Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Thinking Outside of the (Mail) Box: How Sustainability Can Drive Innovation

One of the most exciting things about corporate sustainability is how it drives innovation.  The concept of sustainability implies the long-term, so companies that embrace it as a core value must think beyond the next fiscal year.  It is this push to predict future needs of both people and planet that has spurred some enormously innovative products and services.  The examples of this are endless: think concentrated laundry detergent, car share services, and CFLs.

It is a known fact that companies need to know how to periodically pivot their business models to ensure continued success. For instance, Amazon and Barnes and Noble remained ahead of the curve in their shift from traditional print books to e-books.  Borders, on the other hand, was late in catching on to this trend and developing its own e-reader.  The company was unable to compensate for this oversight and as a result, filed for bankruptcy in 2011.  (Granted, whether or not these e-readers are actually better for the environment than traditional printed books is another story.)

So when companies like the United States Postal Service stick their heels in the ground and choose tradition over innovation at the expense of the environment, it raises an eyebrow.  A few months back, the USPS ran this commercial, in which it makes the absurd claim that snail mail is somehow more secure and convenient than electronic mail.  The ad seems like a desperate attempt by the USPS to promote a service that is becoming more obsolete each day.  If the USPS really embraced sustainability, it would view the shifting needs of customers as an opportunity to leverage its well-respected brand and create new services that reduce paper waste and reliance on fossil fuels.  For instance, the USPS could create an electronic equivalent of a certified letter or offer an email platform that provides an extra level of security backed by the company.  Clearly, the USPS has an amazing opportunity to embrace sustainability and innovation, but it may suffer the same fate as Borders if it remains stagnant in our ever-changing world.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Employee Engagement: Is It Just a Myth?

I was at an event on CSR at Social Media Week where Susan MacPhearson of Fenton said,
"employees are the single largest untapped resource in the execution of CSR strategy". 
This statement really stuck with me, and after dwelling on it for weeks, I realized how true it really is.

Companies often boast about their level of employee participation and commitment to CSR initiatives. However, to what extent are employees actually being engaged? Think about some of the most environmentally and socially responsible companies (for me, Nike and Timberland come to mind). Now think about the last time you supported these companies by purchasing a product from one of their stores. Were the employees who helped you aware of the environmental attributes of the products they sold? If you asked an average Nike employee about their Considered Design initiative, how would they respond? Chances are, the average employee will be grossly uninformed about such programs.

In fact, I know first hand that knowledge of CSR initiatives is not "trickling down" from the corporate office to the regional sales floor.  As a lead cashier at a major retail store, I had no idea that the company had made any commitment to CSR or published a CSR report until I googled it.  Our atrocious habit of throwing away 500+ plastic hangers a day made me believe sustainability was a low priority for the company.  Ironically enough, the company's CSR report states, "We are committed to incorporating sustainability into all aspects of our operations and have a fundamental responsibility to minimize our impact on the environment".  Moreover, it says, "Associates at all levels of our organization offer their time, enthusiasm and energy, as well as personal and Company resources in support of many worthy causes through a variety of local, national and international organizations."  So why am I not witnessing any of this myself?  The company's bold commitment to CSR is something to be shouted from the rooftops, yet even employees are unaware.

This lack of awareness is not only plaguing retail companies. A few months ago, I posted about this topic after I attended a networking event at NYU:
I attended a program through NYU’s Wasserman Center today and had the opportunity to meet and network with employees and recruiters from big name companies like Deloitte, Morgan Stanley, IBM, AOL, Macy’s, Black Rock, and Barclays. Since I am looking to get into the CSR field, I asked them what their respective companies were doing in this space. I was a bit disappointed to find that most of them were unable to speak to anything significant their companies have achieved in terms of CSR. I happen to know that most of these companies are taking sustainability concerns into account to some degree, with the exception of Barclays, who will be receiving a Public Eye ”Award” this month. Therefore, this lack of awareness points to a significant problem.
So why is this happening?  Why do employees (especially those, like myself, who are interested in participating in CSR initiatives!) remain an untapped resource?  I'd love to hear your thoughts about how to solve such a problem!  

Friday, March 30, 2012

How can companies educate the public on environmental issues?

Environmental messaging is becoming increasingly common in the realm of consumer products.  Plastic bottles scream "recycle me!", brown bags asked to be reused, and old electronics, donated.  Companies claim their products are energy and water efficient, natural and safe.  These messages, while certainly significant, may wrongfully assume that the customer is familiar with the underlying issues at stake.  Do average consumers actually understand the issue of e-waste? Do they grasp the severity of worldwide water shortages?  Are they aware of propensity of marine plastic pollution?

Unfortunately, the level of environmental literacy in this country  is rather low (see this study on Americans' knowledge of climate change, for instance), so many consumers may lack a full understanding as to why they should recycle, donate, or even care about the environmental attributes of a particular product or company.  Which raises the question: should companies educate consumers on the actual environmental issues associated with their products' manufacture, use and disposal?

