Sustainable Dining at its Finest

Last weekend my husband and I went to Craigie on Main, a Cambridge, MA restaurant that has been on the top of our list for over a year. We were celebrating our first wedding anniversary, and as self-proclaimed “foodies", Craigie seemed like the perfect spot.  (For a review of our evening and the amazing meal we enjoyed, you can visit my husband’s blog See Dan Cook - yes, it’s a little shameless family plug but if you like cooking, Dan’s site is a must-read.)   Anyway, after four hours and 10+ courses, we were ready to head home. The check came, and tucked in the little pocket of the bill folder were two interesting pieces of paper. The first: a detailed survey for us to complete (the MBA in me loves surveys and the instant feedback they provide!). The second: a thin, double-sided slip of paper entitled, “Don’t just eat right with us…feel right about us”. As you can see below, the flier lists a number of ways that Craigie on Main is a committed and sustainable partner in the Cambridge food community.




Reading through the list of their “good deeds,” I couldn’t help but feel even more attached and loyal to my new favorite restaurant. So many companies shy away from telling their consumers what they’re doing for the community or for the environment because they worry they’ll expose themselves to criticism. After all, if you can openly claim that you reduced your paper usage by 5% this year (for example), what’s stopping someone from calling you up next year and saying, “Did you make it to 6%?”. It’s the old adage: no good deed goes unpunished.   Yet here this kind of transparency was welcome and refreshing. I felt good not just about the meal I’d enjoyed, but about supporting a restaurant that gives back in so many ways. My only critique? I wish Craigie had somehow educated me about their sustainability and responsibility practices before I actually set foot in the restaurant so that I could have made an informed decision to patronize the restaurant instead of some sort of happy accident (although in fairness this information is also listed on their website).   I know that transparency can make a company (and a person!) feel vulnerable. But, as I learned firsthand with Craigie, the relationship between that company and its customers will be so much stronger in the end. I wonder how long it'll be before we see disclaimers and pamphlets like this in other restaurants and businesses? In my opinion, it's only a matter of time until we see companies moving beyond simple eco-labelling or certification and into a more well-developed and deeper dialogue with their consumers. What do you think?

Eco-Labels, Greenwashing and You

Last week I attended an interesting dinner hosted by the Boston chapter of Net Impact. The event was called "Eco-labelling: From Certification to Greenwashing" and it featured Stas Antons, Principal at Jump To Green, Inc., a new start-up that uses interactive labelling technology to create personalized, green labels for products and companies. I've been thinking a lot lately about certification systems and labelling programs, so I was excited to attend. Before I go any further, it's probably a good idea to lay out exactly what I mean by labels. The way I see it, green or "eco" labels include any icon or graphic found on a packaged product or used in the rating of a product/company that somehow distinguishes that entity as environmentally or socially sustainable. Some examples include Energy Star (appliances), Fair Trade Certified (agriculture), LEED (buildings), and B Labs (companies).

Stas opened his remarks with a couple of interesting ideas. First, he said there are three essential problems with the green labelling movement (and trust me, it is quite the movement - a recent Detroit News article claimed there are over 300 organizations now offering their own form of certification for green products and companies):

1) There are no standards in labelling, so there is no way to tell what one label means as compared to another.

2) It's hard to tell the real story behind the product because labels will mean different things to different people. Take the USDA Organic label: not only is the word "organic" interpreted differently, but the USDA's website doesn't offer much clarity either!

3) Because there are so many certification and labelling programs out there, the level of trust on the part of consumers is very low. Add to that the fact that articulating a product or company's entire backstory or mission through a small label is practically impossible, and you've got a recipe for confusion.

The second point that Stas made, that I thought was particularly telling, was that he is considering removing the word "Green" from the name of his company. As we all can attest, these days the word green is so overused that it's practically meaningless. In fact, some would argue (myself included) that particularly savvy consumers now see the word Green and run in the opposite direction, thinking it's simply a marketing ploy to get people to open up their wallets.

This point led to a particularly interesting discussion on the role that consumers play in all of this. In general the consensus of those folks in attendance (a group of about 20 sustainability and CSR professionals) was that consumers don't quite understand the "language" of sustainability. While many consumers are interested in supporting green products and companies, their attempts to do so are often misguided. Instead of making smart choices based on education and facts, consumers often flock to words they know and understand, like "recycled content". This makes it challenging for consumers to separate "real" sustainability leaders from other half-hearted campaigns that just throw in this sort of lingo. In turn, it makes it difficult for companies genuinely focused on sustainability to stand out in a crowded field of green competitors.

It's true that our marketplace is saturated with green labels, and consumers must take responsibility for educating themselves and learning how to distinguish between real sustainability campaigns and imposters. But truly responsible companies must also engage their consumers in a candid and honest dialogue about what they're doing to make their products and services more environmentally sustainable.

While the conversation at dinner continued, I couldn't help but think of my own work at ABC. All day long I consider ways that the company can include and involve its employees in its philanthropic efforts, and one of the big reasons is so that each employee is educated enough to go out in the community and act as a company ambassador. When you think about it, each ABC employee is also a consumer - of ABC products and others - so the more educated the employees are about the environment, about philanthropy, and about sustainability in general, the better consumers they become.

Sure, companies must do better at engaging external audiences in this sustainability conversation. But I wondered, "What are they doing at home?".

