ReGreening a Company after Expansion . . . 
from an Interview with Sara Newmark, Director of Sustainability at New Chapter

New Chapter natural supplements and vitamins started early in the 1982 with co-founders Paul and Barbi Schulick preparing herbal remedies in the back room of a redwood saltbox nestled high in the Black Mountains.  They combined natural ingredients to create a pure product.  When New Chapter became a brand known for organic vitamins and supplements, consumers assumed it was green throughout, the avant garde of green and sustainability.  In truth, however, over the years of rapid growth, certain aspects of good stewardship were overlooked.

Enter Sara Newmark, daughter of Paul’s college buddy and then CEO Tom Newmark, who started her New Chapter career as an event planner.  In 2006, just shy of a year with the company, she sunk her incredibly infectious energy into a new role as Sustainability Officer. “Developing the Sustainability Initiative should have been easy, given the nature of our products.  However, with the day-to-day crazy busy growth we were experiencing, sustainability in terms of the entire company was never examined,” Sara remembered.

“We needed to catch up with our reputation in the marketplace.   We didn’t use 100% recycled boxes as it was expensive and the people in charge of purchasing weren’t aware of how important it was to mission and brand.  Now we’ve changed all the paper and boxes we use.”

Sustainability Initiative Slow Start
            With the CEO’s blessing, Barbi and Sara embarked on a Sustainability Initiative.  Barbi had a unique position in being both a co-founder and the wife of the other co-founder.  Sara had her own complicated relationship with the company.  Very successful in her position, she was still the CEO’s daughter.  Politically one would assume this to be a great asset, in fact it turned out to be a double edged sword.

“The combination of the CEO’s daughter and co-founder’s wife created some benefit and some liabilities.  The CEO gave the directive to top leadership, but we weren’t taken seriously. We had to fight to have it ingrained throughout the company,” Sara noted.

The two solicited the counsel of Liz Bankowski, a member of the New Chapter board who had run social issues for Ben and Jerry’s 20 years ago.  “She worked closely with us. It was Barbi, Liz, and me.  No one took us seriously.  It was not a company-wide decision to hire us as the sustainability team, which hurt us in the beginning.”

Sara, Barbi and Liz developed a sustainability matrix and presented it to the company at a staff meeting.  The matrix included all aspects of sustainability such as sourcing green materials for packaging, energy usage, carbon footprint, volunteerism for employees, workplace issues, community involvement, et cetera. “We said: We are going to start by going for the low-hanging fruit, internal changes.  We started with solid waste, purchasing and our employees behaviors.”

Low-hanging fruit – purchase of office supplies (pens, rulers, copy paper)
          The team started with something they thought would be easy:  office supplies.  “We decided to work inter-departmentally, and not house information within the sustainability office. I would be a resource, do the research, but the work would be housed within departments.”

“In other companies, you have to go through a VP for Purchasing.  At New Chapter, we didn’t.  All employees were allowed to order what they wanted though our Operations department.  I completed an audit of all purchases, compared prices and sustainability (recycled products, local sourcing, etc) creating spreadsheets that could be helpful.  Although some of the sustainable material prices were more expensive, taken as a whole, we could save money because we had never coordinated our purchasing of these items before.  It appeared that everyone loved it.”

However, not everyone did.  As there was no buy-in from Operations from the onset, the changes seemed imposed upon the department.  “It took many months to get buy-in from everyone.  In hindsight, it would have saved so much time to get leadership approval and work with Operations on the project rather than hand them an ‘easy to use’ spreadsheet.”

Challenges and the Slow Path to Sustainability
         “We then met with middle management.  We asked all the department heads: ‘Where can you make green improvements?’  We followed up.  They said they understood, but sustainability was always a separate item, pushed to the bottom of the pile of things to think about.

“Little by little, day by day, we started weaving sustainability into the fabric of everyday work, getting it into everyday conversation.” Sara noted how each new initiative that surfaced “We didn’t see changes right away nor get immediate satisfaction, but things started getting ingrained and started to change. Now sustainability is so part of who we are.

Sara’s Guide Points for Sustainable Sustainability:
Leadership needs to be Engaged:  Sustainability needs to be a leadership decision, something that leadership wants to see done.
Be a Yellow Light:  Relationships are the key business issue. Sara learned to not be a red light, a business stopper, but to be a yellow light, to get people to slow down and look at what we were doing. By working with people, adversaries can become allies.
Embed Metrics into All Reporting: Each department needs one or two metrics to measure, it needs to be part of the reporting structure.  Each department needs goals, and metrics to measure those goals.  For example, New Chapter now has KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) that each department has to meet quarterly.  We developed a matrix for goals that include Fair Trade, carbon footprint, solid waste, energy, opportunities, etc.
Find a Cheerleader: Sustainability efforts need a cheerleader, someone to keep accomplishment lists and publicize individual efforts within the company.  It can be a Sustainability Officer, but it does not need to be.
We save some money, we spend some money.

Need for a Sustainability Officer?
          A CSO (Chief Sustainability Officer) is not necessary for every company, in Sara’s opinion, although a champion is.   “Someone who knows how to ask the right questions and need to want to  interact interdepartmentally.

Sara, herself, is a good project manager who can identify a project and know what needs to be done to complete it. And for a company New Chapter’s size, with its commitment to sustainability, it works to have a separate department dedicated to these issues.  ”For years I was talking the talk, but not owning it, because I knew what was happening day-to-day at New Chapter, and we were not yet living up to where I thought we could be.  Now we are.”

New Chapter’s current brochure has a detailed list of the sustainability practices they now have in place. “We’ve done the work, integrated this into our fabric, reached the tipping point, and are not doing business as usual.  But,” Sara’s eyes twinkled. “we’ve just started!”

Julie Lineberger


Leading From Any Chair – An interview with Jed Davis, Director of Sustainability, Cabot Creamery Cooperative

Our blog posts to date have covered individuals who own their own company or work at the highest levels.  This interview is one of our favorite stories as it originates with someone who might best be described as “aspiring to the C-Suite.”  Jed is a terrific example of what one orchestra conductor calls “leading from any chair.[1]”

More broadly, this story illustrates the role middle management can play in successfully weaving sustainability into the fabric of modern businesses.  While there are many excellent examples of charismatic, iconic leaders who bleed green and lead from the front, they remain a minority (albeit a growing minority) across the business landscape today.

So if sustainability is to become the norm, leaders must emerge from within, not just from above.  These new, mid-tier leaders must have a deep seated vision, dogged patience, and an extraordinary ability to work through and with others.  In the particular case of Cabot Creamery, this approach shows terrific promise for evolving the historic dairy farmer cooperative into a sustainability-driven enterprise poised for future success.

From Director of Marketing to Director of Sustainability
In 2007, Jed Davis was Director of Marketing for Cabot Creamery Cooperative, best known as makers of “The World’s Best Cheddar.”   Cabot, which dates back to 1919, is owned cooperatively by 1,200 dairy farm families in New England and upstate New York.