Some forward-thinking companies have already put forth programs that aim to educate consumers in this capacity.  For instance, Levis not only manufactures a jean using substantially less water, but also educates consumers as to why they should care about water conservation.  The company encourages their customers to wash their jeans less and their website includes water saving tips and insight into the problem of water scarcity.

Other companies, such as The North Face, have also made it a priority to educate consumers about environmental issues and have teamed up with non-profits to do so.  Protect Our Winters and the Alliance for Climate Education have partnered to create the program,  "Hot Planet, Cool Athletes", which is generously funded by The North Face.  This program sends professional winter sports athletes to high schools across the country to educate students on climate change.

Clearly, there is opportunity present for companies to engage with consumers on environmental issues.  Those companies that have already considered the environment in their operations would certainly benefit from having a more informed consumer base that understands and values the importance of such efforts.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Eco-Label Recommendations for Improvement

Overall, it is obvious that there are major issues that plague even some of the most popular and highly respected eco-labels. The following post will briefly discuss how some of these challenges can be overcome to strengthen eco-labeling in general.

Increase Regulation and Oversight

One of the most attractive features of eco-labeling is that it has the potential to drive sustainability without the need for government intervention. However, upon analysis it seems that there needs to be some regulation in the eco-labeling space in the United States. Greenwashing, redundancy, meaningless criteria, and increasing certification costs all point to this. A regulating body could provide consumers with assurance that eco-labels are credible and trustworthy, regardless of how many there may be on the market. To some extent the FTC Green Guides already addresses these issues, but because the FTC is not an enforcing agency, it has not eliminated such problems (FTC, 1998). Therefore, it is recommended that either the FTC is provided with enforcing power, or that a separate enforcing agency upholds their guidelines. By preventing labeling agencies from engaging in such greenwashing, eco-labels will once again become the reliable educational tools they were set out to be and consumer mistrust will be abated.

Facilitate Communication and Consolidation among Labeling Agencies

The current labeling environment includes hundreds of very similar labels, which confuses consumers and complicates the certification process for producers. It has already been proven that competition among eco-labels is detrimental; therefore it is recommended that labels that are similar or identical are consolidated (Mahenc, 2009). Consolidating labels will increase consumer recognition because there will be less labels on the market for consumers to know about. Increased communication among labeling agencies must be facilitated in order to encourage consolidation. The Global Ecolabelling Network is the perfect platform for such conservations. Members of the GEN should be provided with an incentive to team up with similar labeling agencies to decrease the amount of competition among them. A consolidation fund could be started to provide monetary support to agencies that decide to revise their criteria in the name of consolidation. This would allow more labels to achieve the market penetration they seek and need to be successful in achieving their objectives.

Raise awareness

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, in order for eco-labels to meet their primary objective of informing consumers’ purchasing decisions, consumers must know more about them and the accolades they verify. When consumers do not recognize the label on a product, neither of the remaining two eco-label objectives can be met. Therefore, it is recommended that eco-labeling agencies unveil awareness campaigns regarding their labels. There are numerous avenues for spreading the word about the meaning of a particular eco-label including print ads, commercials, signage, and websites. If the eco-labeling agency charges a small additional fee at the time of certification, this money can be put towards awareness-raising. Producers will likely not oppose such a fee, because it ensures the reaction they seek from consumers and the competitive edge they seek in the marketplace from using a label. These measures, in combination with newly developed smart phone applications such as the Consumer Reports Eco-Label App, will allow eco-labels to achieve the visibility they need to really make an impact and drive sustainability (Consumer Reports, 2011c). In general, this area has been lacking and the entire eco-labeling space has suffered because of this.

Overall, these recommendations seek to improve one of the most prolific tools available to consumers regarding green product education. Eco-labeling is extremely important in order for green products to receive the preference they deserve among concerned consumers. Eco-labels encourage green production, drive sustainability in the marketplace, and lessen industry’s overall impact on the environment. More efforts should be taken to improve the quality of eco-labeling in meeting these worthy objectives.


Federal Trade Commission. (1998). Guides for the use of environmental marketing claims. Retrieved from

Mahenc, P. (2009). Wasteful Labeling. Jounrnal of Agricultural and Food Industrial Organization, 7(2).

Consumer Reports. (2011c). New Eco-Label mobile app for iPhone and iPad decodes green product labels and claims. Retrieved from

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Eco-Label Challenge #5: Certification Costs are Misused and can be a Barrier to Entry

Unfortunately, eco-label certification can become a money-making scheme for third party eco-label agencies. A recent article concerning eco-labeling uncovers that, “Manufacturers are often required to make payments to the owner of the eco-label in order to display it on their products, risking low-bar standards for qualification” (Covington, 2011). Though payments to eco-label agencies are certainly necessary in order to fund product testing, audits, and information gathering, if it becomes excessive or misdirected, companies are essentially able to buy their way in, which jeopardizes the integrity of the entire labeling operation.

