Green Genes @ Genentech: Green Teams Go BioTech

green team


Founded in 1976, Genentech, a wholly owned member of the Roche Group since March 2009, is a biotech company with more than 11,000 employees. While generally viewed as a founder of the biotechnology industry, Genentech isn’t necessarily one of the first brand names that come to mind when people think of corporate sustainability. The pioneering firm is not an outdoor retailer or utility, so there’s no obvious connection to the environment through their product or their footprint. However, out of all the companies I’ve consulted with or worked for, Genentech is clearly among the farthest along in driving sustainability into their core DNA (forgive the pun). How did they get there, and what does a high-functioning green team at a large biotech company look like?

Sustainability at Genentech first got started in 2003, under the auspices of the EHS (Environment, Health and Safety) department. Early on, the program was split into two strands: a side that works on sustainable business practices, and a team that deals exclusively with employee engagement around green issues. While the two sides interact and collaborate frequently, this infrastructure creates two semi-independent buckets for sustainability at Genentech. The employee engagement side is known as “Green Genes,” and today boasts over 600 members. As a green team- style program, Green Genes focuses exclusively on educating, involving, and empowering Genentech employees to be more sustainable at work and at home.
Green Genes was started with an initial focus on two concepts: supporting and informing employees about sustainability, while creating an official forum for employee-generated sustainability ideas. The initial response was overwhelming: 75 new sustainability ideas were logged at the 2003 kickoff, along with an impressive degree of participation and enthusiasm from management. Even the first Green Genes meeting led to immediate results, like the implementation of composting at the employee cafeteria, which today diverts over 2000 tons per year from landfills.
The success of early efforts – and the exciting participation by management – led Genentech to form supplementary management committees, which distributed responsibility for sustainability directly to appropriate departments, leaving Green Genes solely responsible for employee engagement. This was a crucial change, as it allowed sustainability to expand beyond its EHS origins into an arena where it became part and parcel of the official responsibilities of Genentech management.
Green Genes hosts a variety of programs to educate and hear ideas from employees. One of its main tools is the annual Eco Fair.
eco%20fair.png“The Eco Fair is a way of communicating with our employees what our sustainability program is at Genentech,” says Katie Excoffier, Green Genes leader. “We educate them on sustainability at work and at home… It’s always been a dual-purpose program.”
This usually boils down to a massive annual event, thrown on Genentech’s South San Francisco campus. Genentech provides tables detailing their own sustainability activities (like their Sustainability Report), and the Green Genes team hosts booths with advice on how employees can green their personal lives, through things like vermicomposting, low-flush toilets, solar panels and a Kill A Watt lending library. Importantly, Green Genes also invites vendors to show off their sustainable products and services, getting solar providers, electric car companies, and toilet manufacturers to donate product and offer special deals to Genentech employees.
It’s also just a good excuse to have a fun. Sustainability can be serious business, but the Green Genes team strives for a relaxed atmosphere. For example, there are sustainability contests, including an “ugly mug” competition, where employees see who can stir up the ugliest (and reusable) coffee mug. There’s also a fun “bottled water vs. tap water” taste test, the results of which led to the purchase of stainless steel water bottles for all employees. Events like these drive home the point that sustainability can have a sense of humor, and save Genentech money and waste at the same time. Employees come away with an increased understanding of what Genentech is up to in sustainability, why it’s in Genentech’s best interest to be sustainable, as well as ideas and tools to use in their own lives.
While the Eco Fair is a big part of Green Genes, other programs are offered as well to keep employees engaged throughout the year. There are frequent “Lunch and Learn” sessions, where employees are invited to hear an expert speak on a specific sustainability topic. “Pizza+Movie” nights, featuring films about sustainability, are also popular.
Critically, the momentum that gave Green Genes its start – an outpouring of employee ideas on how to make the company more sustainable – is kept up year-round as well. Employees can submit their ideas online; once screened by the Green Genes sub-teams, they’re sent to the appropriate group for approval and implementation. To complement the online component, Green Genes is also piloting a sustainability social networking system, which allows employees to compete with each other to cut carbon and waste, while earning rewards for the successes they log.


Sustainability in business is usually steeped in ROI, NPV, and other forms of financial analysis, as it usually takes significant investments to turn a company green (even if those investments offer a great payback). But green teams are an exception to this rule – they generally cost very little to run, and can offer outstanding returns by leveraging the enthusiasm and creativity of a large group of employees.
Green Genes exemplifies this rule. It’s a low-overhead operation, its largest cost being the food and drink tabs for the employees who come to its meetings and the Eco Fair. At the Eco Fair itself, most vendors donate product in the hope that it will lead to future sales. Beyond that, Green Genes requires just an intern and incidental expenses, for things like t-shirts and mugs. Overall, it’s a great payback for Genentech – they get a more motivated, empowered workface, great ideas for their business, and great sustainability benefits – all at a cost that’s a drop in the bucket on their balance sheets.
Like any change management and organizational development initiative, Green Genes faces challenges. One significant issue is the dispersion of employees across multiple sites. While Genentech is headquartered in South San Francisco, there are additional facilities in Vacaville and Oceanside, California. With so many of the Green Genes activities based around in-person activities, fairs, and talks, how is it possible to keep people engaged if they’re not physically present? It’s a problem many large corporations have to wrestle with – but hardly an insurmountable one.
Genentech tackles this by having Green Genes chapters run locally at each site, and sharing ideas among the teams. Last year, for example, the South San Francisco team helped the Vacaville and Oceanside teams to organize their own Eco Fairs. While keeping employees engaged at multiple sites brings new challenges, it also brings new opportunities as well. Says Katie Excoffier: “One advantage with the smaller facilities is that everyone works in the same building, so it’s easier to get people to meetings or events.”
It’s clear that both Green Genes and Genentech’s sustainability strategy are functioning quite well. Maintaining this success, however, will be crucial for Genentech as it seeks to continue solidifying sustainability into their corporate DNA, and reaping the resulting benefits.
Green teams play a critical role both early and late in a corporate sustainability transformation; they leverage employee enthusiasm and momentum in the early days, and they advocate for a real sustainability work culture later down the road. While each phase is critical, it’s really primarily the latter phase that begins to create significant sustainability value. Keeping Green Genes strong – and expanding on its successes – will serve Genentech well as they embrace sustainability as a real business driver.

Daniel is a Strategic Sustainability Consultant with expertise in sustainable technologies, systems, and management practices. He has worked on a wide range of sustainability consulting initiatives, from implementing basic efficiencies to planning the structural integration of sustainability into the core strategy of an enterprise. Much of his work has focused on quantifying the financial impact of sustainability, as well as addressing the challenges in communicating with and educating others about the benefits of sustainable management. Most recently, Daniel worked with Red Bull of North America to reduce costs through better fleet management, renewable energy, waste reduction, efficiencies, and strategic integration. He also works with the FairRidge Group to provide strategic sustainability consulting services to Fortune 500 companies. Daniel received an undergraduate degree in psychology from Wesleyan University, in Middletown, CT, and earned an MBA in Sustainable Management from the Presidio School of Management in San Francisco.

4 responses

  1. Genentech proves that sustainability policies can be created and implemented on the cheap, and that being green generates many benefits. Furthermore, they exemplify that any industry can incorporate – and benefit from – green practices. Hopefully their success will inspire others in the biotechnology industry to form similar green groups and initiate change on an even broader scale.

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