How come some start ups are great successes while others can’t make it a year?  What line should a business walk regarding its risk taking in the marketplace?  Can a company talk ‘too much green’ and scare off a potential client base?… Questions like these really get me going and I’ve found myself dedicating a lot of time trying to understand where green sits in the world of business today… I’ll spend the next couple paragraphs discussing a success story based out of Washington DC…. Let’s familiarize ourselves with Sweet Green.


Sweet Green’s journey began when 3 college buddies couldn’t find decent grub near their Georgetown digs.  Being in the entrepreneurial spirit, they took it upon themselves to remedy this and cultivated a business concept during their senior years of college.  Their idea was to create a fast food experience that would be healthy enough to eat every day of the week. The three fellas graduated, scrapped together some change and hired DC-based design firm CORE to renovate a 500 sq foot burger franchise into their flagship restaurant.  This was a great move… CORE turned this tiny tudor-styled structure into a rockin’ award-winning space that complimented Sweet Green’s underlying mission of sustainability.  Reclaimed antique hickory was brought into the interiors, covering the floor, walls and ceiling, creating a strong balance of texture from the stainless steel, glass, and bold graphic elements…. Sweet Green was born!

Having the privilege of starting a business from scratch, the ambitious grads took it upon themselves to create a culture of sustainability within their brand.  They recognized that incorporating green elements not only was better for their bottom line, but it created a much stronger sense of brand loyalty for their customer base.  Not bad for business, since an increasing number of consumers in America are going out of their way to support causes and companies they believe in…

One of the first things Sweet Green did was align themselves with a third party to certify their operations as being eco-friendly.  The Green Restaurant Association was their tool of choice, verifying that their operations were energy, water, and waste efficient, minimized chemical usage, and implemented sustainable food choices.  The Sweet Green team didn’t stop there… some other elements they incorporated include:

  • Wind energy offsets from Clean Currents neutralizes their on site energy usage
  • Food packaging is biodegradable
  • Take out menus are printed on paper embedded with wildflower seeds
  • Local and organic food is used when seasonal

This holistic approach towards sustainability has garnered a lot of great press for the young start up, which has basically translated to free advertisement.  I first read about Sweet Green a couple months back as a feature in Metropolis Magazine.

This brings me back to a question I started this post off with… is there risk in being too sustainably ambitious?  My answer would be yes.  Consumers have been consistently proving through their actions that they really don’t care about sustainability if the product or service they are being offered is equal or less of a value than non-green counterparts.  It takes a lot to pull people away from familiar brands… Precedence must always be on product or service first… sustainability needs to be supplementary.  Also, if a business starts throwing around green this, green that, there will be increased attention on their operations and might expose elements that weren’t intended to be exposed.  Increased accountability goes hand in hand with green claims.  An interesting dichotomy of this transparency can be found in the sustainable initiatives of retail giants Walmart and Target.  Walmart loves tooting its own horn, bragging about how many CFL lightbulbs they’ve sold and how much of a positive impact this has made.  This self promotion has been great in that it has brought green issues more mainstream, but it’s also put a giant target on Walmart’s back.  Environmental groups like Greenpeace love nothing more than sinking a big ship with false green claims and exposing non-green elements of said ship.  The metaphor, “If you’re going to be naked, you’d better be buff” is appropriate for increased transparency in the business world… Target on the other hand has had equally ambitious green goals but has chosen to keep them hidden from the public eye.  They recognized that they could accomplish more by working internally than by fielding critiques from an opinionated public.  The negative of this approach is that no one knows Target actually has a green agenda, potentially isolating itself from a customer base that shops with ethics (who knew Target has been an active member of the US Green Building Council since 1997?).

What I really dig about the Sweet Green concept is how they approached sustainability.  Their product came first (fresh salads and all-natural yogurt desserts), filling an important niche within their community.  Second was the user experience… hip interiors and strong graphics helped to create a fresh environment that supported their product.  Sustainability became the third leg of the stool and was supplementary to the product and experience.  Promotion of  their holistic eco-efforts were voluntarily accessible, not jammed down customer’s throats. as if it were a sales pitch.  A blog maintained by the business owners and a tab of sustainability initiatives can be found on Sweet Green’s website and are great outlets for sharing information and increasing transparency.

So here’s what it comes down to… transparency, accountability and reporting.  Consumers want to know what businesses are doing and not doing, how that syncs with their values, and how it affects their efforts to reduce their own environmental impacts.  If a company can successfully accomplish this like Sweet Green, they will be more than likely rewarded for their efforts.  And Sweet Green IS being rewarded… they just opened up two new locations in the DC metro!  Yeah Woo!


About Joshua Foss

Joshua is a leading voice for transformational change. He is the editor of Metro Hippie, co-founder and director of development of the Ecala Group, and adjunct faculty at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. He is also an ambassador for the Living Building Challenge and is a frequent speaker at national conferences, trade shows and summits.