That summer, David Hill, Cabot’s SVP Sales, had returned from a sales call where he was asked, “What is your Sustainability Program?”  This sounded very different from the oft-asked, “Are you sustainable?” Cabot routinely interpreted the latter as an opportunity to discuss the many benefits of cooperatives, including working landscape, strong rural communities and providing award-winning dairy products.

Roberta MacDonald, Cabot’s SVP Marketing, tasked Jed with developing a Sustainability Program.  Jed brought some perspective as Cabot’s longtime liaison to organizations such as Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility, but this presented an exciting, new learning curve.  Roberta and senior staff endorsed seeking outside counsel as well and Cabot turned to Mark McElroy from the Vermont-based Center for Sustainable Organizations for guidance.

Work on fully developing a Cabot Sustainability Program continued.  By February of 2008, Jed went to Roberta to let her know he was spending 50-75% of his time on sustainability issues.  By March, it was 100%.  In early April, Roberta brought the situation to Rich Stammer, Cabot’s CEO.  He approved of creating a new, full-time position called Director of Sustainability.  Roberta supported Jed taking the role, but all agreed it meant Jed needed to leave Marketing, feeling that sustainability and “spin” needed to be comfortably separated.

Jed took a long view of his work.  He had in mind a five-year plan to make Cabot a sustainability leader.  Importantly, he knew he could not do it alone, nor could he become the “sustainability police.”  So he began to make the case internally, listen to the naysayers, create quantitative and qualitative measures, and developing a support network for himself that both informed and inspired.

Make the case internally
It seemed to Jed that Cabot’s business approach, on a day-to-day basis, was quite consistent with the principles of sustainability, perhaps in large part due to its cooperative heritage.  Still, the concept of Sustainability was not well-understood within the organization and was new to the radar screens of the CEO and the senior management team.   As a result, what Jed had in a title, he lacked in specific direction and commitment.  Jed needed to build support.

One of the key, original allies ended up being the farmers themselves, in the form of the cooperative’s Board of Directors.  Each voting member of the cooperative’s board is a farmer himself or herself.  Collectively they voted to support and fund a project with the Manomet Center for  Conservation Sciences to create a sustainability scorecard for use on dairy farms.

What the board articulated very well was that they felt underserved to engage in conversation with their key stakeholders – from neighbors to local and regional officials and beyond.  Intuitively they understood that in many ways, farmers are the original leaders in stewardship, but they lacked the vocabulary of Sustainability to have that conversation effectively.

They also recognized that to have a fruitful conversation about Sustainability, they needed to have measurements that spoke to their economic and social impacts, as well as their environmental impacts.  Since farming is an occupation for less than 2% of the population, the farmers on the board were seeking a way to thoughtfully answer a question they were hearing more and more often: “Why is your dairy farm important to our community?”

Jed began working closely with Manomet in crafting a scorecard, based largely on prior work Manomet had done in the forestry industry.  Very shortly it became obvious that this project had implications far beyond just Cabot and, in fact, on the scale of the entire dairy industry.

A year into the scorecard project – now called the Vital Capital Index for Dairy Agriculture – the leading, national dairy industry trade group, Dairy Management Inc., agreed to take on and fund the project while continuing to work closely with Cabot, especially on beta-testing the concept with farmers.  Elevating the project to a national standard reflected positively on Cabot’s pioneering work, while also advancing national efforts towards a more sustainable dairy industry.

Listen to the naysayers
At the same time, Jed knew he had to engage the senior management team.  Rich Stammer, Cabot’s CEO, was thoughtful about Sustainability but was looking for proof.  Rich is an extremely intelligent leader, but hardly one who would be confused for one of the more iconic, green leaders.  Cabot’s CFO, Ed Townley, admitted that at the time, he thought sustainability “was a crock.”  Jim Pratt and Ed Pcolar, SVP and VP of Operations, respectively, were focused squarely on the financial bottom line; much less on the social, economic or environmental bottom lines.  Jed began to work with each of these key allies.

At a pivotal meeting with senior staff, Jed and Mark McElroy were presenting the nuts and bolts of proposed Cabot sustainability metrics using context-based sustainability.  CEO Rich Stammer, whose doctoral degree is in agricultural economics, challenged an assumption about using per capita as an allocation method.  As the meeting broke, Jed’s heart sunk, only to rebound moments later as Rich came back into the room, clearly thinking deeply about the problem.  He asked Mark and Jed to rework the calculations to provide allocation, instead, by some measure of added value.  The resulting approach – a denominator that reflects contributions to economic value – was later dubbed The DeStamminator and has become a hallmark of Cabot’s efforts to advance context-based sustainability.

Create quantitative and qualitative measures
Jed also worked closely with Ed Townley, the CFO, to make sure that the sustainability metrics under development properly incorporated financial realities of the business.  Ed himself proactively sought confirmation externally by asking key retail customers, “What are you doing with respect to sustainability?  Do you have expectations of your suppliers?”  Their answers led him to understand that sustainability was much more of a priority in our supply chain than he previously imagined.

In terms of organizational structure, Jed’s position was embedded in the Operations Team, reporting to Jim Pratt, SVP Operations.  Here Jed’s focus turned to engaging key members of the Operations Team.  Initially, Jed arranged meetings with key managers and supervisors and “interviewed” them as if for a story about Cabot and its sustainability practices for a fictitious magazine, Sustainable Dairy.  The results were amazing.  Stories emerged that revealed true pockets of innovation within the organization at one extreme, and at the other extreme, as Jed noted, “I felt like maybe I was speaking Italian” based on the glassed-over expressions that met him.

From this exercise, Jed had a better idea of who was ready to go, as well as who needed help starting the engine.  For those in motion already, the focus turned to sharing best practices across the company.  Amazingly, it proved over time that others, once their “engines” were fired up, have become among the most progressive managers in terms of piloting sustainability efforts.

With tremendous support from Ed Pcolar, VP Operations, a creamery Green Team was created.  This inter-disciplinary, cross-functional team was set up to meet monthly and identify projects that fell within the realm of sustainability in Operations.

Environmental bottom line topics like solid waste and energy quickly emerged from within the group and soon projects in both areas were yielding bottom-line results to the tune of six-figures.  Senior management took note, even highlighting some of the efforts at that year’s annual meeting of the cooperative, so that the farmers could hear the progress.  The Green Team became emboldened by its own success.  Importantly, Jed doesn’t lead the Green Team but serves only as an advisor/cheerleader.  The team is led by one of its members.

Jed used these allies to build the case within Cabot that there was an extraordinary opportunity to adapt the way Cabot does business – to use Sustainability as a lens through which any and every employee can review their work and impacts and from that observation, choose a path of continuous improvement.  Properly executed, this approach yields something for everyone, from employee satisfaction, to bottom line gains, to environmental impact reductions.

