Has success spoiled Green Mountain Coffee?

image“Doing well by doing good” has become a cliche on the corporate-responsibility circuit. And for good reason–smart companies that serve their customers, provide opportunity to their workers and connect with their communities are likely to deliver superior shareholder returns.

But doing well can complicate the desire to do good. That’s been the challenge lately for the company formerly known as Green Mountain Coffee Roasters and now called Keurig Green Mountain Coffee.  Thanks to the sales of Keurig coffee machines and literally billions of single-serve coffee pods — which cannot be recycled — the Vermont-based firm has been on a tear, rapidly growing its revenues and stock price, while generating enormous amounts of waste. And to what end?

My story about Green Mountain was posted today at Guardian  Sustainable Business.  With apologies for my formatting problems today (I’m working on an iPad) here is a link that you can copy into a browser –  http://flip.it/sSCuG  – and here is how the story begins:

Not long ago, Green Mountain Coffee and it’s chief  executive, Bob Stiller,  were hailed as corporate responsibility pioneers. Green Mountain was the world’s largest buyer of Fair Trade coffee. The company offset the carbon emissions of its energy use and won a “green power” award from EPA. Twice, it topped CR Magazine’s list of the 100 best corporate citizens.

Today, Keurig Green Mountain (KGM), as it is now known, remains a corporate-responsibility standout. But the Vermont-based firm has a dark stain on its reputation. Since acquiring Keurig, the inventor of a single-serve coffee machine and its patented K-Cups, the company has become the driving force behind what critics say is an environmental scourge – the throwaway coffee pods made of plastic and aluminum foil that waste energy and materials, and are all but impossible to recycle.

Meanwhile, Stiller, an ex-hippie who briefly became a billionaire, was forced out of KGM after going on a spending spree with borrowed money, acquiring a 164-foot yacht, a $10m, 7,500-square-foot Palm Beach mansion and a $17.5m Manhattan condo formerly owned by New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. Green living, that’s not.

What went wrong with Green Mountain? In a word, success. Its story challenges easy pieties about doing well by doing good. This is a company that has done very well – but only by setting aside, at least for now, the environmental values it once held dear.

Green Mountain shareholders certainly aren’t complaining. Shares of Keurig Green Mountain (NASDAQ:GMCR) have grown 50% in the last year and 548% in five years. Sales have skyrocketed to $4.4bn last year from $492n in 2008. Those Keurig machines and the little plastic cylinders that pop into them have driven that growth, accounting for more than 90% of revenues.

Keurig Brewing Systems are now used in 16m US homes, about one in six, the company estimates. In 2013, KGM says it sold roughly 8.3bn “portion packs”.

To be fair, Keurig Green Mountain recognizes that the waste created by its coffee pods is a problem and promises to reduce it. Monique Oxender, the company’s senior director of corporate responsibility, told me: “Recycling is one of those areas where we have a lot of work to do, and we know that.”

This isn’t a simple story.  Keurig Green Mountain says it intends to make 100% of K-Cup packs recyclable. And the company argues that the single serve machines save resources in the the coffee-growing supply chain because the machines waste less coffee than traditional brewing methods.

But Keurig also has announced alliances with Coca Cola and Campbell Soup to develop single serve machines for cold drinks and soups. In the company’s latest annual report, CEO Brian Kelly writes: “Our mission is to have a Keurig® System on every counter and a beverage for every occasion.” That sounds like a recipe for a whole lot more waste.

By now, we should know better. As author and activist Amy Larkin told me:  “We now understand waste, water usage, manufacturing, mining, freight transport and packaging and their impact on the world. It seems madness to develop a product line that increases all of the above.

That said, Green Mountain remains a sustainability leader in other arenas, particularly as a strong support of the Fair Trade movement. I’m told that its coffee buying team is one of the most progressive and creative in the industry.

In other words, it’s complicated–a lot more complicated than “doing well by doing good. ”


The Power of One: Coca-Cola

“The Power of One” is a series of stories about people who have helped their companies become more sustainable. (See earlier stories on UL Environment, eBay, and Union Pacific.) They can’t do it alone, of course. But by coming up with a good idea, enlisting the help of others and making persuasive arguments, one person can change a company and, sometimes, more. Today’s story — the last in the series, at least for now — is about a manager at Coca-Cola who knows what it feels  like to have the weight of the world on his shoulders.

Meet Bryan Jacob. Back in 1990, when he made the cover of Weightlifting USA, he was a 21-year-old  student at Georgia Tech, hoping to represent the United States in Olympic Games. He did so, twice–in Barcelona in 1992, when he finished 18th in the Featherweight division and in Atlanta in 1996, when he finished 8th in the  Bantamweight  competition. He was the top U.S. performer in his weight class both times. He’s still fit–with a firm handshake.

It’s a good thing that Bryan is accustomed to heavy lifting  because his current job, as energy and climate protection manager for Coca-Cola, is a big one: He leads Coke’s global effort to reduce the greenhouse gases that are emitted from the 10 million–yes, 10 million!–vending machines and coolers that are part of Coke’s global bottling system. The company and its bottling partners have begun to replace coolers that use the  most common refrigerants, hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), which are also called   fluorinated gases (F-gases), with so-called natural refrigerants such as CO2, propane or isobutane.

Last year, the company and its bottling partners said they expected

that 100 percent of their new vending machines and coolers will be HFC-free by 2015. We’re hopeful our aggregate demand will encourage supply as a means of accelerating the transition to HFC-free refrigeration equipment. This announcement is a direct result of work with Greenpeace that began in 2000.

Yes, that’s right–Coke’s key partner on its journey to natural refrigeration is Greenpeace, which is better known for civil disobedience than corporate partnerships. “The Greenpeace relationship went from very confrontational to one of the most collaborative we have,” Bryan says.

Bryan, in fact, says he’s learned that NGO partners can deliver a lot of value when you are trying to ,spark change in a sprawling company like Coca-Cola. He’s worked with Greenpeace, WWF, the World Resources Institute and even Dr. Rajendra K. Pauchari, the sometimes-controversial chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Bryan once brought “Pachy,” as he’s called, to speak with a convention of Coke bottlers in Boca Raton.

Like politics, the environmental movement can create strange bedfellows.

I emailed Amy Larkin, who leads business partnerships for Greenpeace, to ask about her work with Bryan and Coca-Cola. She replied:

Bryan Jacob is the kind of colleague everyone wishes they had.  He is determined, indefatigable and inventive.  Bryan is also open to new ideas — even big crazy ideas that will require a huge amount of work to make real.  Maybe those are his favorite ideas…….not sure.

Greenpeace has worked with Bryan for many years on HFC-free refrigeration and some of our meetings were rather difficult.  Bryan’s entire demeanor and way of working always encourage constructive engagement and he is a central ingredient in our successful outcome with Coca-Cola.

As it happens, Bryan is not one of those environmentalists who grew up green. He figured that he’d one day build dams, bridges, highways and airports, as he worked towards a degree in civil engineering. (“Most of the time, I’m civil,” he jokes, “but when I get agitated I can get hostile.”) Instead, he took a job during college with an environmental consulting firm, got excited about the field and then found his way to Coca-Cola. [click to continue…]