One of the greatest aspects of the corporate sustainability movement has to be the paradigm shift that has encouraged companies to collaborate to solve common issues – joining forces across industries and sectors, and even with direct competitors has allowed companies to pool resources and expertise to tackle everything from sourcing, labor, materials, communications, conservation issues and more in holistic and more effective ways.
We spoke with Chief Sustainability Officer Monique Oxender to learn more about how strategic partnerships are helping propel Keurig’s sustainability agenda forward.
How does Keurig leverage partnerships for successful sustainability initiatives?
At Keurig, we operate under a core set of values, one of which is to partner for mutual success. We win in the marketplace through partnerships with other coffee roasters and brands, and we drive for social and environmental impact through partnership with like-minded organizations. While our products are unique, the sustainability issues we face during initial development, sourcing and end-of-use management are common to many companies. We tap into, and contribute to, collective learnings in forums like the Sustainable Coffee Challenge, the Sustainable Packaging Coalition and the Responsible Business Alliance.
We partner for impact, so it is key that our partners share our vision and that we can leverage each other’s expertise and resources. The best partnerships attract a variety of stakeholders from business and nonprofits to government and academic experts – and it’s these partnerships that influence and improve our programs and advance solutions that help the industry. Their insights have helped us accelerate progress toward our ambitious 2020 sustainability targets, and contributed to another core value for Keurig: to brew a better world.
Within Keurig’s 2020 targets, there are a number of environmental commitments, including water stewardship. What kinds of partnerships have helped Keurig make progress in your environmental initiatives?
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Water is a great example of an area where partnership is key to our strategy. We have committed to balance the water used to make all our beverages, restoring water to the earth – ounce for ounce. We aim to do this by restoring water to people and nature – or more specifically – improving water quality, water conservation and watershed restoration. There is an urgent need for water conservation around the world and at home. We know water efficiency is increasingly important to our consumers and we create products that help them be smart about their water use. They are able to conserve water at home and we, in addition, partner with organizations to ensure that same volume of water is restored or protected in key watersheds throughout the US. Initial projects with Raise the River in the Colorado Delta and with American Rivers in our operating communities helped to orient our work and taught us more about water quality challenges in the US.
A closer look at water quality opportunities at the watershed level led us to The Nature Conservancy (TNC). We have a national partnership with TNC and they serve as both a thinking partner as well as an implementer of impactful projects. For example, with our deep company roots in Vermont, it was a natural fit to embark on a public-private partnership between our company, the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation, and Vermont’s chapter of TNC. Together, we are working to improve the water quality of Lake Champlain and surrounding waters through key conservation investments and the development of an online tool called the “Clean Water Roadmap,” which analyzes water quality improvement and incorporates TNC conservation data. Over the past two years, we’ve invested in seven water quality projects impacting more than 50 river corridor acres, and over 100 wetland acres last year, and we are excited to expand our work and leave our home a better place. Across all water partnerships, we have restored and protected more than 707 million gallons of water together.
It sounds like you use partnerships to learn, apply what you learn and then move to the next level. How has that approach helped in your goal to convert Keurig K-Cup® pods to a recyclable format?
That’s a great representation of our model. We partner for thought leadership, for action and for system change. The more we dug in to the “how” of recyclability, the more we learned about how our products and our solutions for end-of-use can contribute to a circular economy. On one hand, we learned that our products are not too small to be recovered and can be made of a valuable material for recovery – polypropylene. We also learned that only about 12 percent of the plastic produced globally is recovered. And within the US, a major marketplace for us, Americans have a 35 percent recycling rate. We feel great about the fact that we can make a recyclable product, but we also recognize that we need to participate in the solutions to improve plastic recycling and recycling in general. So, when we had the opportunity to be an initial investor in the Closed Loop Fund, a social impact fund investing $100M to increase the recycling of products and packaging, we jumped at the opportunity to invest and were one of the first to the table. The Fund supports critical needs in infrastructure development, as well as innovation to improve recycling and end markets for recycled content. It is catalytic investment that has the potential to really change the game.
