Lunch at Etsy is a thing.
Known as "Eatsy," (because if Etsy can make it cute, they will) the food allergy- and preference-sensitive lunch has become a sort of status symbol among creatives in NYC. "Oh, I got invited to Eatsy last week," I overheard a woman say in the Soul Cycle gym. "Twice."
"Wow," her friend said, sufficiently impressed.
This is probably because Etsy has one of the most well-known, hip offices in NYC, in Dumbo. Much was made over its green wall, front desk made out of recycled plastic, and cozy-covered air ducts when they invited the press in last summer. So when my friend who works at Etsy invited me for lunch, I told her I would love to come.
Etsy is in a large building on one of those cobblestone streets in Dumbo, where the Manhattan Bridge looms large in the background, casting a blue shadow across the neighborhood. Surrounded by eateries and stores with pretty logos painted on their windows, Etsy occupies four suites in a large former industrial building. The main suite lies behind a heavy, rust-colored door. You walk through an entryway, which is flanked by walls with black cloth planters filled with ferns arranged in a dense grid, then inquire at the front desk, which is made by an artist from recycled plastics.
I wanted to see what works for them, you can go to your boss with a plan to improve your own office's sustainability.
My friend came out to grab me, and walked me through. It's an open format office. Dogs wander about. Everyone's desk has handmade mugs instead of Staples-issue metal pen canisters. There are trompe l'oeil throws painted on the walls. Everything is cute, fuzzy, handmade, twee, and not shiny at all. It's Etsy, what did you expect?
But I'm not here to report on the scandal of the cozy-covered air ducts, which are only half done, perhaps never to be completed. ("Knitting cozies for air ducts took a lot longer than they thought it would," I was told by two different people.) I was here to meet with Devon Leahy, the head of the Values & Impact team at Etsy, and find out what a corporation does to go low waste.
Yes, Etsy is a corporation. A cute corporation filled with humble millennials who want to change the world through coffee cozies, hand-welded shelf brackets and upcycled necklaces, but still a corporation. It had $1.35 billion in gross sales in 2013, and additional offices in Berlin, Germany, Dublin, Melbourne, Paris, San Francisco, Toronto and upstate New York. Most importantly, it went public in April.
So, if there is any publicly traded company that can figure out how to do things more sustainably, it would be one founded on values of community and authenticity. I wanted to see what works for them, you can go to your boss with a plan to improve your own office's sustainability.
I did this tour in January, but I held off on sharing it with you guys until they put out their latest progress report this week, so I could share with you the latest numbers.
What Etsy Has Done so Far
Etsy became a Certified B Corporation in 2012, the same year it created its first values report. Over the next year, they improved their B Corp score by 25 points. In 2013, they formalized a policy to give all employees 40 hours of paid volunteer time every year, through company-wide volunteer days, customized placement with nonprofit organizations, pro bono services to charities, and mentorships to educational groups. The program netted out 1,151 hours with 15 nonprofits in five countries in one year.
But while Etsy has always employed people who want to change the world, the sharp focus on sustainability is new. "The job I have now didn't exist five months ago," Leahy told me in January. "It was almost difficult at first to see what role the sustainability person plays. They're already excited about it! So it's about channeling that energy."
Etsy has several task forces grouped under the Sustainability Commission, which draws voluntary members from all departments, including zero waste, carbon neutraulity, mindful materials, and sustainable work. About 9% of Etsy employees are involved in the sustainability commission.
Leahy is going to tell me about all the cool stuff they've been working on, but first, lunch. It's nippy that day, so we are enjoying food catered by Brindle Room: Julia Child's beef bourguignon, a stew made with beef from Intertate Foods, bacon lardons from Master Purveyors in Huts Point, NY, produce from Bayberry Produce in Hunts Point, NY, and spices from Duel Specialty Store in Manhattan, but no flour, to keep it gluten-free. For vegetarians, there is Heidi Swanson's "AMAZING Red Lentil Soup."