Create a support network
At the same time as Jed built unlikely allies, listened to the naysayers, and used independent quantitative and qualitative measurements to make his case, he developed a support network that sustained him and leveraged the work of Cabot.

Two key groups emerged
The first was a yearlong fellowship through the Sustainability Institute called the Donella Meadows Leadership Fellowship Program.  Jed was chosen as one of 20 fellows from across the globe who met in person four times over the year for one week apiece.  The program, based on the work of former Dartmouth professor Dana Meadows, co-author of the seminal Limits to Growth in 1972, focused on visioning, reflective conversation, and thinking in systems.  Cabot supported Jed in this fellowship, an experience that had a monumental impact on his development as a sustainability change agent.

Jed also sought to network with other sustainability officers.  A casual network, nominally called the Northeast Dairy Sustainability Collaborative, was created with Cabot and Jed’s counterparts from Ben & Jerry’s and Stonyfield.  It was a unique opportunity to have three dairy brands with different product categories (cheese, ice cream, and yogurt) but  similar sustainability aspirations and social intentions work together.  The Sustainable Food Lab, an organization to which all three belong, facilitates two to three meetings a year for the group.

Leadership without authority
What I found powerful about Jed’s story is how he is exerting leadership without being in charge.  Rather, he is imbuing in others a desire to change the way Cabot does business– by educating, showing competitive data, driving internal statistics, and holding up a mirror to the organization.  Some individuals at Cabot are driven by the cost or competitive advantages.  Many have also been influenced by the sense of doing the right thing.  Jed would say the instinct to do the right thing has always been a deep-seated value of Cabot: a sort of Cabot karma.

Because of this, what Jed brings to Cabot is a natural fit.  That being said, here is one guy with a lot of ideas, some eloquent language, and a healthy measure of elbow grease that has made a tremendous difference.  One can truly lead from any chair.

[1] The Art of Possibility, Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander, September, 2000.

9 October 2012 – Ellen Meyer Shorb

ReWiring Success is leading a workshop 8-10 February at the Rowe Camp and Conference Center

Make the Ordinary Business Extraordinary:  Change the World thorough your Work – a workshop lead by Julie Lineberger & Ellen Meyer Shorb

Do you wish that your work was aligned with your spirit? Are you committed to your career, but want to make the world a better place? What if you, no matter what position you hold in your company — owner, sales rep, driver — could make your business more successful by using strategies that improve the environment, your community, and the employees of the company?

You can.  Join the quiet revolution that is taking place around the world as businesses discover that they can make money and make a difference for the environment, community, and employees. This workshop will be a laboratory for you to learn what others have done, get up to speed on some practical options, and chart your own plan.

Julie Lineberger and Ellen Meyer Shorb have conducted dozens of interviews for their book and blog ReWiring Success: Socially Responsible Strategies that Work. Based on what they have learned, they train, consult, and coach individuals and businesses on how to use socially responsible strategies to take their business to the next level. For this workshop, they’ve created a vibrant and hands-on experience where you will tap into your deepest hopes for playing an active role in making the world a better place through your work.

Come get inspired. Get up to speed on tactical options to use in your business — open book management, socially responsible sourcing, community engagement, and the like. Then draft a plan to make it happen in your own workplace — and continue to be in touch with the workshop team once a month for six months following.

Whether you are part way down the path to building a business with heart, or are finally listening to that rumbling in your soul that tells you it is possible, this workshop will encourage, inspire, and enable you to do it.

Julie Lineberger is the co­founder/owner of LineSync Architecture, a green and sustainable firm that has garnered numerous awards for design, energy efficiency, and business management. A former chair of the Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility Board of Directors, she teaches Organizational Behavior and Socially Responsible Business Management at Southern Vermont College. She has Masters degree in International Education from Harvard and has managed projects for the UN Development Program, the International Rescue Committee, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, and various other NGOs throughout the world.

Ellen Meyer Shorb is a principal of Blue Sage Partners, a strategy consulting practice that works with visionaries to build teams to get things done. She holds a Master in Public Policy from Harvard and an MBA from Stanford and has taught leadership at Northeastern University, using the Adaptive Leadership model developed at Harvard. Before consulting she was a senior manager for several nonprofits in the fields of international relations, affordable housing, and community development.


Pushing an Industry into Sustainability . . . from an interview with 
Cliff Cort, President
, Triumph Modular Buildings

Cliff Cort is on to the world wide trend of modular building, with his very own twist. He notes that while the US market is sluggish on modular, buyers in other countries have wholeheartedly embraced the construction system. “There is less disruption to the site. It is quick. All over the world, people are wanting modular.” His twist to focus on “highly designed” and sustainable modular may be the game changer the US is waiting for.  As Cliff says, “Green is old news now.  The building code is making green the law as of late.”

Being an effective entrepreneur is about staying on the market edge. Cliff built Triumph Modular Buildings, and is now creating a piece of the company that is on that edge, by going highly designed green. Realizing the modular industry was made up of structures that had not changed in 30 years, Cliff decided time was ripe for change. “I knew everything was barely legal. Yes, all modular classrooms are built to code, but nothing more. They were the cheapest possible things – windowless classrooms. It was disgusting. I knew there was an unbelievable opportunity to raise the bar. The school systems have been getting what they asked for which is the least expensive alternative.”

The Importance of a Champion

In 2006 an architect from Germany, then working in Maryland’s Montgomery County school department, started a design competition in the United States. Familiar with modular construction in Europe, she knew America was lacking and needed to put together better buildings.

Cliff and his associates entered and won the competition for a green and energy efficient modular classroom design. They flew down to Washington, D.C. for the award. At that point, it was just a design. Cliff wanted it to be a reality. “My daughter was going to the Carroll School, so I asked: ‘How would you like to be the first one in the country to have a green modular classroom?’

“Steve Wilkins was the head of school and there was no precedent for what we were proposing. No one in the country had seen any green relocatable classrooms. It opened the eyes of all the dealers and manufacturers in the country.”

It IS Possible to Push an Industry

“There is this green movement coming. Sitting in front of a bunch of mobile modular industry folks, I was pushing them. The market did not push them.

“I knew I was in trouble with them because they were looking to maintain the status quo and maintain their existing assets. They were very protective of their legacy mobile buildings and classrooms,” Cliff explained.

A turning point came when the Executive Director of the Modular Building Institute said Cliff was right. “We have to embrace the green movement,” concurred Lori Robert from NRB Manufacturing, Ontario, Canada, and Vice President of the Modular Building Institute Board of Directors.

Cliff then created a green modular building that Harvard University used as a child care center for 18 months as they renovated another structure. “It won all these green awards including recognition from the Massachusetts Chapter of the US Green Building Council.  One judge said he voted for it because it sat softly on the earth.”

The trend continues. “We are looking into new prototype modular classrooms now.  For example, the Sprout Space classroom below is designed by one of the largest architecture firms in the world, Perkins+Will.  We hope to be able to deliver it nationally for a compelling price.  The financial result of our green projects have yet to pay back any big results, although word of mouth works and we have been invited to work on interesting projects lately.”