A recent study entitled “Wasteful Labeling” addresses this very problem. This study argues that labeling will not be able to solve the problem of verifying claims made by businesses if the labeling agency itself is untrustworthy (Mahenc, 2009). The study shows through economic analyses that when the labeling agency is trustworthy, the fee charged for labeling raises revenue with a minimal loss in terms of efficiency, and the money raised is analogous to a tax dedicated to funding the agency’s information gathering and other operations (Mahenc, 2009). Following this, if the agency is untrustworthy, it may charge fees that exceed the appropriate level in order to generate revenue. Similarly, an untrustworthy agency may divert the fees charged for labeling from their primary purpose of collecting information to raise additional revenue. In the first scenario where the price of certification increases, the actual price of the consumer good may also increase to compensate for this, which is a definite detriment. In addition, the high price of certification may discriminate against smaller, less profitable companies that meet the labeling criteria but cannot afford associated costs of labeling their product. In the second scenario, money that should be used to verify product claims communicated by an eco-label is diverted elsewhere, meaning that the thoroughness and quality of the actual certification process is compromised. It is clearly evident that labeling agencies need to be honest and credible to avoid the problems associated with certification costs but this is difficult to ensure in an environment where eco-labels are unregulated.

Next Up: My recommendations for overcoming the 5 challenges facing eco-labels!


Covington, P. (2011). Is it greenwashing or too many eco-labels that is the problem? Triple Pundit. Retrieved from

Mahenc, P. (2009). Wasteful Labeling. Jounrnal of Agricultural and Food Industrial Organization, 7(2).

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Eco-Label Challenge #4: The Criteria Development Process for Labeling is Faulty

One of the major objectives of eco-labeling is driving sustainability. When consumers choose an eco-labeled product over one without such labels, they are making the assumption that such product benefits the environment in some way. “To utilize its full potential it is necessary that the criteria for the label are strategically developed, i.e. the objectives for those processes being clearly defined and strategies to reach these objectives being laid out within criteria development processes” (Bratt et al., 2011, p. 1631). Unfortunately, due to insufficient criteria development on part of the labeling agencies, this is not always the case.

A recent study assessed two well-respected Swedish eco-labels to determine any gaps in the current criteria development processes in relation to a strategic sustainability perspective. The study demonstrates that most labeling programs lack a full system perspective and a definition of sustainability as well as a statement of objectives to direct the criteria development processes (Bratt et al., 2011). In result, eco-labels do not consider the total environment impacts of a product, but just focus on very specific impact mitigation. Moreover, criteria development rarely goes beyond the present. Labeling agencies do not inform producers about upcoming changes in criteria or suggest improvements producers should make for future certifications (Bratt et al., 2011). This makes it difficult for producers to keep up with changing standards and represents a lost opportunity for encouraging innovation. Overall, criteria development is one of the most important components of a successful eco-labeling operation, but it is often not as effective as it could be in driving sustainability.


Bratt, C., Hallstedt, S., Robert, K.H., Broman, G., Olkmark, J. (2011). Assessment of eco-labelling criteria development from a strategic sustainability perspective. Journal of Cleaner Production, 19, 1631-1638.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Eco-Label Challenge #3: Criteria for Labels are Weak or Meaningless

The plethora of eco-labels assures coverage of nearly all aspects of environmental impact, from production to disposal. Unfortunately, some labels make claims that are insignificant or meaningless. This is best illustrated by labels that claim a product is free of CFCs. The Consumer Aerosol Products Council, a non-profit organization sponsored by 3M, promotes the use of the “No CFCs” logo on aerosol cans and offers it to companies to display on products (Consumer Reports, 2011). However, because CFCs were banned from virtually all consumer products in the United States as a result of the Montreal Protocol in 1978, this label is completely pointless and misleading. An unsuspecting consumer may incorrectly assume that products without such label contain CFCs and choose to buy those that are certified. This provides companies using these meaningless labels with an unfair advantage over those that are not using them, when in fact all products are produced according to the same standard mandated by law. In a similar fashion, some eco-labels use sub-standard criteria for certification. Eco-labels are meant to verify the claims of leading, innovative companies that perform above the status quo in terms of environmental impact. Labels with low standards falsely portray a message of superior environmental performance, further deteriorating the integrity of labeling schemes. Such meaningless and weak criteria are certainly having an impact on the effectiveness of eco-labeling in meeting their three objectives.


Consumer Reports. (2011b). Label search results: No CFCs. Greener Choices. Retrieved from

Eco-Label Challenge #2: Low Awareness and Recognition among Many Consumers

Some eco-labels such as USDA Organic or Energy Star have acquired widespread recognition and have become household names. However, most eco-labeling schemes suffer from lack of consumer awareness. In fact, one study found that found that consumer awareness is lower than twenty percent for non-major NGO labels (Sullivan, 2010). Since eco-labels are often very simply designed and contain little or no explanatory text, consumers must be able to recognize them in order to know what environmental accolades they verify. The abundance of eco-labels makes this incredibly confusing and difficult. There are simply too many labels and designs in use today for the average consumer to have knowledge of them all.

