resin. Our whole value chain has a lower impact.
How does the deal with Glens Falls work?
The back end is a more ethical model as well. We said, ”how do we put together a fair trade model with the City of Glens Falls that has welcomed us?”
Long story short, we ultimately came up with this revenue model where they get six times the residential rate of water. We pay the city six times what a resident within Glens Falls would pay for, simply, the access to its surplus water. And, on an annual basis, we access less than three percent of that water.
Not to change the subject, but where does Jaden Smith fit in to all of this?
The catalyst for all this was Jaden. He was home-schooled and, starting at the age of ten, was really interested in science and sustainability. Also, as an avid surfer he was really struck by the pollution in the ocean.
At ten years old, he started asking a lot of questions. Ultimately the family put him together with another creative person, Drew FitzGerald, who’s been in the sustainability ecosystem for a number of years even though he's a creative designer by trade. He's an adult, so the family put him together with Jaden and said, "Can you just quell his curiosity?" never thinking that a business would grow out of it. But through that interaction, the idea of a better bottled water, the idea of conscious consumption, was born. Sometimes change starts from a naive place.
What is his exact role?
He's a co-founder. And Will is also very active. Will and Jaden are in every single board meeting.
There’s a lot of celebrity projects in Los Angeles, and most of them never go anywhere. Were you skeptical at first?
Oh yes. I had recently gotten out of the bottled water category and Drew, who is my friend, called me and told me about it. When he mentioned celebrity I said, "Oh my God. You and every other celebrity think it's so easy to get into this category. Don't do it, Drew."
He's like, "No, listen to me."
We started talking and that whole talking period lasted almost a year. And he convinced me. Now I believe in the mission completely.
"We had so many holy shit moments like, "Oh my God, it's going to get out!”
You raised eleven-and-a-half million dollars. Did you have experience fundraising before?
No I didn’t, and I basically had to figure it out. It’s tough because they're sharks, right? You've got to know what you're saying. I didn't know what the F I was talking about so finally, I said, "You know what, you know how to sell and you believe in this vision, so all you gotta do is just convey your passion, your heart and ultimately how this is all going to happen, that has to be believable." That's what I did and some people got it. Fewer people got it than not. I'm a mad executor, I know how to develop and launch and commercialize products, and I just said “are you in or aren't you?”
While it did not fit most people’s investment thesis, they still said, "you know what, we're in." These individuals within institutionals came outside and invested in our company on their own.
How important was the celebrity tie in?
There might be some people that use the family name to open that door, but I never started with that. In fact, when we launched this product for the first two years we said nothing about who was involved. From our standpoint it was so important that the brand establish its own foundation based on its own merit, because that's what makes it sustainable.
People ask, "How did you keep it from getting out for so long?" And it was really hard. We had so many holy shit moments like, "Oh my God, it's going to get out!” We wanted so hard to make sure that the brand was JUST first.
I notice you’re wearing a Hamsa Hand. Are you a spiritual person? Is the ethical nature of this business somehow tied to a higher morality?
I’ve only had this on for the last week! I'm actually a Christian. Usually three-hundred and forty days out of the year I’m wearing a cross!
I just caught you on Hamsa week?
Yeah! But, to answer your question, I will say, yes, I'm spiritual. I'm very much about everything happens for a reason, and I'm very much about paying it forward and doing the right things. I'm so far from being perfect, but I just try to be good and consider the impacts on other people.
Will JUST water try to expand its ethical mission?
It's a great way for us to start that dialogue. In the future, we’d really like to make greater disruption and start to look at how products are sourced, so get into other beverages, get into other snack products that uphold the same ideas.
Like a JUST juice?
Exactly. Looking at how are the ingredients of the juice sourced and asking: how does the community benefit?