Expanding with Ideas and Energy

“People in schools are now starting to ask for green. Finally they are asking for green modular classrooms, addressing what we have been working on for years. It truly is transforming the industry. We have built the best temporary classrooms in the country two years in a row now. They are green, sustainable and relocatable.”

Cliff is abundant with ideas, some of them really radical in the opinion of the current industry. “I am trying to be relevant to the movement.”

Cliff also has ideas for modular power pad, a modular off-grid solar internet cafe type structure pictured below.

“You need to take risks to innovate.  I offered a group of people in my office to take the test to become LEED accredited and proficient.  I said anyone who got it by January 1, I would give a $10,000 bonus to.  Sure enough, the one who passed the test left the company a short time after.”

Cliff is fast paced, continually thinking, continually revising, pushing his company into the future. He is, in fact, challenging the entire industry.

Julie Lineberger

Deriving Joy from Socially Responsible Manufacturing. . . from an Interview with Allen Arseneau, co-founder JOIGA: Manufacturing for All

Can you drive your business with a social mission in an industry that does not reward for social purpose?  Allen Arseneau thinks you can, and he’s doing so by manufacturing goods in China.

Allen grew up poor and ended up with a good education and career.  As a manufacturing engineer and now a business owner, he identifies with the workers on the floor of his factory in China.  In fact, he has a vision of a manufacturing community that supports workers.  

At the same time, Allen believes that work should be joyful.  So he named his company JOIGA (a coined word that sounds like “joy” and can be pronounced equally well in English and Chinese) and is building it with the mission of “fostering innovation throughout the US and improving the lives of factory workers in China and across the globe.” 

JOIGA provides soup-to-nuts high-precision manufacturing, from product design to the actual production of products to helping their clients sell those products into retail outlets.   JOIGA is currently expanding their design capabilities, as well as adding a merchandising division so that they are better able to help their customers sell products into large retailers.  At the same time, JOIGA is committed to improving the lives of its factory workers, by actively providing housing, counseling, healthy food, and a career track for its employees.   If JOIGA’s initial results are any indication, socially responsible manufacturing will sell itself.

Breaking Ground In Manufacturing
     Allen started out as a process engineer with a medical device company in Europe for about one year, before moving back to his hometown of Boston, where he worked as a process engineer for a pharmaceutical company.  After graduating from Stanford’s business school, he was recruited to Las Vegas to help tennis superstars Andre Agassi and Stefanie Graf build a lifestyle company that provided healthy living options, through real estate, fitness clubs, and healthy food offerings.  “I was hired to help Andre and Stefanie build their business.  However, all employees there were required to spend time volunteering within their network of social and philanthropic ventures.  That was the most fulfilling, and moving, part of my work.  Andre and Stefanie are all about philanthropy; they support a charter school in one of the worst parts of Las Vegas and I got a chance to visit and work there. I love Andre and Stefanie’s mission.  They are wonderful people and are doing wonderful things.

However, I still felt that I could be doing more.  I wanted to know that I was making the most of all of my skills and education, and at the same time making a significant difference in the world.  I guess I was at odds with myself, I was part of a social mission in Vegas, but I was left not feeling complete.  So when the economy began to crash, I left Las Vegas, and moved back to my hometown of Boston.”

The work being done in the charter school resonated with Allen.  He had grown up in a low income, single mother home in Boston, MA. His family received food assistance and he was the beneficiary of welfare programs on occasion, and GlobeSanta.  “There is no question that without government assistance, and without the much-needed guidance that I got from my big brother (Big Brother Association) or from the local YMCA programs, I never would have gotten out.”  Allen left home at age 16, made his way to Northeastern 1.5 years later, and eventually, to Stanford Business School.  Allen, now himself a parent of 5 year old Shauna, wanted to give back.

The opportunity presented itself two years ago. Allen joined a company that produced biometric locks and safes.  Allen and a key executive of the lock and safe company looked at all potential revenue opportunities,and discovered underutilized factory space.  There appeared to be an opportunity to build a business larger than just locks and safes.

One of the brothers running the original company, another Northeastern engineer, Sheng Deng, joined Allen to start what was first named Manufacturing Integrity Partners.  Sheng is a Chinese-born American that came to the US at 12 years old, and now spends most of his time in China.  “After six months, we proved we could make the business work.  Then I introduced the idea of a social mission.  I look at the factory workers and see myself in them.  I want them to be happy people.  Sheng is supportive, but I am driving this part of the mission.  It is very counter to what is done in China these days, but we love what we do, and our workers are very happy because of it.”

Creating Healthy Factory Communities
While JOIGA often utilizes a network of factories to produce various products, the one factory it does own is different.  When customers visit China, they are often disappointed in what they find in factories.  Typical factories in China are dirty and dark, and there are few smiles.  Our factory is a very different place.  Our factory has open doors, windows that let in a lot of light, and people are smiling.

We look at ergonomics, a clean work environment, protective equipment, on-the-job training, and culture. It is so important to us that our workers enjoy their work, and our proud of what they do on a daily basis.  And as we grow, we want to share our standards and culture with our partner factories.”

“People are having fun.  We are helping our workers be happy, and productive.  They are paid more than a fair wage.  There are bonuses based on profit-sharing.  We purposely rotate people through various functions for variety and ownership and to move workers up in skills.  Some workers take the initiative to learn so many skills, that we promote them to floor managers, in which they also take on a mentoring role for other workers.  We want our workers to stay with us. As we grow we’d like to see them grow with us.”

“There are other companies that have built nets to prevent workers from committing suicide, we do coaching instead.  Sheng spends part of every day on the factory floor.  He consciously provides counseling on the factory floor.  He asks, ‘How are you doing?  How is your wife, your family?’  Our workers have many daily stresses in their lives.  We’re trying to be very respectful and caring.  If people need time off, we give them time off and plan for it.  It’s communication.  It’s family.”

JOIGA improves a worker’s typical living conditions by paying for their rent, and bringing in a chef for lunch and dinner.   “You’ve heard of how hard it is for workers to get home more than once a year during Chinese New Year, so we’re looking at how to make it possible to go home more often.  If we can make it work for us, why not?”

“It makes business sense.  Our retention is way up.  We make deadlines, our workers rally together, it is incredible.  Our workers stayed until past midnight one time to make a deadline.  So we take people out for karaoke and drinks.  I bring them chocolate from the U.S.  When I am in China, I spend time on the factory floor.  I don’t mind getting dirty or tired.  I like the fact that I can work side-by-side with these guys, as long as I don’t get in their way”, Allen says with a laugh.  “The first thing I do when I get there, is go around and say hi to every worker, shaking their hands – no matter how dirty those hands might be.  I want our workers to know that we really are one big family.”  

