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No Pain, No Gain: Training for the Long Game in Sustainable Business

On October 30th, David Rachelson, Vice President of Sustainability at Rubicon Global, spoke about how his company's "personal trainer model" to help customers reach zero waste.
By Thomas Bledsoe

By Thomas Bledsoe

I have never been much of a workout enthusiast. The maze of machines in a gym always does more to confuse me than to excite me about the prospect of getting fit. While I fumble through my routine, I recognize those around me who exercise with a clear sense of purpose. I wonder: How did they reach their level of expertise? Were they born with motivation and stamina, or were these traits cultivated over time?

Thoughts about my relationship with the gym recently came to mind at an unusual occasion: a presentation in the “Business, Environment, and Society Speaker Series,” sponsored by the Ray C. Anderson Center for Sustainable Business. On October 30th, David Rachelson, Vice President of Sustainability at Rubicon Global, spoke about how his company works with customers to wean them off the landfill model when it comes to their organization’s waste. He described clients’ journeys to zero waste as akin to working with a personal trainer. The path has many challenges, and progress is not measured overnight. However, as a company matures, it stands to gain more from implementing sustainable solutions in its operations, and Rubicon acts as the coach on the company’s journey into sustainability.

While I may not know machines in a gym, I do know a good metaphor when I see one, and Rachelson’s comparison resonated with me on a personal level.

My life has had twists and turns along the way to me being selected as a 2017-18 Scheller Sustainability Fellow. Growing up, I spent as much time as possible in the outdoors and developed a deep respect for the beauty of nature and the importance of conservation. When I went camping, I hated encountering mounds of other campers’ trash. In fact, I trace my passion for sustainability to these early memories. My knowledge of alternative energy, waste reduction, transportation, and other subfields in sustainability has grown bit by bit every year, and the extent to which I have implemented sustainable alternatives in my personal life has increased correspondingly. Just like many businesses, my life is an ever-evolving journey into sustainability.

Public consciousness of sustainability has also grown considerably over the years, fueled by changing consumer attitudes. I believe the most assured route for our society to embed sustainability into its culture is for consumers to demand sustainable products and services. If the market calls for it, corporations will respond. Changing attitudes of others takes work, and it starts with education. As consumers become more educated about sustainability and demand sustainable offerings, companies will accelerate creation of sustainable products, cut waste and energy consumption from their operations, and purchase recycled materials from their suppliers, all as they attempt to win market-share in their respective industries. While I recognize the value of sustainability for many non-economic reasons, including its environmental, health, and nutritional benefits, having the strength of an economy based upon sustainable goods, services, and operations will only hasten the speed to which our society adapts a more sustainable future.

Rubicon has two simultaneous goals as a certified “B Corp” (a for-profit company that meets rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency): to generate profits for its shareholders and to prevent waste going into landfills. The company fills a market need while it also serves to benefit society. Rachelson stated that Rubicon aggregates over 5,000 waste haulers with waste producers to encourage the diverting of waste from landfills into recycling centers. Through its mobile app, Rubicon also tracks smart city data and offers insights for cities. For instance, Rachelson mentioned that Rubicon has capitalized on the incredible resource of the trucks that haul recyclables and trash. These vehicles go up and down almost every street in a city on a weekly basis. As such, they are poised to be the eyes and ears of a city. Rubicon is equipping drivers and trucks with technology that will eventually perform useful tasks such as tracking air quality statistics and identifying areas with drug activity by the presence of discarded hypodermic needles. Rubicon’s data insights don’t stop there. The company also tracks metrics about the waste they are recycling—in regard to tonnage, materials, and composition—which allows them to quantify their results.

For all of Rubicon’s gains in diverting waste from landfills, the challenges in front of the company speak to its own personal training journey. For one, Rubicon is searching for more offerings to entice small to mid-size businesses. A smaller business won’t see as much of a savings tradeoff for increasing recycling as compared to that of a Fortune 500 company. Another long-term goal for the company is to create value for consumers to begin their own journeys into recycling. Rachelson stated that lost recycling opportunities start with consumers throwing their trash in the wrong bin. Programs that educate and energize consumers in regard to recycling could improve the success rate of products being discarded in appropriate ways. These challenges represent the way forward for Rubicon as it continues to disrupt the waste management industry.

As I move through Scheller’s Evening MBA program and continue my own journey in sustainability, I hope to work with many companies that are reinventing how business interests can merge with positive social impact. If benefits to a business, consumers, and society can all be conveyed to stakeholders, we can push our economy in a direction that provides new opportunities for growth and innovative solutions to the threats posed by climate change. All we need are more personal trainers on our collective journey into sustainability.

Thomas Bledsoe is an Evening MBA student at the Scheller College of Business.

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