Lean meets Green in Burt’s Bees CSR


By Jason Turgeon:

Burt's Bees started out making natural beeswax lip balm back in the '80's and ended up making hundreds of other similar body-care products before the company was sold to Clorox last year.

I keep a tin of Burt's original beeswax lip balm in my pocket at all times, so I was intrigued when I saw that the company had just released its first-ever Corporate Sustainability Report (CSR). But let's face it–voluntary CSR's aren't the place you look for bad news about a company. No CEO worth his salt is going to OK a report that says “we're wasting energy left and right, dumping PCBs into children's swimming pools, and our management team hunts Panda Bears for sport.” Not that I think old Burt is out there in the bamboo patch with his shotgun, but let's just say that I wasn't expecting much from this report.

The report, available here in a difficult-to-read flash-based format (you can download a slightly easier to read PDF file from within the flash link), has lots of the kind of stuff you'd expect to see in a CSR. There are pictures of Burt himself, looking like the very epitome of a Maine beekeeper in a flannel shirt, ballcap, and thick grey beard. There are somewhat meaningless bar charts showing revenue growth even as the company gets more into sustainability. There are plenty of warm-and-fuzzy anecdotes about how various teams of dedicated employees are working together for a variety of wonderful environmental and social causes. It's all very slick and all very standard, the work of a skilled PR firm hired to make the company look good.

And then, out of the blue, the report mentions a very Lean-sounding measure. By eliminating shrink wrap film from their lip balm, the company has eliminated hundreds of miles of this film, saved 3300 kWh a year, and trimmed costs by $300,000. That's followed by news about a new wrap for bar soaps that allows the company to use 20% less ink when printing the labels and is certified as Cradle-to-Cradle Silver. Soon after, there is a mention that what the company really wants to do is use less packaging entirely, and an analysis of how much waste their packaging accounts for per ounce of product compared to anonymous competitors. Next, the report features a story about an ad-hoc team of employees that started a recycling drive that led to a wide variety of waste-reduction efforts with quantifiable numbers behind them, steady energy use during a period of company growth, and a way to save nearly 1.5 million gallons of water a year.

Not that the results aren't great–they are–but what really caught my eye about all of this were the Lean overtones. The hallmarks are there: kaizen events, respect for people, flexible systems, and a steady push to eliminate waste in all its forms. There's even a place in the report where the company discusses its inability to find a PVC-free container for one product and asks readers to help by sending in ideas, a classically lean approach to problem-solving. It seemed too much of a confluence of Lean and Green to be coincidental, and in fact it isn't coincidence. Buried deep in the report on page 28, after an impressive commitment to be a zero-waste, zero carbon-footprint company by 2020, the company finally cops to using Lean to guide its sustainability initiatives.

For the past two years, Burt's Bees has implemented Lean manufacturing principles throughout our supply chain. Lean manufacturing is considered by many to be the optimal way of removing waste and facilitating flow….Our baseline OEE was established at 28 percent for 2006. That meant that 72 percent of the time we were creating waste….it [also] translated into unnecessarily high energy usage due to longer equipment run times….and excessive amounts of scrap going to landfills.

I can't think of a better marriage of Lean and Green than that. It's nice to see a company that really gets it. Even though the company has a long way to go (OEE is now up to 50%, still short of the goal of 70% by 2010), they are up to the challenge. Just as importantly, the company sees the explicit connection between Lean benefits and Green benefits and doesn't keep them in separate silos. The rest of the work dives deep into specifics of current status and ambitious goals. It's encouraging to see that Burt's Bees is using Lean to meet these goals.

Kudos on a job well done and I'm looking forward to seeing what kind of progress the company makes over the next several years!

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  1. Being “green” just makes sense from a business perspective. The cost of raw materials is rising, and to remain profitable, companies must scrimp and save!


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