Ilegal Founder John Rexer On Sustainability

Our founder talks about our move to recycled glass bottles, reducing our carbon footprint, and the wonders of the natural world that moved him to take the necessary steps to make Ilegal Mezcal a greener company.

By E.R. Pulgar 

Ilegal Mezcal founder John Rexer phoned from Puerto Vallarta in high spirits. He wasn’t always this calm.  At the start of the pandemic, as it did with most companies, global chain supply shortages impacted our business. Namely, the glass that makes our bottles. Most Western companies importing glass from Asia —including Ilegal, who works with a small glass broker in Oaxaca that facilitates the process — found themselves suddenly out of glass. 

Rexer and COO Michelle Ivey called glass suppliers all over the Western Hemisphere from Canada down to Argentina to no avail. The world had run out of glass. Forced to think outside the box and running out of options, Rexer eventually found a solution within the Ilegal family and in an old process with Fusion y Formas, a recycled glass manufacturer in Guadalajara. 

“I called Javi [Mateo], one of our mezcal makers at Los Javis, and I asked if he knew them — he makes a small brand, they make his bottles,” Rexer recalls. “I got their number, I called them up and said ‘I need a million bottles.’ The next day, I was on a plane to Guadalajara to tour their factory.”

Fusion y Formas, a fellow family company, found themselves struggling during the pandemic. The former glass supplier for Patrón, they use an old-school method of melting down collected glass to craft a beautiful, sustainable recycled glass. Finding themselves without a big customer as Ilegal found ourselves without glass proved to be the solution Rexer was seeking out — and better, it reduced our company’s carbon footprint. 

“They're one of those beautiful family businesses, everyone there is happy and treated well — not only do they deliver on time, but they deliver a beautiful bottle,” he says. “We're trying to move the company as quickly as we can to do things as best we can from an environmental perspective. We also very much believe in working with other family businesses. Recycled glass costs more but is considerably better in terms of the environment and the quality of the glass: it has a slight sparkle to it, a different weight, a slight color when it picks up sunlight. It's special.”

We spoke to our founder about Ilegal’s sustainability initiatives, the new recycled glass bottles we’re using, and what natural environments have inspired him to create a greener company — and what other business leaders can do to follow suit.

They have collection points all over Guadalajara and parts of Jalisco where they collect glass. They gave me a tour of their glass factory and showed me the whole process of manufacturing bottles: how they melt it, where they get their bottle molds from, what the quality of the glass is like. At the table, the founder of the company's son Andrés [Hernández Romo] told me "Pretend I'm Santa Claus and tell me what you want for Christmas." I let him know our situation, how I needed to make a lot of bottles very quickly.

I think our first order from them was 50,000 bottles every two weeks for a couple of weeks, and built up from there. We had a lot of laughs, we went out to dinner, I met the father — a lovely man — who told me how he first got involved with Patrón. I'm very happy that we're doing something that's recycled and to have become one of the larger customers of a family business that was struggling like ours.

So in the production process of mezcal, you end up with a fibrous mass of pulp that you need to do something with. People put some of it in bio digesters, or they neutralize it with limestone and then fertilizer. What we have been doing with it is taking it, mixing it with clay and sand, and making a brick out of it to then use in construction. We also work with an artisan paper maker that uses agave fibers extensively. We prepare these fibers and clean them up, and the artisans come pick up the pulp as a donation. 

Politics and economics are interrelated to the environment, and when you live in a small country, you really begin to see things become much more. In an economy that runs on a relatively small budget, you would hope there were active recycling programs. You would hope the transportation system was not spewing out diesel all over the place, that there wasn't pollution everywhere.

Unfortunately, because there's poverty, people need to pay less for things and businesses need to find a way to cut corners, choices that often impact the environment. It's very much a vicious cycle: you have people becoming accustomed to not having recycling or good facilities for taking care of garbage, you get used to seeing it on the street. If there was a desire for people and businesses to be outside and be in a green space that is actually come to life, I think some of them will be successful in keeping those spaces beautiful. 

When I began Ilegal, I fell in love with parts of Oaxaca that were pristine. There was pride in that conservation, and I asked myself how you grow something and not destroy the thing you fell in love with in the first place. It’s important to keep that on the forefront, and really ask yourself as a company grows if you want to come back to a place that you fell in love with to find Coca-Cola bottles, holes, bags of chips, and pollution in its place. It’s important to build with partners and leave a space hopefully better than when you found it.

Commerce, by its nature in this day and age, is far from carbon neutral. In one way or another, we are all polluting a little bit. We have to recognize that, figure out how we minimize our waste, and lead by example. You're not going to succeed 100 percent in completely reducing your own footprint, but one needs to minimize being part of the problem and tend to your own garden as best as possible. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.