Pure Genius

The buzz at Burt's Bees is sustainability

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The company's queen bee of sustainability talks about reducing environmental footprints through innovative packaging and dumpster dives.

Yola Carlough left Chubby Hubby and Cherry Garcia at Ben & Jerry’s for beeswax lip balm and milk and honey body lotion at Burt’s Bees. Now the queen bee (a.k.a. director) of sustainability, Carlough has made some major, planet-friendly changes at the personal care products company.

I recently talked to Carlough about the environmental buzz at Burt’s Bees.


In 2007, you left a job as director of social mission for Ben & Jerry's, where sustainability is a big part of the culture. Tell me how this area of corporate sustainability and social responsibility has evolved.

Ben & Jerry’s has a reputation as a pioneer in social responsibility. The change over the years has been impressive and very welcome. We’re seeing more and more businesses coming on board and understanding the opportunity they have for reducing their environmental footprints as well as becoming more active for social change in their communities. More businesses are starting to understand that environmental respect is also driving significant cost savings.

What does sustainability mean for you now, at Burt’s Bees?

We look at it through our Greater Good business model. There are three components: a focus on natural health and wellness (through our products and workplace); social equity (ranging from workplace and sourcing practices to animal welfare); and environmental positioning (reducing energy, water and overall impact). We see sustainability as not just an environmental piece. It’s holistic. That’s a big part of our 2020 sustainability goals.

What are those 2020 goals?

1. To create zero waste;
2. To operate on 100 percent renewable energy;
3. To create 100 percent of our products as 100 percent natural products in the most environmentally progressive packaging available;
4. To have LEED-certified buildings;
5. To have 100 percent employee engagement in sustainability-- that’s the most challenging.

Does this culture come from more from the founders or the employees?

You may know Ben & Jerry’s was founded on this kind of culture. Burt’s Bees is a little different. Burt and Roxanne were intent on using their skills to create a natural product, but some of that was from necessity. Burt was a beekeeper, and they began by creating products from the bees’ products. So while they were very close to the earth, they hadn’t really developed the concept of operating the business and expanding into workplace practices. It wasn’t until our CEO John Replogle came on board [in 2006] that he and a team of employees started to formalize this way of thinking into a way we do business.

So some of it came directly from the employees?

Yes. We have the EcoBees--Environmentally Conscious Organization Bringing Ecologically Empowered Solutions. This is an employee group, and they started with the most basic things. Before 2006, we weren’t even recycling. So they removed wastebaskets from everyone's desk and set up waste separation stations. Since those early beginnings we have a number of practices that stem from EcoBees.

How do you educate your employees?

We have great fun with this. We had a dumpster dive two years ago. The EcoBees collected trash from our manufacturing site, and we had an all-company meeting. We had trash dumpsters come and dump five tons of trash over our parking lot, and we separated out from the trash what could have been reused, recycled or composted. We reduced the pile by 50 percent, and as a result, we have reduced our waste by 50 percent.

New lip balm packaging saves 900 miles of plastic shrink wrap a year.

How are you reducing your packaging?

Our soaps are wrapped in a very interesting material called TerraSkin, a substance made from minerals that is completely recyclable.

But our biggest success recently has been with our lip balm and lip shimmer, our best-sellers. The old ones had a shrink-wrap seal, and it was our own team that said, “Let’s stop using the shrink warp, and we’ll just move the label up so you have to break the label to open it.” So in one year, we’ve eliminated 900 miles of plastic film used in shrink wrap for the lip balm and 900 miles for the lip shimmer, which would have ended up in a landfill.

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Melanie D.G. Kaplan

Contributing Editor

Melanie D.G. Kaplan is a Washington, D.C.- based journalist. She is a regular contributor to The Washington Post and National Parks Magazine. Her website is www.melaniedgkaplan.com. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure