Tom Szaky: Do Green Companies Need Green Employees?

One of the most challenging parts of building a lean and mean green company is finding the right balance of experience and passion. Especially in a young upstart company – like TerraCycle – where the status quo is often thrown out the window in favor of shaking up the typical “business as usual” model. But is it better (or even appropriate) to hire people who are committed to being green outside of work as well?

Many people may think that personal devotion to a company’s ideal – or green ideals in general – would make a better employee for a green business, and should weigh heavily on whether someone can work in a “green” company. But when push comes to shove, isn’t it more important to have people who know how to accomplish something – even if they don’t recycle at home, or bike to work, or buy offsets for their air-travel-related carbon emissions?
Which is better? A team full of uber-recyclers, people who live the company message in every walk of life – or a team of equally skilled but non-zealous people?
As CEO of a green company I have heard many opinions and through many hiring failures and successes, have formed my own opinions on this age-old question. When it comes to the business/operations side of the company then it is best to hire the most experienced, educated person for the job.
For example your legal department and finance department are better staffed by experienced employees, even if they are not activist. After all to accomplish the lofty and important goals of your business you’ll need to have your legal and financial matters well handled, or else all the good intentions in the world will be wasted.
As for marketing, product design, PR, sales I believe that having environmentally or socially aware employees is an advantage. These departments are the public face of your company and it is best to have people who ‘walk their talk’ out in the public sphere. Plus their passion for your companies ideals will be infectious to prospective clients or customers.
So what do you think 3p community? Should green companies only hire green employees?

Tom Szaky is CEO of TerraCycle, named by Inc. Magazine as the “Coolest Startup in America — The ultimate growth company, built on garbage, run by a kid, loved by investors.” Tom writes about his experiences as a social entrepreneur and visions for business and technology that leave the world better off on 3p.

Tom Szaky is the Founder and CEO of TerraCycle, Inc. a company that makes eco-revolutionary products entirely from garbage! TerraCycle, since its humble beginnings in a Princeton University dorm room, is committed to being a triple bottom line company. Tom at the ancient age of 19 learned about composting with worms. The concept of using tiny little worms to turn food waste into a powerful, organic fertilizer fascinated Tom, who was appalled by the amount of food discarded by his campus's cafeteria. Tom started TerraCycle with no investors from a friend's garage by building a Worm Gin where he could house millions of worms in a small area. He all but bankrupted himself and maxed out all his credit cards to build the machine. With the help of friends he would shovel pounds of rotten, maggot-infested food from the Princeton cafeterias. Without any money left over, Tom could not afford to buy bottles to package his fertilizer. That's when the sustainability gods smiled on Tom, who was up one night wandering the streets Princeton in search of an answer to his packaging dilemma. It just happened to be recycling night and Tom realized that millions of homes were putting billions of free bottles out on the curb once a week! That serendipitous moment set everything to follow into motion. Slowly he began to finance his infantile start up by winning business plan contests. Finally he hit the pay dirt! He won the million dollar grand prize at the Carrot Capital Business plan contest. However, the financiers of the contest wanted to move TerraCycle away from used bottles and away from it's environmental focus. Despite being on the verge of bankruptcy, Tom turned down the money. In the six years since then TerraCycle has grown to a multi-million dollar company that doubles in size every year. Still we are committed to our triple bottom line beginnings. Still making our products from other's people waste. Still based in an Urban Enterprise Zone in Trenton, NJ. Still a second chance employer. Find out how and why, here at

14 responses

  1. I think what matters is that employees are enthusiastic about what the company does – in general. However, since a “green” company (I think it might be time for a new adjective) is only truly “green” if it’s thinking about the interconnectedness of all things, then automatically that has to connect to the happiness and engagement of all who are touched by that company – especially the employees. If a holistically minded company has employees who just don’t think holistically, then those employees are likely to be a lousy match.
    So… yes, you most definitely need “green” employees to make a “green” company – i’d just give the definition of “green” a little wiggle room!

  2. While I think that there should definitely be priority on hiring green employees, I think there is value to hiring those with a more traditional background into companies with green ideals and initiatives. If that message is something that is important to the company, it’s something that they themselves will most likely adopt as standard practice even if they hadn’t thought of it before.
    The best employees should be adaptable human beings in the first place! I see it as a great way to get new people into the fold.