“I envision growing JOIGA into a much larger organization than we are today.  I am looking into building a healthy and vibrant community of workers by leasing, purchasing, or building additional factories in China, and potentially around the world.  There is a brand new factory that is being built right now that is literally next door to our current site that we are looking at expanding into.  We would like to offer our workers a lifestyle that keeps them and their families happy and healthy.  I am committed to improving the lives of our workers and of their families in both the short-term and the long-term.  We are also expanding the services that we offer our clients by adding additional design services, as well as building relationships with retail outlets around the country.

Young Customers Value Social Mission and Sell the Company
      JOIGA has a somewhat different business model, which initially attracted a younger clientele who appreciated the socially responsible mission, and were excited about the ability to simply manufacture in China – an opportunity normally available only to established retailers.  However, JOIGA’s clientele has since expanded to include entrepreneurs both young and old, as well as larger retailers, who are enthusiastic about the social mission and excited by the ease of manufacturing well in China. 

Traditionally, manufacturing in China has been an inaccessible option to many entrepreneurs and companies alike because of communication issues, and quality and intellectual property concerns.  JOIGA has not only created a model that has minimized risk in working with factories in China, but has also bundled services that will ultimately help its clients be more successful in the long-run.  “In fostering innovation, we want our customers to feel they can in fact innovate.  They don’t have to be paralyzed by the fear of failure; we are here to help them every step of the way.”

“Our customers love our social mission.  They want to talk about it.  Our customers then advertise us because they want to talk about us and our mission.  It’s a huge market differentiator.  We’ve done minimal marketing, most of our business has come from word of mouth.”

Social Mission Drives Higher Quality    Allen is clear:  there must be no sacrifice on quality for the social mission.  JOIGA can only succeed if it continues to place a high value on quality.  Not surprisingly, Allen and Sheng have found that the more they put into their workers, the higher and more dependable the quality.  “It makes business sense to do what we are doing.  Manufacturing must be efficient.  We are proving we can make manufacturing socially responsible and fun.  Initially it cost us more money, but our retention went up and our labor costs went down.  We do this without passing along the cost of our social mission to our customers – our customers benefit because our turnover is low, quality is high and consistent, and prices are competitive. JOIGA has proved to me that SR can be profitable.”

Changing Conditions through Manufacturing (rather than boycott)
     Diana Hudak, who lives and works with Allen, told a story that summed up the work JOIGA is setting out to do.  “I spent a year not buying products from China because of how workers are treated.  But I realized that I was just one consumer.   When I joined Allen, I saw that we could actually change the lives of workers overseas.  We could make a difference in an individual’s and a family’s life.  I couldn’t do this by not buying things from China.  There are a lot of ways in your work life that you can leverage changes that impact the whole world.  That is what I am doing here.”

Allen ended our interview with these words “I am living my dream.  I get to help people right here in the US build competitive companies that will grow and eventually hire more people, and at the same time, I am improving the lives of our workers in China.  I can’t tell you how happy this makes me.  I have high hopes for JOIGA.  We really do make dreams come true.”

Partners Allen and Sheng

Ellen Meyer Shorb

Development with Heart & Soul . . . . an interview with Melinda Louise Moulton, CEO, Main Street Landing

In 1982 Melinda Moulton and her partner, Lisa Steele, were two women on a journey to redevelop the Burlington waterfront.  They created an environmentally and socially responsible mission that guided them through 30 years and 250,000 square feet of built environment on Burlington’s Waterfront.  This is a powerful story about the courage to listen to your heart and soul to lead a business to true, lasting, as well as financial, success.

Their first attempt in the early 1980’s failed for a variety of reasons, but most compelling was the fact that it was too big to succeed and did not receive the community’s support.  Melinda remembered: “We knew it was not the right way to develop land, and we knew that there was a better, more socially responsible and sustainable way to develop the waterfront.  The failure of our first attempt allowed the phoenix to rise from the ashes which carried with it our social and environmental beliefs and a burning desire to succeed.”

Melinda and Lisa changed tactics, leading with heart and soul to create “a place for all people” with a focus on social justice and the environment.  They renamed the company Main Street Landing and created a mission that followed their beliefs and their values. “We interviewed architects and told them our simple mission: We care about people, the environment, and we need to make money. By 1988, we had written our sustainable mission. Our activist culture transformed into Main Street Landing,” Melinda reminisced.

“I still have blood on my hands from crashing through the glass ceiling.  Construction and development were primarily the work of men.  As women, we had a hard time being taken seriously.  We had to do the work and show other developers that we could do what 22 other attempts in 75 years never achieved: bring commercial development back to the blighted Waterfront.  It took two women to do it, and we did it with appeals and legal battles and disbelief. Most other developers did not believe we had what it took, we had to prove ourselves time and time again.  Fortunately, this was a driving force for us.

“Creating an environmentally sustainable development was the right thing to do. We did it with enormous emotion and drew from gut feelings and reactions.  The entire process was quite instinctive.   It was all about doing what felt right, everything was the feeling. For example, when we interviewed architectural firms our questionnaire said: Do you enjoy working for women? Are you happy? Who are you as a person? Do you care about the environment and social justice?  Do you consider yourself to have a big ego?”

Lisa and Melinda were all about focusing on the things that mirrored their values and beliefs.  They wanted to make sure that everyone would love and appreciate their work and know that they cared about how people wanted to experience the waterfront.  Melinda noted, “Everyone in Vermont has a special feeling about the Waterfront, and we wanted to tap into that and have them understand that although we owned the property, we felt more like stewards of the property.  Their opinions mattered to us.  The waterfront belongs to everyone, and we needed to be sensitive and open to that reality.”

Over the years Melinda and Lisa have been able to show that doing the right thing was also profitable.

When it came time for construction, Main Street Landing continued to follow their instincts when interviewing construction firms. Melinda remembered her thinking at the time: “We’re going to hire the sub-contractors based on trust and mutual respect, and a guarantee that they can meet our budget.  We won’t go out to bid. The architectural and engineering team is going to meet weekly with the construction subs and work on the construction drawings together in order to meet budget and create the best project possible.

“We said: ‘there is mutual love and respect between us – we all trust one another, and we want to work with you to create the best project possible and keep our numbers in line with our budget.  That’s what made it successful.” That, and the very smart, detailed business mind of Melinda Moulton checking out all ‘facts’ that any consultant, architect, builder or other consultant put forth. Working exhaustively long hours, Main Street Landing continued to do business on its own terms in order to honor their mission.

Trusting one’s gut means facing ongoing challenges and risks. After the successful redevelopment of Union Station, CornerStone, and the Wing Buildings, a mix of commercial, residential and retail buildings on the waterfront, they focused on the Lake & College building. Lake & College was developed with green construction goals for corporate, retail and a Performing Arts Center spaces.  ( main-street-landing/).  Main Street Landing also built a train station to support the return of rail to Burlington. Melinda lobbies for rail and is still awaiting its return.