What is so interesting about this menu, which I was forwarded in an email before lunch, is that it painstakingly lists where all the ingredients are from, even though Interstate Foods is not a grass-fed farm upstate, it's just a food supplier. That kind of transparency is rare. The protocol is usually to either not say where anything is from, or reveal all the ingredients when they're worth bragging about. In fact, so used am I to sources being listed only when they are impeachable, I didn't really read the menu and assumed it was grass-fed beef from a local purveyor, and I ate it while talking to Leahy about Etsy's sustainability initiatives. (I take full responsibility for this lack of attention to detail.)
Working on the Waste Stream
The first thing Etsy did in their eco-friendly push was confiscate individual trash cans. "It was a big deal," Leahy told me. Apparently, everyone was quite pissed that they weren't warned or included in this decision. But they got over it. And apparently, it's the first thing you should do in order to figure out your trash situation. People are lazy! You give them a trash can and they will put pretty much everything in there, including recyclables.
Once they had consolidated the waste stream, they triaged. Compost is biked to a Red Hook farm called Added Value. The rest of the recycling goes through the city. Leftover food from lunch is donated through Food Bank NYC. They also have stations for E-waste and clothing donation.
Leave it to a tech company to tech up their waste stream. To keep track of how they are doing, they hooked large scales up to an app. Unimpressed by their numbers, they initiated a dumpster dive to see what people were throwing away. "We covered the floor in sheeting, opened up the cans, and people in orange suits looked to see what people were mishandling," Leahy says. They had a keg and snacks, and employees could go, hang out, and ask questions, like what to do with chopsticks, and where to donate clothes. Leahy points out that getting to 0% waste is technically very difficult, because of biohazard waste. "They were opening up trash bags and finding tampons in there," she said.
"Our diversion rate had gone up by a ridiculous percentage," Leahy says. She's right – the amount of waste diverted from landfills went from 53% in 2013 to 67% in 2014.(The U.S. average is 34.5%.) Those kind of numbers are really impressive.
Cutting Energy Use
One dull spot in the 2014 report was their data center energy usage. Their second biggest greenhouse gas consumption (after shipping by sellers) comes from their data centers. They're trying to get it down, but it's proving to be a challenge. "The way we write code, we think about that," Leah says. "We have a task force that's focused on data center energy use. We run updates based on peak energy demand. Last year we tested different ways to improve the site from an energy standpoint. Overall we did improve the efficiency of the site."
They reduced the amount of energy they use per dollar of revenue earned from 2012 to 2013. But that number stayed flat for 2014, and overall energy use increased by 40%, and energy use per employee also increased, after they added data center capacity, hired more employees and improved data collection. About 9% of their energy is from renewables.
On the other hand, they are also working on reducing the carbon emissions from their business travel. In 2014, the greenhouse gas emissions per employee by travel decreased slightly from 2.5 metric tons to 2.4. And despite hiring 38% more people, their overall emissions from commuting increased by only 9%.
What About the Sellers?
It's hard to get excited about these small wins when shipping by sellers accounts for more than 97% of all greenhouse emissions related to Etsy. 1.4 million people have a small business on Etsy, and they're out there making individual decisions on materials for making products, shipping, packing materials, and electricity to run their sewing machines. And this speaks to a larger debate around whether Etsy can keep its soul as it gets larger.
"We have to focus on making our business model as sustainable as at it can be, so we can say, 'look at these things we've learned, we understand the challenges of running either a small or growing business.' We do a good job at tips. We have so many sellers who are already modeling this behavior," she says.
Etsy is a fairly unusual corporation, in that much of its environmental impact comes from individual sellers making individual decisions. But on the office level, it proves that waste diversion can be drastically improved with a little effort. Energy use, however, takes more creativity, and it seems like their progress has stalled after some initial wins. In their progress report, they say they are working on renewable energy projects for 2016, and I hope they do get those online soon, to lessen the emissions impact of all that data center usage.
So if you're reading this and want to improve your own office's environmental impact, just convince them to get rid of individual trash cans. (Just make sure you tell employees why you're doing it first.)