  3. Of course it’s a great benefit to have green employees at a green company. I think you’re limiting your ability to get quality employees though if you stick to only those that have proven their passion for sustainability. Plus, getting non green employees to work for a green company will often change their own thinking. So even if the employee isn’t green to start, the green may rub off on them.
    work for a company with a green focus and we just hired an employee who is far from green. Even in the week he’s been here, he’s started recycling his cans, bottles and paper, learned about battery recycling and is now bringing in reusable drink containers every day.

  4. [4:35:35 PM] A company’s brand has to be consistent. If you say you’re a green company, but then your suppliers or customers have conversations with an employee who cares very little for the environment, your marketing messages will be meaningless. And, employees who are motivated by the company’s mission are more likely to stick around. Invest in their training, and you’ve really got something. If you are hiring just for skills and experience, you’re likely to have a lot of turnover, and where does that get you?

  5. I don’t think it is required, because it is another good channel to get the message out to open minds. However, I think there is an overabundance of willing and able green potential employees that this probably won’t ever be an issue.

  6. This is a great discussion of triple pundit ethics!
    The best person for the job is always the one that can do the job. Now, given a choice between two candidates equally able to perform the job duties: an enthusiastic person who does not have a green background nor currently take green actions and a somewhat non-enthusiastic greenie, you will need to choose the person that outside of the workplace will best represent the company’s image. This may be a different choice based on whatever this image might be.
    HOWEVER, the company can require the candidate be adaptable without imposing green initiatives into their person life.
    My parents own a health food store and it is required of employees to read and educate themselves while on the job. Then the culture of the environment strongly suggests they work on their individual health. (In this case, it is easy to see when someone is not working on their individual health as they miss more work and are not as productive at work!) In addition, they tend to not grow their excitment about the job over time. If they are truly good at their job, then they will be adaptable to embody its ideals and goals. If they are not adaptable, then they likely cannot grow with the company.
    I choose adaptability over green any day. Plus, some greenies are nazi about being so, and that may not be an image I want to project about my company.

  7. The people who do the nitty gritty, grindstone type stuff don’t need to be green, just hard working, skilled, and experienced. What would you rather have, the most talented engineer in the world (but doesn’t recycle) or a decent engineer who’s environmentally conscience? You have to take the talented engineer, because he’s the guy making your products…without good products, you got nothing.

  8. Being a “green” employer, I always look for those who are fully vested in sustainable/green issues.
    But.. I have hired those who are standout applicants that can learn and adapt.
    Great post, thanks!

  9. What does it even mean to be a “greenie”? The worst situation would be to hire someone who didn’t believe in the product or service you were offering but was skilled to do the job. But as long as the skills are there, and they like the product or service you are offering, I see no reason to even consider the “green” issue. I mean there’s simply a real challenge in even defining what a “greenie” isn’t and isn’t. What if the job requires lots of travel and the “greenie” doesn’t think they should travel so much because of global warming emissions? Or what if the person appears to be as “green” as they come but takes off on cross-country flights to eco-resorts every chance they get? There’s really no Church of Green Code of Ethics or Practice and a lot of people who have “green cred” have not done a Lifecycle Analysis on themselves or they’d know that they were actually doing more damage to the environment than none greenies – see this study: Just hire the talented, bright, and good people, and you’ll do well.

  10. the green code is simple
    be the change you want in the world – no matter how big or small
    instead of judging an employee – we encourage positive change
    I hope this clears up the ethics issue
    Remember – we are the one’s we have been waiting for….

  11. In assessing candidates, quite likely you look for not only the most skilled/relevant, but the most fired up about what your company does, best able to work with the team and most willing to learn.
    Whatever shade of green, such a candidate will pick up the act. By encouraging this you’ll benefit your profits, people and planet. And stay tuned up to sell green to more customers and consumers who are as diverse as your employees.
    Best advice I’ve heard is to influence via example vs eco-policing and communicate personal/business benefits as well as eco. Maybe give out CFLs, take an hour to plant herbs to take home, stock break rooms w/ reusables, etc.
    I worked at an organic food company that found itself needing to hire experienced outsiders as we doubled in growth. Some refused to recycle. So we made up an eco-award passed from one employee to another at staff meetings. They got into the act and started innovating practices in their areas that improved our eco-efficiency. Keeping it positive made the difference.

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