In February 2005, however, they were still without tenants for Lake & College, and worry began to seep in. One blustery day, Jeffrey Hollander, then-CEO of Seventh Generation, called to see the space. “The wind was blowing, there was ice on the concrete floor, we walked up to the fifth floor, and the wind was just whistling and howling. Jeffrey said, ‘I think this is it. I want to rent 30,000 square feet!’” Melinda recalled her astonishment.

With Seventh Generation as a lead tenant, Main Street Landing began, in Melinda’s words, “creating a loving community that embraced and supported the tenants.  We nurture businesses to grow and succeed. We decided to allow dogs and babies, and encouraged a policy of ‘no whining’.  Our leases are mutually respectful, simple, and easy to understand, and our lease terms can be as short as month-to-month.  We also focus primarily on local businesses, start-ups, and nonprofits.”

“It’s all about the energy,” Melinda continued talking about the culture and the environment created among Main Street Landing tenants.  The Lake and College building is certified LEED Silver (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design). “Unfortunately LEED does not recognize the social mission. The Green Building Council should take into consideration points for a socially focused development agenda.”

Melinda Moulton and Lisa Steele created quite a legacy with their unorthodox development and business acumen, yet they are still pushing envelopes and ceilings. Involved in nonprofit work that supports the environment, education, the arts, and social justice, Melinda revealed, “Both Lisa and I are more radical now than we’ve ever been. My time is running out. I have maybe 20 years, 30 if I’m lucky. I want to work with people to dig deep, evolve, and understand the normal process, the ‘101 of Development in this Country’, needs to change.”

Melinda’s final advice for developers and business owners: “It’s important to make money, no doubt, but more important is doing the right thing, following your heart, and using your mind, and insuring that you care about the Earth and its inhabitants – if you do that – the bottom line will be successful – and you’ll sleep well at night.”

Julie Lineberger

Product is Not the Mission . . . an interview with Don Mayer, CEO, Small Dog Electronics

Don Mayer returned his draft card to the Selective Service with a letter, as an act of civil disobedience.  He then called the FBI  asking why they hadn’t come looking for him. Similarly, Don has always worked in the business world with an eye to how to make the world a better place.  He continues to ask the hard questions about his company and the impact it can and should have.

Are there some lessons we can glean from Don that would apply to businesses switching mid-stream?  Don would say, “Yes!”

Early on Don learned the “product is not the mission.”   He lived with the Dreamers in North Wolcott, Vermont, a farm community that tried to grow 100% of their own food for a year. When the community moved to West Virginia, he stayed on the farm and started North Wind Power, a wind energy company.  He and his co-founders hoped that windmills would solve the energy crisis of the 1970s.

One day he found himself in a room with uniformed Navy personnel, giving a presentation for North Wind Power Company, and had what he called an “out-of-body experience.  I looked at myself and wondered what I would have thought of myself when I was a draft resister if I could have seen myself in that room.  I realized I would have done ANYTHING to avoid being there and being a defense contractor.”

From this experience he took the lesson that the “product is not the mission.  It’s more important that you build a company with a responsible social mission.”  His current company, Small Dog Electronics, sells Apple gear out of Waitsfield, Vermont.  Its mission is to “create amazing products to improve people’s lives.”  The website says:  “We are a socially responsible company, which means we have a multiple bottom line.  The effect we have on our environment, community, customers, and employees is just as important as maintaining our profitability.”

Don believes you can and should measure all these parameters, not just profit, but Small Dog’s impact on people and the planet.

On the importance of how you treat the people that work for you, Don says that in every company he has run (up until a few years ago and the advent of direct deposit) he delivered paychecks by hand, with a handshake, and a thank you.  “One day at North Wind Power Company, we couldn’t pay.  There was still the handshake, still the ‘thank you’.  All the employees worked another three weeks until we could pay them.  It became apparent that respecting employees was a smart business strategy.”

Small Dog Electronics offers dog health insurance to its employees, allows dogs in the workplace, has exercise facilities and a book group.

The flip side to that, is the relationship with customers.  At Small Dog Electronics, “We use a net promoter score to measure customer satisfaction. (We read a book on this together in our company book group).  We survey every customer, every transaction.  One question we ask is, ‘Based on this transaction, would you recommend Small Dog Electronics?’  There is a 10 point scale.  8,9,10 are promoters; 1,2,3 are detractors.  By department, we inform staff how their total NPS score is doing.”

But how does a small company in rural Vermont make a difference in the environment?  With respect to its own energy use, Small Dog has recently installed a large solar photovoltaic array that powers 100% of the electricity of the South Burlington Store and a good percentage of the Waitsfield location. They have also installed a FreeAire cooling system for the server that uses outside air to cool.

Beyond Vermont, Don says, “We partner with companies that have working conditions that we support.  As we become a larger player, we have more influence.  For example, we have leather cases for iPads being made in China.  We ask about the content of the dye, the tanning process, the hours employees are working.  The packaging on the paper had a PET coating (a polyester film) and we had them change it to oil, which is more environmentally benign.  I said, ‘I want the most environmentally safe packaging you can come up with.’  We have a guy in China that teams up with the producers.  Because we’re bigger, we get more attention now.”

Another initiative that has impact beyond Waitsfield are eWaste collection days.  In 2006, Small Dog held a Free eWaste collection day on Earth Day. “We received 50 tons of computers, TVs, and other electronics.  The next year, we took in 150 tons.  Then 175.  Now Apple completely funds both Small Dog’s four annual eWaste collection events in Vermont and New Hampshire and weekly pickups of eWaste at each of the company’s locations. And manufacturers are paying for recycling. We got a lot of publicity within Apple.”  The collection of Ewaste is now free at all of Small Dog’s stores.  In 2010 Small Dog lobbied and had the best eWaste law in the nation passed in Vermont.

So what about the bottom line?  “You have to decide what kind of business you want to be. You can be a good corporate citizen.  But you need to build a business focused on more than profit and have to figure out how to do this.”  Granted, Don says, it’s easier for some businesses to do this than others.  Many companies have low profit margins.

Small Dog has a wide array of ways in which it, as a business, draws its customers, employees, and suppliers in, and tries to make a positive impact on the world.  “On our website, we list eight or nine charitable organizations, human rights, women, gay, dog welfare. If customers donate, we match customers donations to the maximum extent of our annual charitable giving budget.  When Haiti had the earthquake in 2010, we raised $35,000 in 48 hours for Doctors Without Borders.”

He gives the most credit to companies that build a socially responsible business mid-stream. “I’m more impressed with the local gas station owner who wants to be sustainable.  If you’re already in business, making the leap is difficult.”

Build the Business with a Socially Responsible Mission
What resonated in our interview with Don is that any business, with any product or service, can be run in a socially responsible manner.  It is the mission of the business, rather than the product itself, that determines impact in the world.  This impact beyond profit can be measured:  employee commitment, customer satisfaction, dollars raised, clean manufacturing, tons recycled, etc.  In fact, the many ways to measure how the “people” and “planet” missions are only growing.