Boots on the ground are also important. In our collaboration with recyclers, we have witnessed the need for technical assistance and community education. The Recycling Partnership is another powerful organization that we discovered on our journey and are proud to call a partner. They create tools and support efforts to make community recycling programs more accessible and efficient. The partnership gives us an opportunity to support recycling at the local level, which will be critical as we roll out new recyclable products and need to communicate recycling instructions to our consumers and encourage “recycle right” behavior.
The list is long when it comes to our partners for recycling, ranging from The Association of Plastic Recyclers and the Sustainable Packaging Coalition to stewardship organizations in Canada like RecycleBC. By joining together and sharing our challenges and successes, we hope to not only meet our goals, but to affect change at a system level.
Keurig sources its coffee from communities around the world. How does Keurig partner with coffee farmers?
As a coffee company founded on social responsibility, we continue to pioneer sustainable coffee practices and social impact partnerships in coffee-growing regions around the world. Our work in coffee farming communities always begins from the ground up. We seek partnerships and advice from local suppliers and the farmers themselves to determine where there are hardships and where there have been successes. We then partner with both international and local nonprofits for projects that drive impact on the ground. Through this collaboration, we are steadily approaching our goal of 1 million livelihoods improved by 2020, expanding upon the work that began over 20 years ago by our founders, Green Mountain Coffee Roasters.
We are tackling the issues facing coffee farmers by helping refine farming techniques, addressing local water issues, planning for changes in climate, and strengthening farmer organizations. One example is our work with Great Lakes Coffee (GLC) Company in western Uganda, which grew out of a shared desire to improve traceability, quality and access to market for farmers. We co-invested in GLC’s sustainable coffee program, ultimately increasing the volume and quality of traceable coffee exported from Uganda. Over the years, we’ve partnered with dozens of similar local and international organizations to impact farming communities, including World Coffee Research, Blue Harvest and Root Capital.
How does Keurig make those partnerships real for employees?
We empower our employees to promote positive social and environmental change. Through our partnerships, they experience our values in action and can develop a deeper passion for the work we do together. We’ve found that engaging our employees is not just about building our culture: It’s about shoring up the foundation of our business. Since 1992, we’ve been taking employees to coffee farms around the world. These employee source trips have been cultural cornerstones, and a way to bring our partnerships with coffee communities to life for our employee base. Participants have the opportunity to become immersed in the lifestyle and culture of coffee origin, experiencing the coffee harvesting process firsthand and connecting with our supply chain partners over the shared importance of coffee. More than 500 of our employees – from all functions, geographies and levels of the company – have taken part in the program to-date. For employees, the trip is an eye-opening experience on both personal and professional levels, helping them gain an understanding of the work that is done far from their cubicle or factory line to bring coffee to our consumers.
How has collaboration helped drive innovation at Keurig?
Partnerships and collaboration have absolutely played a role in driving innovation, and are part of why I encourage our senior leaders to seek out collaborative relationships whenever possible. We consider ourselves an innovative company, and we are constantly working on new enhancements for our products, but we know we have much to learn from others across industry. Collaboration has especially played a key role in ensuring our new K-Cup pods are not only recyclable, but also recycled. We have worked with the Association of Plastic Recyclers and the recycling industry to understand how our efforts to recycle a single product can be amplified to improve plastics recycling across North America. The innovation that we applied to testing for recyclability in material recovery facilities – the use of RFID technology – has been adopted by other brands and manufacturers and earned an Innovator Award for Breakthrough Process from the Sustainable Packaging Coalition. It is our hope that collaboration doesn’t just feed innovation, but that our innovation feeds greater collaboration between brands and the recycling industry. The same kind of real-world testing approach can be applied to other material innovations for composting and biodegradability – bridging the gap between product innovation and waste infrastructure. Now is the time for both collaboration and innovation.