When you consider what the average eco-label looks like to consumers, it becomes increasingly evident that this lack of awareness is a major issue. For instance, the Leaping Bunny Cruelty-Free label is merely a picture of a jumping rabbit (Leaping Bunny, 2009). Consumers are expected to understand that the placement of such label on cosmetic and household products assures that no animal testing is used in any phase of product development by the company, its laboratories, or suppliers. However, the picture used is vague and does not directly communicate the product’s benefits. Unfortunately, consumers will likely just ignore the presence of the label altogether if they cannot decipher its meaning.

This problem of lack of recognition is intensified by the fact that retailers such as Wal-Mart and Whole Foods are developing their own labeling schemes for use on the products they sell, adding a whole new slew of eco-labels to the already massive assortment (Bogdan, 2010). Considering that most consumers take only a few seconds to make purchasing decisions regarding household items, this is a serious downfall to eco-labels on a whole. Consumers will not spend extra time questioning the meaning of a label they do not recognize, and therefore eco-labels are unable to meet their objectives. This apparent lack of market penetration for any single eco-label is a serious problem for eco-labels to overcome.


Sullivan, R. (2010). What’s in a label? ECOS, 20, p. 156-157.

Leaping Bunny. (2010). What is the leaping bunny label?

Bogdan, L. (2010). Eco labels 101: green certifications explained! Retrieved from

Monday, March 5, 2012

The Lorax Movie Review

A.O. Scott at the NYT claims that The Lorax "is a noisy, useless piece of junk, reverse-engineered into something resembling popular art in accordance with the reigning imperatives of marketing and brand extension." Woah there. Let's not forget that the target audience for The Lorax is children under the age of 12. The little boy sitting next to me at the movie theater whole-heatedly appreciated the musical numbers and colorful mayhem, getting out of his seat and dancing along. Yes, A.O. Scott, kids do want Car chases, Kooky grandmas, and Taylor Swift. What's wrong with delivering a worthy message of the importance of environmental conservation through a medium kids truly appreciate?

I think that The Lorax movie successfully promotes the book's original message in an entertaining way. The only problem is that the message is grounded in a very outdated generalization about corporate behavior. Things have changed since 1971 when Dr. Seuss first wrote The Lorax. Today, the generalization that all companies are operating with a blind eye toward the environment is exaggerated and misleading. Sustainability strategy is considered essential to big-name corporations such as Nike and Best Buy, and all sorts of innovative programs are being developed to mitigate industry impact on the environment. Maybe the producers of The Lorax movie attemtped to compensate for this by offering corporate sponsorships to companies with a common goal of preservation like Seventh Generation, Whole Foods, and Stonyfield Farms. However, The Lorax Movie still pits industry and environment against each other, when the reality is moving toward increased collaboration.

I do agree with Scott on one thing, though. It would have been nice to see the female character, Audrey, do more than just garner male attention in the movie. Unfortunately, however, the charming and beautiful high school woman was incapable of doing anything useful (she even dropped the Truffala seed during the car chase...whoopsies!). Perhaps addressing sexism and environmental degradation in one animated children's movie is just asking too much.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Eco-Label Challenge #1: Abundance of Labels Creates Confusion and Mistrust

The eco-label trend has virtually exploded in recent years. Essentially, there is an eco-label for nearly every type of environmental attribute possible. Though this is beneficial in the sense that companies are guaranteed to find a label that properly fits their product’s environmental accolades, it is also a major problem. With 140 eco-labels in the United States and 426 worldwide, there is bound to be redundancy and overlap among them. Indeed, Duke University’s Corporate Sustainability Initiative reports that in a recent study, forty-three percent of labeling agencies recognized redundancy of their label in the marketplace (Vermeer et al., 2010). This is a challenge for companies, because many are forced to seek multiple certifications for the same accolade to be considered legitimate. Additionally, this is problematic for consumers, as the diversity of eco-labels within a particular product category creates confusion. When there are too many eco-labeling schemes serving the same industry sector, consumers begin to question which of these labels are actually meaningful. This abundance results in consumer distrust of such labels, since it communicates to them that there is no standard or regulation for eco-label creation and use.

One example of this problem involves labels certifying ethical treatment of livestock. Two well-respected labels governing this sector, the Animal Welfare Approved label and the Certified Humane label are extremely similar in terms of their requirements for certification. Both verify the humane treatment of farm animals from birth through slaughter and have similar standards for space, handling, and feeding. This redundancy in labeling criteria forces farmers to decide which certification to pursue; choosing the label that best communicates their accomplishments to consumers is of utmost importance. Unfortunately, it is difficult to predict which label will resonate with consumers, especially because the multiplicity of labels falsely implies that there is a difference between them. Clearly, competition among equally reliable labels can be detrimental for all parties involved.