Don exudes possibility.  With Don it is clear that an ordinary product can have an extraordinary impact.

Ellen Meyer Shorb

Teaching others How to Teach to Fish … an interview with Geof Brown, Vermont Country Store Head of Human Resources and Philanthropy

Even companies whose origins lie in authentic socially responsible values find their community involvement looking different today than it did decades before. Staying true to their roots, while evolving to meet modern needs is the story of The Vermont Country Store (VCS) and its successful philanthropy program. Issues of employee engagement, local community involvement and humility were all carefully considered and rewired to update VCS programs under the watchful eye of Geof Brown.


VCS, a multi-generational family owned business, enticed Geof to seek a position where he could truly make a difference in the lives of employees and in the communities where they live and work. After a 20 plus year career in human resources and change management, primarily in the retail sector, Geof followed his creative passion by establishing an inn and event business at the Williams River House at Fox Chair Mountain Farm in Chester, Vermont. VCS, however, provided Geof the opportunity to serve as the company’s Head of Human Resource and lead their commitment to local community-focused Philanthropy.

The Vermont Country Store’s roots in Vermont go back eight generations, and family values still play a fundamental role in dictating how the Orton family maintains close ties to the community. As Geof explains, “The Orton family, along with our CEO Bill Shouldice, provides proper sponsorship to our philanthropy program around our core values: authenticity, commitment to product, commitment to employees, commitment to the community, and being sustainable financially. We leverage all of our resources — funding, product and volunteerism — to maximize the reach of our program and model our values.”

One founding value of VCS is giving back to the approximately 65 communities in which its employees live and work. ”There is a desire on the part of the Ortons to be humble in their giving – it is who they are at their core. They feel a responsibility to share their success with their communities, but do not seek publicity for their generosity,” Geof said. “They know that when our communities are thriving, so does our business. The Ortons have been ‘paying it forward’ long before it was a catch phrase. They embody the generosity of spirit and independent thinking that make Vermont a special place.”

Under the leadership of VCS Board Chair Eliot Orton and CEO Bill Shouldice, Geof and VCS’s Philanthropy Coordinator Ann Warrell, have implemented and improved the company’s philanthropic programs, so that they address contemporary community needs and employee interests. Over the past several years, VCS has started to share what is working for them outside their four walls in order to inspire other Vermont businesses to do the same.

Employee Engagement and Local Giving
Geof and Ann explored two key issues that were intimately linked — how to increase employee engagement while making more of a local impact. By using these two principles as drivers, they were able to enhance existing programs and provide new offerings, and in so doing, maximize their existing philanthropic funding, while increasing employee involvement.

Community Teams
One of VCS’s most successful programs is its Community Action Team (CAT) model, in which teams of employees lead philanthropic giving efforts.

“Eliot’s direction was to make any giving program be grass roots,” Geoff said. “He and Bill Shouldice instituted CAT teams to ensure that the majority of our funding was given through employee-centered decisions and hired an individual to coordinate their activities. Today, we bring our four CAT teams together semi-annually to share ideas on their grant-making decisions and other initiatives,” Geof said. CAT teams can also support non-profits through volunteerism. “CATs spend time helping when it’s their hands that are needed most. This flexibility helps them address real needs at a grass roots level, which is in keeping with our mandate,” Geof notes.

“With the success of the program, we kicked it up several notches to educate teams about working within guidelines and allocating resources according to established priorities. Keeping these priorities in mind, they can independently decide to fund local non-profit organizations in amounts up to $5,000,” Geof explains.

“In the past two years, we have completely maximized all available funding resources. Now we are working on a web-enabled system to more efficiently track and process grant requests. All of this furthers our focus on maintaining momentum and encouraging philanthropy within our CAT teams and with all our employees.”

Dollars for Doers
“VCS had a traditional matching donation program for many years. However, it was not being used to its fullest capacity, as the matching donation funds were never fully utilized,” Geof said. “We realized that people did not have personal funds to donate, but were volunteering all over the place.

“We came up with a program we call Dollars for Doers where we match an employee’s volunteerism with $10 per hour for each hour worked. We are always trying to think about how to do things in a more practical way, which is in keeping with our values,” Geof continues. “Volunteerism is in the spirit of our employees. This is a way we can empower them, while we serve to strengthen our community.”

Manager Contributions Program
With the success of these programs, VCS also wanted to reinvigorate its existing manager donations program to reward personal community involvement. “Under the old program, managers were able to direct a certain amount to the local charity of their choice. We upped the ante by creating a two-tiered program that rewards personal involvement. We are willing to double what managers can give if they serve on a board, do community service, or create a personal giving pledge. This gives them more of an incentive to become involved, and model community involvement to their employees, which, in turn, inspires more involvement,” Geof explained. He participates by serving on the Manchester Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors.

“We encourage our managers, and all employees, to recognize the more complex needs of the community. We believe our philanthropy program pushes everyone toward becoming involved in ways they never did before. These actions create experiences and knowledge that serves both the community and VCS.”

Good for Others is Good for Us — in Geof’s Words
“The intersection for VCS and philanthropy is that we seek to build employee retention by empowering all employees to volunteer, and by rewarding their efforts through our matching programs. This is something that distinguishes VCS from other larger businesses in our region, and makes people want to stay with the VCS family,” said Geof. “The Ortons’ commitment to community, and the way we are able to put those values into action, is consistent with being a sustainable company.”

The Vermont Country Store isn’t interested in fitting the definition of sustainability. Instead, they are focused on doing the right thing — for their customers, their employees, and their community. They know that keeping their values in the forefront is all the guidance they need to ensure that they will continue to be successful and able to give back for generations to come.

VCS wanted their philanthropic work to be real and practical, not just an ideal, and an important milestone was for staff and managers alike to become more engaged. By reworking their philanthropic programs, and motivating employees, VCS has been able to put their philosophy into practice. By selectively sharing and speaking out, VCS is serving as a model for other Vermont businesses, inspiring them to teach how to fish, which is a win-win situation for all.

Julie Lineberger

The Risks and Advantages of Socially Responsible Change: from a conversation with Mary Powell, Green Mountain Power

The executive offices of Green Mountain Power used to occupy 3,000 square feet on the top floors of a three story, glass building.  Now the current CEO, Mary Powell, has a stand up desk facing the front door occupying about 15 square feet.

It is a wonderfully stark image of a profound internal transformation.  In 1998, Green Mountain Power was a traditional, publicly traded utility facing bankruptcy. Now it is a financially sound, environmentally breakthrough utility providing 25% of Vermont’s energy.

The question that hung in the air as we talked to Mary Powell, the dynamo that drove this transformation, was, “Is this a classic case of a strategic realignment in the face of crisis – or are there lessons to be drawn from a traditional company reaching down to its core values and adhering to socially responsible principles in order to drive success?”  The transformation of Green Mountain Power shows how driving change through socially responsible (SR) principles can be both harder and easier than a traditional business turnaround.