I tried asking this of the group, and unfortunately (and perhaps tellingly), I couldn't really get a clear answer. The moment passed, and the conversation quickly turned to other issues like the premium price tag often attached to green products. All in all, it was a thought-provoking evening - but I just couldn't shake the feeling that we were missing a key point: if companies can't talk to their own employees about why their products are good for the Earth, how can they possibly tell a compelling story to their customers?

This is where the "You" part in this post's title comes in: have you worked for a company that's done a good job of communicating both externally and internally what it's doing for environmental or social responsibility? How did they do it? I'd really love to hear your examples/anecdotes/personal experiences. And I'm going to keep working on it on my end - both during my time at ABC as an intern and also as I head back to school and keep learning. I really do think that these initiatives - whether environmental, social, or philanthropic - must start at home (or in this case the office), and the more companies involve their employees in this conversation, the more loyal consumers they will eventually attract.

**Coincidentally, my dear friend Alexandra Michalko just published an article on The EcoInnovator entitled "Untangling the Web of Green Product Credentials". Another great perspective on eco-labelling and greenwashing issues. Thanks for sharing Alex!

Diary of An Intern: Learning How to Communicate Change

Over the last few weeks at my internship, I've gotten an insider's view of a corporate philanthropy program in action. I've learned about how ABC gives (through donations of money, product and time) and what kinds of programs it will support (generally, family health and wellness, although the guidelines get more narrow for more restricted things like cash grants). And so far it's been a great learning experience, one that has reinforced my view that, when done right, for-profit companies really can use corporate giving programs to not only better their communities but connect more effectively and genuinely with their customers and employees. In all of this learning, though, there's been one unexpected challenge: what happens when a company has put a corporate giving strategy in place...but no one pays attention?

Perhaps the biggest bump in the road that I've encountered so far is a true lack of knowledge, awareness, and unfortunately in a large handful of cases, what appears to be a disinterest in ABC's corporate philanthropy program. The lack of knowledge and awareness shouldn't surprise me - afterall, this is why I was hired in the first place (that whole "Socialization plan" I talked about a few weeks ago). But I've been a bit taken aback by some of the employees at ABC who don't seem all that interested in our program and what we're trying to accomplish.

Case in point: I've talked about those intern training meetings the company holds, where senior leaders from different functional areas come to talk to us about the work they do. At the start of every meeting, we go around the table and introduce ourselves and what department we're in. ABC has interns in finance, marketing, new business development, even packaging - and when those interns say what they're doing for the summer, no one raises an eyebrow. But when I explain I'm working in corporate giving - well, all I can say is it's like on TV when all of a sudden the record screeches to a halt and the room goes silent. People just don't seem to get it.

This got me thinking: what can I do to not only educate employees about corporate giving at ABC, but actually incentivize them to get involved?

I've often spoken with employees about the program, and while a little education helps them understand the point of it, it still doesn't seem to register with them that they can actually participate in it. They seem to "get" why it's important in the grand scheme of things (at least as it relates to making our consumers happy), but often it appears there still is a disconnect when it comes to why this should matter to them specifically. On the other hand, I know through both actual and anecdotal evidence that corporate giving is important and that it should matter to our employees - which I guess just demonstrates how assumptions (and perhaps my own idealism) can get in the way of actual progress.

Anyway, what's interesting is that this whole epiphany around how to effectively promote this kind of program and activate employees to get involved coincided with a recent conversation I had with a new friend of mine, Monica Nakielski. Monica is Principal at Harmeda, a CSR strategy consulting firm in Boston. Over the last few months she's been kind enough to serve as a source of information, background, and insights for me during my own career exploration (you can follow her on twitter and read her insights for yourself at @mnakielsi). Anyway, Monica and her colleague Heather Stagl (@enclaria) have just written a workbook entitled "Plan to Avoid Scattershot Change: A Step-by-Step Guide to Communicating for Change" and they were kind enough to give me a sneak peak. What's great about it is that it literally walks you through the steps involved in communicating change at your organization, including targeting your message to the specific audience you're trying to reach as well as carefully choosing the medium through which you'll transmit your story. It turns out that it's not as simple as just telling people about your program and expecting them to get on board - which, in hindsight, is what I have been doing without even realizing it.

One of my favorite sections of the workbook talks about how to "Entice, Educate, and Engage" the stakeholders involved in the change initiative, and I've been thinking a lot about how to do that at ABC. Interestingly, the Educate and Engage parts don't seem as tough as the Entice idea. In the end, I think it comes down to creating a message and action plan that is so compelling, transparent and genuine that the reasons to get involved seem obvious (which I know is easier said than done, but in theory shouldn't be too tough considering we're talking about philanthropy). I can educate employees about corporate giving, and I can recruit employees who have participated to engage their colleagues in the program.

But when messages constantly compete for employee attention and you can't offer incentives beyond "feeling good," how do you entice people to sit up and pay attention? 

This is a question I'll be working through over the next few weeks and I'd love your feedback. How have you caught people's attention and inspired change from within? What's worked? And what hasn't? And of course I'll keep you posted on my progress.

In the meantime, if you want to learn more about Monica and Heather's workbook, they're going to be hosting a webinar on July 17th for Net Impact members to introduce their ideas and walk people through the plan. You can check out more details on the The Changebase events tab under July or click here.