Even when two labels certifying the same product type have differing stringency of criteria, the competition between them can still be problematic. A 2009 study analyzed the competition and environmental effects of multiplicity of eco-labels within a given market. The study found that when information is incomplete, or in other words when consumers are unaware of the environmental benefits of the two eco-labeled products, the existence of two labels leads to a rise in prices and a reduction in the environmental qualities of the goods (Youseff & Abderrazak, 2009). This is because the incentive to certify products to the highest standards becomes null when consumers do not take into account the label in their decision to buy a product. This is certainly an unfortunate effect of the abundance of labels in use today.

Next up is Challenge #2: Low Awareness and Recognition among Many Consumers.  Stay tuned!


Youssef, A.B., & Abderrazak, C. (2009). Multiplicity of eco-labels, competition, and the environment. Journal of Agricultural and food Industrial Organization, 7(2).

Vermeer, D., Clemen, B., Michalko, A., Nguyen, D., Noyes, C., Akella, A., Bunting, J. (2010). An overview of ecolabels and sustainability certifications in the global marketplace. J.S. Golden, (ed.). Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, Duke University

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Eco-Labels 101

As someone who is extremely neat and organized, the clean and concise manner in which an eco-label delivers an environmental message is attractive to me. This small graphic affixed to product packaging can communicate an immense amount of information to a consumer about the environmental impact of a product in a highly visible way. An eco-label is defined by the Global Ecolabelling Network (GEN) as:
a label which identifies overall environmental preference of a product (i.e.good or service) within a product category based on life cycle considerations. In contrast to a self-styled environmental symbol or claim statement developed by a manufacturer or service provider, an eco-label is awarded by an impartial third party to products that meet established environmental leadership criteria (2004).
Consumer Reports lists 140 eco-labels that are commonly found on U.S. products. Eco-labels are an important consumer education tool because they provide simple information about the environmental attributes of a product at the point of purchase. Recognized labels can communicate to a consumer that a product meets a particular environmental standard in just a glance. Eco-labels are more useful to consumers than lengthy corporate responsibility reports or ratings websites because they are, theoretically, simple to use and require little time, research, and effort.

Eco-labels have the potential to meet three major objectives. Eco-labels are first and foremost a tool for educating consumers and building awareness of sustainable product options. By simply observing an eco-label on a product, consumers are informed of the environmental attributes of the product and can differentiate between brands. The eco-label provides environmental information about a product that consumers cannot reasonably ascertain on their own. Even if consumers are not already concerned about environmental impacts of products, eco-labels can “serve as a communication vehicle for awareness transfer to the market at large” (Bratt et al., 2011, p. 1631).

Secondly, eco-labels offer producers an opportunity to display their environmental accomplishments in a way that is verified by a third party. An eco-label “offer[s] a market incentive to environmentally innovative and progressive businesses” (GEN, 2004). Eco-labels give businesses a leading edge in the market and also explain any price premiums that are often inherent in products that are responsibly produced. Overall, “the label is expected to affect the purchasing decision in favor of the labeled product and thereby be morally as well as economically rewarding for those companies that have been awarded the label” (Bratt et al., 2011, p. 1631).

The final objective of eco-labels is to drive sustainability. Eco-labels are meant to be a market-based instrument for improving environmental conditions. By encouraging innovative businesses and green consumerism, eco-labels can potentially eliminate the need for command and control solutions to environmental problems, or at least set the stage for future legislation.

This all sounds brilliant, right? Unfortunately, however, the eco-label world is not without its problems. In my next few posts, I will highlight the major challenges that eco-labels face in achieving the above objectives and will offer recommendations for improvement. Stay tuned for Challenge #1: Abundance of Labels Creates Confusion and Mistrust.


Bratt, C., Hallstedt, S., Robert, K.H., Broman, G., Olkmark, J. (2011). Assessment of eco-labelling criteria development from a strategic sustainability perspective. Journal of Cleaner Production, 19, 1631-1638.

Global Ecolabelling Network. (2004). Information paper: Introduction to ecolabelling.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Maya Albanese: A Leader in Sustainable Business

Maya Albanese is a young, bright, and influential player in the world of sustainable business.  She is less than five years out of college and has already made quite a name for herself through her various endeavors across the globe.  Maya is currently a part of the Rainforest Alliance team and charged with expanding the portfolio of companies that sustainably and efficiently source, sell, and promote tropical commodities such as coffee and bananas.  She previously worked as an assistant buyer of furniture at Williams-Sonoma Inc  and at the Commercial Service of the U.S. Embassy in Paris, France.  Maya, a self-described “yes-woman”, takes every opportunity she can: she spent seven months backpacking through South America while writing, learning the Spanish language, and doing conservation work.  In her spare time, she writes a column for GreenBiz called “How She Leads”, participates in cause modeling, launches activist campaigns, maintains a well-read travel blog, and serves as a brand ambassador for responsible organizations.  Maya clearly has a wealth of experience in the sustainability space (and beyond), so I sat down to learn more about her and her career thus far.

