Ecoczar doesn’t wear a green crown. He doesn’t sit on a throne of recycled newspapers and bottle caps. He is an employee of Whole Foods Market, Inc., dressed in pragmatic casuals as he moves from store to store, from warehouse to warehouse on his mission to radicalize Whole Foods’ already environmentally friendly practices.
I do most of my shopping at Whole Foods. They are a pillar of my strict vegetarian organic regimen, at home and on the go. They are the only place I can count on to carry honest cold-pressed olive oil (don’t get me started!) and glass-bottled water. In other words, they are my lifeline to those segments of the food industry that, like me, are wiling to bypass convenience and convention for the sake of a “cleaner” process.
How clean is clean?
Back in 2003 Whole Foods decided it was “talking the talk but not walking the walk” of a truly green company. Incremental improvements were no longer a goal in themselves. The company set out to reduce, reuse & recycle to reach zero-waste by 2013.
Why zero waste? Because shoppers, employees, suppliers, shareholders and communities – the “stakeholders” in corporate speak – expect Whole Foods to put the latest environmental thinking into practice. And even if none of us had ever complained about the plastic bags, “the Earth is a major stakeholder,” says Lee. This suddenly makes sense when you are at the store looking at rows of certified organics. To a supermarket, the Earth is the ultimate supplier.
Ecoczar is born
Whole Foods did what corporations do when faced with a new challenge: made it someone’s job. An exotic title can point to a sideways entry into the corporate matrix. A consolation prize for high expectations and limited resources. In the Whole Foods’ case, the word locks in a hope and a demand for the creative wisdom of a born leader.
Ecoczar is a clearinghouse of ideas on sustainability. Some can be put into action without disturbing the existing order of things, like offsetting 100% of energy usage with renewable energy credits (RECs). Some, like in-store recycling, require employee and customer buy-in, training, logistics & reshuffling of daily duties. And some, like ecological carryout forks and knives, must wait for the rest of the world to come up with the right solution.
At the heart of ecoczar’s struggles is the idea to keep one step ahead his time. He and his tiny green army of employee-volunteers dividing their time between eco- and traditional duties are charged with promoting new practices before these practices have gained enough ground to stand on their own. Some are as simple as turning off the lights. Some are as complex as accounting for recycled bottles.
His greatest challenge is creating new habits. The programs he designs have to be simple and attractive and take root in the minds of customers & staff throughout the operations, to stay in place even after their champions have moved on
His greatest ally is human touch. Customers come to the store to get their chores done & rush out. They don’t read signs. But a live soul at the recycling station, explaining what, where & why, gets their attention. Likewise, employees have their own chores to complete before stores open, after they close, and throughout the day. Adding to their list is not easy. The company is always looking for something “extra” to win people over to the green cause.
Enter Greenopolis “smart” recycling kiosks. The machines take in empty bottles from the store, spit out a refund voucher, and entice the customer with points & rewards to visit the Greenopolis website.
The idea of environmental education disguised as a recycling kiosk appealed to Whole Foods. No longer a simple reverse vending machine, the kiosks are designed to be adaptable, store-specific, and endlessly innovative knowledge portals leading customers towards a greener life.
Already an outdated concept, “recycling” through Greenopolis is the first step towards “zero-waste” – a true goal and major inspiration behind the Whole Foods’ Green Mission and Greenopolis. The machine is a way to sell zero-waste to a stock-room employee or a busy mom shopping at the store.
But before it can sell anything to anyone, the machine itself has to be sold, store-by-store, to managers & the floor staff alike.
This is Ecoczar’s job and a challenge to his credibility with the operations. The concept can carry a boardroom – but the daily grind is the toughest judge. The stores are required to take recyclables back, so most already have recycling machines in place. To convince them to switch, the smart machines have to do their job better than the dumb ones. If customers get confused or employees get overwhelmed, the next store manager will not touch the programmable ambassador of all things green with a ten-foot pole.
But Lee Kane is on familiar ground. “Operationalizing” imaginative brainchildren of his generation is, after all, his special gift. His secret? “I am an optimist. I believe that if people get the big picture they will participate and work out the details. They need vision and guidance. And they need human connection.”