Natureworks: Biotech Innovation, Sustainable Business, and Corn-Based Plastic

5 Pages Posted: 30 May 2017

See all articles by Andrea Larson

Andrea Larson

University of Virginia - Darden School of Business


This is a minicase, one of 10 in a set of short cases written to illustrate the business benefits companies realize through adopting sustainable business strategies. This minicase on NatureWorks traces the development of an entrepreneurial venture within a large corporate parent company. Bioplastic material was brought to market. The case describes the challenges and successes of a product and a business based on sustainability concepts.





NatureWorks, a 10-plus year-old startup within a large corporation, successfully made bio-tech plastic resin from corn in the face of commonly held industry beliefs that such an achievement was impossible. NatureWorks offered an alternative to oil-based plastic resins for multiple applications. NatureWorks' polylactic acid (PLA) could be shaped into bottles, containers, trays, film, and other packaging. It was not only environmentally friendly compared with widely used petroleum-based plastic containers (PET), but also cost-effective. PLA packages were compostable; they disintegrated under high heat after 75 days (whereas it can take hundreds of years for a PET bottle to break down). The price of oil had soared to more than $ 70 a barrel and remaining higher than $ 50 a barrel in early 2007, which made it all the more appealing that NatureWorks used 30% to 50% less fossil fuels to make PLA. By persisting in its belief that an economical and high-performing plastic did not have to have contain poisonous additives and persist well beyond its meaningful life span, NatureWorks set the stage to create a massive change in the plastics industry.

In 2006, Biota Brands of America tested the first bottled water in the United States sold in compostable, biodegradable containers using PLA. In 2005, Wal-Mart began a yearlong effort to phase in NatureWorks PLAs for its store-brand produce, vegetables, cakes, and doughnuts. The world's number-one retailer, it also planned to launch gift cards made from NatureWorks PLA for the 2006 holiday season. “We've found comfort in PLA and its ability to provide us a price-stable product as the price of oil needed to produce conventional packaging keeps climbing higher,” said Tara Stewart, Wal-Mart's environmental affairs representative.

The Industry

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Keywords: Innovation, entrepreneurship, sustainable business, sustainability, triple bottom line, natural environment, environmental, ecology, ecological, strategy, implementation, financial returns, green, greening

Suggested Citation

Larson, Andrea, Natureworks: Biotech Innovation, Sustainable Business, and Corn-Based Plastic. Darden Case No. UVA-ENT-0097, Available at SSRN:

Andrea Larson (Contact Author)

University of Virginia - Darden School of Business ( email )

P.O. Box 6550
Charlottesville, VA 22906-6550
United States


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