On her passion for sustainability and her chosen career path:

Maya was brought up in a family in which being a part of the solution was encouraged.  “I’ve always known that I wanted to make change.  I come from a family of activists and from a culture of being politically engaged and not sitting on the sideline.”  Maya’s father is a professor of economics and consumer behavior and her mother is a composer and musician, which, she explains, is probably where she derived her creativity, business sense and ambition.  “I used to be a total nag in terms of getting people to recycle and be responsible about the environment and then when I got to college I realized that was actually something about me that wasn’t just annoying.  It was something I was naturally passionate about and it would be easy for me to work in and it wouldn’t even feel like work.”

“Working with the private sector and working with big business in operations to make positive change appeals to me more than being just an activist”, she states.  Maya has worked in the public and private sector, and currently works in the NGO world at Rainforest Alliance.   “Throughout my entire career it has always been about sustainability and environmental and social change. What I’ve realized is you have to play with the big guys because they are the ones with the influence and the resources.  They’re some of the biggest economies in the world so sitting there pointing your fingers from the sidelines is not being a part of the solution.”

On public, private, and non-profit sectors and her work in each:

“They’re definitely really different and I wouldn’t say I had a preference but I did have a goal upon graduating university that I wanted to try out public, non-profit, and private sectors”.  Maya elaborated: “I wanted to go on the inside of these structures and figure out how they work and which I liked the best because it’s important to have idea of all the full landscape of all the stakeholders involved.  The public, private, and non-profit sectors all have really key roles to play and none are more important or better so I’ve really valued my time working [within each of them] but they’re all really different.” 

Maya had the opportunity to hold a true business role while working in corporate merchandising  at Williams Sonoma.   Her role as sustainability assistant there was something that she did out of passion.   She told me her experience at Williams Sonoma was really interesting because it was very bottom-line driven.  “I got a really good window in on what it’s like to be a sustainability person at a company where sustainability is not really tied to people’s performance reviews.  It was really quite an uphill battle.  At Rainforest Alliance everyone is working there because they’re passionate about its work, not the money.  They are working at it because they like Rainforest Alliance and their morals align with its mission and that’s really cool to see.  Here I don’t have to influence other people because they already get it.  I think another advantage to working at an NGO like Rainforest Alliance is that you have the opportunity to consult with a bunch of companies that want to partner with you versus being confined to the structure and desires of one corporate board or entity."

Maya then provides me with some wise words concerning her experiences: “Public sector, private sector, and non-profit are all huge umbrella terms generalizations and working in a sustainability role at Williams Sonoma is nothing like working in a sustainability role at Nike or Microsoft because they face completely different issues. Companies that are publicly owned can’t make sweeping changes and broad general public statements like a company owned by a family for 200 years can.  So you in deciding your career you have to take each open position as a different animal not by sector necessarily."

On the name she’s made for herself and her advice for other young people interested in this field:

Maya is incredibly humble and thanks me when I mention how impressed I am with how far she’s come in just a few years since she graduated.  “Every day I wished I’ve accomplished so much more.  I guess that’s the unfortunate symptom of being an over achiever and someone who is anxious to make change in the world.”  As for advice, Maya says it’s all about being passionate but rational.   “The number one reason I’ve gotten the jobs I’ve gotten and the exposure I’ve gotten is because I’ve put myself out there and said, “I know I don’t have a graduate degree or an MBA but hey, I’m gonna do a damn good job at this because I’m passionate about it”.  When you put your mind to anything, you can do it well. I think people really want to see confidence and passion and enthusiasm and dedication to the company and the cause.  Nobody is going to succeed in the sustainability world unless they are a cheerleader and a preacher and someone who can really influence the people at the top and the consumers at the bottom.   You have to pair that passion and creativity and idealism with straight business sense.  I’m always going to want to do more than I can do and I have to consider the bottom line because ultimately nothing is going to succeed for you in your career unless you have that rational, practical business-minded sense.   I think that’s why I’ve succeeded. People may be drawn to my energy or passion, but they wouldn’t hire me if they also didn’t think I was knowledgeable and rational about what’s possible and what’s not possible.”

 On commonalities among the women she has interviewed for her How She Leads column:

“I wouldn’t say there is any over-arching theme or trend. I think what is interesting about the column is how varied [the women’s] backgrounds are…the type of woman in the role in terms of experience and passion varies by company and what that company needs to work on the most.”

“To get really down-home gritty about it, women in general see sustainability as an issue affecting generations to come.  As women we have a maternal instinct and a lot of these women [that Maya has interviewed] have children and they want to see that their children’s children have clean drinking water and have fresh air to breath and good food.  Being a mom, or even just being a woman if you haven’t had kids, makes you much more inherently aware and concerned about this issue of sustainability for future generations.  That’s often a response I get when I ask women why they are passionate about [sustainability].”

Friday, February 17, 2012

Voting and Shopping are Separate But Equal: A Response to Sami Grover

This is a response to the blog post on Tree Hugger entitled, 5 Reasons Why Voting and Shopping are Not the Same Thing by Sami Grover.

While I certainly agree with the title statement, shopping and voting (i.e. political activism) are not the same thing, I don't think that the underlying sentiment that political action is somehow superior to conscious consumerism is accurate. The two are separate but equal means to achieving the same end: that is a healthy environment and society.  Ethical consumerism is not seeking to inspire lasting political change, specifically. There is rampant frustration with the political system and many are tired of waiting for regulation to pass that would reform corporate behavior and protect environment and society. Responsible consumers bypass the need for a political middleman to communicate their desires and instead send their message directly to corporations (which have arguably more power and influence than the government anyway).

Canned tuna companies were pressured through consumer boycotts to end fishing practices that endangered dolphins before governmental legislation mandated such. While I certainly agree that systematic and lasting change is necessary, why do we assume that it must originate from governmental legislation?  Why downplay an alternate route to the same kind of social and environmental change? Whatever the vehicle of change you choose, the important thing is that you get behind the wheel and drive!

2/20/12 Update: Sami Grover responded to my response here.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Trending Now: Green Consumer Education Through Smart Phone Apps

Currently, there are no well-known formal consumer education campaigns that provide direct instruction on shopping green, but there are numerous educational tools of the free-choice or self-directed variety. These tools can be split into two categories: pre-purchase, which are tools that must be consulted before a consumer shops, and point-of-purchase, which are tools that can be consulted at the moment a consumer decides to buy a particular product. One recent trend in point-of purchase consumer education is the use of smart phone applications. These types of point-of-purchase tools can be especially effective because they do not require planning and pre-conceived concern about the environment on part of the consumer. The following provides a brief overview of four notable apps that seek to inspire green consumerism.

The Good Guide is perhaps the most developed and advanced of the current offerings ( The Good Guide uses a cell phone’s camera to scan the bar code of a product and then provides an overall product rating that is comprised of three sub-scores based on health, environment, and society. Users can establish filters that customize ratings based on issues that are most important to them such as climate change or worker’s rights.

The recently launched Ingredients Inside app by Clorox is another tool that allows users to take pictures of barcodes ( When consumers scan the bar code of any Clorox product, they are able to “ take a closer look at the fine print on the Clorox family of products”. The company launched the app to provide customers with the information necessary in choosing the cleaning products that are right for their families and homes.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium ( and Blue Ocean Institute ( have each developed their own apps that provide sustainable seafood and sushi rankings. The Seafood Watch App by Monterey Bay Aquarium enables GPS so users can share and find restaurants and retailers that sell sustainable seafood near them. Blue Ocean Institute’s app provides “wine pairings and recipes to inspire delicious ways for you to enjoy your ocean-friendly seafood”.

ConsumerReports launched an app last month that allows users to search through a directory of ecolabels ( The app offers a label “report card,” which provides clear guidance on the meaning and significance of any ecolabel in question. As the number of ecolabels on the market swells above 400 worldwide, this app will certainly prove useful.

These smart phone apps are groundbreaking new platforms for green consumer education, but they do have their limitations. Perhaps the most obvious is that only consumers that own a smart phone can access the tool at the point-of-purchase. This issue of accessibility remains a significant barrier to the wide-spread use of such smart phone applications. Moreover, research on the effectiveness of smart phone applications in promoting green consumerism needs to be done before any claims can be made about their success. How often do consumers use the apps after they are downloaded? How much influence do product scores have on consumers’ purchasing decisions? We will likely see more companies and organizations unveiling similar apps in coming months, despite this lack of data on their effectiveness in driving green consumerism.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

What language should we use when speaking about sustainability? Reactions from the NY GreenBiz Forum

At the GreenBiz Forum, one of the most common questions attendees asked was this:
How do I get my CEO or CFO to support environmental and social initiatives that I develop?

This question is certainly legitimate. Those in a CSR function at a company must convince executives of the importance in the strategies they develop, which is not an easy task when the strategies are not directly related to core business function. As challenging as this might seem, the resounding answer to the above question is very simple: show executives how such initiatives will benefit the company. Explain to them how they will result in financial gain and voilĂ : you will get the attention and support you want.

Demonstrating how CSR strategy produces revenue requires that you can talk the talk. The language you use when speaking to executives cannot be full of scientific jargon and environmental concepts. Indeed, Curtis Ravenel from Bloomberg urged all of us to learn the language of the financial community and use it exclusively. Members of the sustainability community so often want to highlight the importance of working for environmental and social good, but even the most eloquent and perfectly-argued pitch will fall upon deaf ears if it is not in the language its audience knows best.

At first, those who strongly advocate for environmental and social causes might feel like they are “selling out” by resorting to highlighting exclusively financial benefits. The motto that CSR is not about the values, just about the value might leave a bad taste in their mouth. The fact is however, there is no better way to promote environmental and social programs to those in decision-making positions at companies.