When Mary came on board in 1998, under then-CEO Chris Dutton, she entered a company that had, “an arrogant reputation.  It was a big, stuffy area utility.”  She felt, “If we want to be saved, if we want customers to pay more money, we have to transform ourselves into a company worth saving.” Dutton agreed.  Mary and the senior team drove a change process that trimmed the fat in the organization reducing officers from 14 to 6 (now 4), employees from 340 to 200, square footage from 89,000 to 25,000, and the Executive area by 90% to 300 square feet.

Mary and the senior team clarified Green Mountain Power’s core values:  GMP would be the low cost, low carbon, incredibly reliable energy provider for Vermont.  “The neat thing about our values is that they align a lot with the State’s values.  We were looking at what key stakeholders want.  Vermonters want green and free.  Once you get that fly wheel spinning, it is amazing where it can take you.  We are becoming a renewable energy company.”

As with any change process that upends a company this dramatically, the changes engendered fear and pushback.   In the case of GMP, and other companies where SR principles drive change, Mary faced an additional layer of suspicion and politics.  Renewable energy was, and is, political.  There were factions opposed to renewable energy because of its perceived high cost, and/or because they didn’t believe in climate change.  On one side were the true green, anti-nuclear folks; on the other, the hard core Vermont Yankee supporters who wanted GMP to use nuclear power forever.

Fortunately, when Mary was made CEO, Dutton characterized her well; “fearless as she embraces change and new thinking.”  Mary said, “Courage is not the absence of fear, it is the presence of fear and the willingness to walk through it.  At times it was terrifying on a personal level.”

Mary contends that because driving change with SR strategies draws on deeply embedded values, it is powered, supported, and ultimately successful because individuals want and believe in this re-orientation.   “There were really smart, funny, committed, caring people.  Some who had strong environmental values, but they were over here in a pocket.”

Thus, Green Mountain Power, in committing to “low carbon”, aligned itself with a broad customer base that went beyond the naysayers and was able to leverage this market differentiation.  “Our vision was just about our customers and our vision for our customers.  The comment that ‘this is just a marketing ploy’ is not true.  It is really about our values.  We really want to see an energy future that is clean and green and renewable.  Have you seen another utility try to do a windfarm?  Tough decisions, but important ones, if a company is values-based and focused on the values of the majority of customers they serve.”

Taking a traditional, publicly held utility green faced some political landmines.  At the same time, it drove the current success (the wind project will greatly increase the size of the company) by tapping into a powerful customer value for clean, green, and renewable.   Driving a company to the next level with socially responsible strategies can be more risky and, at the same time, facilitate and ensure a profound transformation.

Ellen Meyer Shorb

The Value of Values: from a conversation with Joe Fusco, Casella Waste Systems

Casella Waste Systems is changing how people think about waste. Another company goal is to empower all employees to be great. How does a business redefine its industry, empower its employees and make money all at the same time?

Through visioning processes and conversations at Casella Waste, led by Joe Fusco and others, members of the organization started thinking from 10,000 miles out. The company looked to India and China, seeing a large number of people moving into the middle class. They realized the finite nature of the world’s resources, and the business opportunities that present themselves with the realization that what is thought of as waste are actually resources. Formerly any byproduct of a business was carted away to a landfill. Scraps of lumber/plastic/metal, packaging, food byproducts, all went to essentially the equivalent of a cemetery to be buried. “Resources are precious, even plastic,” enthused Joe. “We needed to figure out how to use resources that we have been placing in cemeteries.”

To get there, John Casella, chairman and CEO of Casella Waste Systems, fully supported Joe’s efforts to empower employees starting with values. Using a strategic planning process, the company decided upon basic company values such as “Service” “Constant Improvement”, and “Responsibility”.

To deepen the business‘ commitment, coupon books were printed (see below), empowering employees to explore and use these values. A Constant Improvement Coupon, for example, allowed an employee to fix any problem for a customer or the community up to $250. The initial reaction from the CFO ”bordered on panic”, however the actual change for the bottom line was positive.

“Getting people in the company talking about values gets them to talking about the future. It facilitates our business leading the evolution of the waste industry,” noted Joe. Fifteen years ago, the waste industry was in crisis, similar to where the publishing industry is today in 2011. Redefining “waste” as “resources”, Casella led the evolution of the industry.

“It is about organizational change,” Joe reflected. “It was an industry making money by filling landfills. The new paradigm is to think of waste as a resource. Recycling is a relatively new industry. We now have farmers using organic digesters to create energy, an entire new industry for them.

“It is also about leadership development, how we treat each other, how we talk about difficult things, how we institute cultural change. Often meetings are filled with people trying to grasp their emotional needs. We try to develop leaders who don’t care who gets the credit; we try to develop people who can start solving problems. Are we going to put energy into getting emotional needs met, or into solving problems? We want business meetings to focus on the best possible solution for a problem. That is the goal of our leadership development program — get people away from engaging in extreme personality issues, get them to focus on a solution to the problem at hand.”

Joe studied with, and now partners with, the Bell Leadership Institute in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. His goal question for Casella’s leaders: “How great are you at making the people around you great at solving problems? An employee’s job is to solve the problems of our customers. . .thus we need to enable employees to be great.

“There is a shortage of these people in the world, those who can make others great problem solvers. We tell our leaders, ‘Your job is to make everyone you touch today great, including our customers, because of the way you do your job.’

“We develop leaders whose job it is to create a place to take chances by making money and doing something that is really good, socially responsible, even though we don’t use that word. People look to define themselves by what their company DOES. People who come to work don’t want to bleed for a spreadsheet. They want to bleed for something they feel passionate about, such as doing good for the world.”

Casella Waste Core Values: 

Mission  Every day we help create better people, businesses and communities by helping them to protect and enhance our environment and natural resources.

Vision  Our long-term vision is to build a highly sustainable and profitable company by transforming traditional solid waste streams into renewable resources.

Integrity. We thrive when we do the right thing. We believe there are enduring principles for everything we do and we strive, in our deeds, to meet or exceed those standards.

Innovation. We prosper when we learn, understand and improve. We invest deeply in creativity, autonomy and the willingness to take risks and embrace change. We look for opportunities to improve everything we do, from our everyday operations to reinventing the way the world manages its resources.

Service. We win when we help others. We are willing servants. We are sensitive to needs and are eager to be a resource to everyone around us, being generous with our time, talent and energy.

Teamwork. We’re more effective when we work together. Our impact is consistently stronger when we respect, support and view each other as partners and value our diversity of backgrounds, insights and opinions.

Responsibility. We succeed when we balance our freedom to act with a sense of accountability. Our work bears the greatest fruit when exercised within a framework of disciplined boundaries, and with an urgent sense of purpose and ownership.

Trust. We excel when we assume the best in each other. Mutual respect and an open, honest environment mark our interactions with others. We acknowledge each other’s contributions, we practice active listening, and we deliver on our promises.


Julie Lineberger