As a former educator, I would never teach elementary school students using the same language I use when speaking with my colleagues. If I did, I would lose their interest and understanding within minutes. Encouraging certain behavior and understanding requires a thorough reading of your audience and the finesse to frame your message in a relevant and meaningful way. This strategy is important to consider when communicating with anyone, but is especially applicable when pitching an idea to your CEO!

Friday, January 20, 2012

The Case for Education in Driving Corporate Sustainability and Green Consumerism

Because consumer culture is so deeply engrained within American society, it will probably require a major and rather unlikely paradigm shift before Americans begin to reduce their spending in the name of being more responsible citizens. Therefore, the push should be toward responsible consumer behavior instead of less spending (though this can certainly be debated!). Directing the money consumers spend toward more responsible products and companies is feasible and requires little sacrifice on the part of the consumer. Moreover, harnessing the purchasing power of the millions of consumers in the United States and using it to promote sustainable business practices can have a positive impact on the global environment and society. If consumers’ disposable income was effectively directed toward more sustainable producers, distributors, and retailers, a clear message could be sent to the rest of corporate America regarding the importance of conducting business in a responsible manner. Best practice would need to become common practice in order for companies to stay afloat in such a consumer-driven climate.

In order for this to be effective, companies that lead the way in terms of their environmental performance need to be rewarded with the patronage of concerned consumers. Unfortunately, consumers are confused about which companies are genuine in their efforts to minimize impacts because of the prevalence of greenwashing.

Greenwashing is a major obstacle in driving green consumerism because it makes it difficult for consumers to distinguish between truly responsible products and those that are only responsible at the surface. Companies that are genuine in their corporate responsibility efforts cannot reap the full benefits of consumer preference if there are greenwashed products in competition with them.

Though the FTC Green Guides have certainly helped curbed the prevalence of greenwashing, perhaps the most effective strategy in driving green consumerism is consumer education. Consumers need to be armed with reliable information about products and companies in order to make environmentally responsible choices. Customarily, consumer education has included life skills such as budgeting, balancing a checking account, preparing for a job, and performing price comparisons. However, consumer education has recently evolved to include educating consumers on the environmental qualities of a particular product and the environmental impact of consumerism in general. This will be integral in shifting consumer spending toward greener products and companies.

Indeed, current literature suggests that education positively impacts responsible consumer behavior. A 2010 study evaluated the impact of free-choice environmental education methods such as product labels, packaging, mass media, internet, and attendance of meetings on green consumption behavior (Pearcy). The study analyzed 236 survey responses and found a positive, significant relationship between participation in informal environmental education and green purchasing (Pearcy, 2010). Additionally, an economic study on whether green production can replace public and governmental interventions in the marketplace suggests that increased education of consumers is necessary before this can be achieved (Eriksson, 2004). The study demonstrates that there is a significant need for education about environmental impacts of products and services in order to increase the degree of green consumerism and in turn, decrease the overall environmental impact of the business sector (Eriksson, 2004). In sum, such studies show consumer education is a significant strategy for reforming the consumer product landscape and benefitting the environment and society.


Pearcy, D.H. (2010). Understanding the role of free choice environmental education in green consumption behavior. International Journal of Environment and Sustainable Development, 9,(1), 123-148.

Eriksson, C. (2004). Can green consumerism replace environmental regulation- A differentiated products example. Resource and Energy Economics, 26, 281–293

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Employee Engagement and Awareness

I attended a program through NYU’s Wasserman Center today and had the opportunity to meet and network with employees and recruiters from big name companies like Deloitte, Morgan Stanley, IBM, AOL, Macy’s, Black Rock, and Barclays. Since I am looking to get into the CSR field, I asked them what their respective companies were doing in this space. I was a bit disappointed to find that most of them were unable to speak to anything significant their companies have achieved in terms of CSR. I happen to know that most of these companies are taking sustainability concerns into account to some degree, with the exception of Barclays, who will be receiving a Public Eye ”Award” this month (see Therefore, this lack of awareness points to a significant problem.

There seems to be a major divide between people at a company who work in a CSR capacity and those that work on core business functions. This is a missed opportunity to capitalize on one of the primary internal benefits of CSR: employee retention and productivity. Employees want to work for responsible and forward-thinking companies and are more likely to stay at companies that have values similar to their own. Additionally, certain CSR projects like recycling programs cannot succeed without employee awareness and support. So why are so many employees being kept in the dark about CSR?

I’d venture to say this is not intentional, but simply an overlooked opportunity. To mend this divide, CSR initiatives within a company must be broadcasted to current employees through means beyond easily-neglected internal newsletters. CSR should generate excitement and buzz within and around a company, and achievements in this space should be used to attract potential employees. Furthermore, the CSR division should not be an independent entity within a company: employees should have opportunity for inter-departmental discussion and interaction regarding CSR.

PwC has some incredible employee engagement programs such as Project Belize incorporated into its CSR strategy. Employees cite these types of participatory programs as a source of pride in working for PwC. More companies could stand to benefit from engaging its employees in this way.