Farming at JFK airport: What it's like to be JetBlue's green chief

Many entrepreneurs will tell you that they knew from day one what they "had to do." I, on the other hand, graduated from Brandeis University in 2005 without that passion-filled direction. I simply wanted a job. Having already learned Chinese, I got caught up in the buzz about off-shoring and outsourcing, and before I knew it, I was working in Shanghai, China.

Living in China was an exhilarating dream, but it seemed that the pollution was worsening by the month. Working in the export industry, I got to see one of the main source of the pollution (factories) first-hand. When a friend shared stories about the dozens of people he knew who now had asthma or lung cancer, I realized the human price we were paying to manufacture everything from disposable plates to fast-fashion was too high.

Sophia Mendelsohn, head of sustainability for JetBlue
Source: JetBlue
Sophia Mendelsohn, head of sustainability for JetBlue

I immediately began looking for ways to address this. I found that most corporations saw economic growth and environmental protection in contradiction to one another. Unable to accept that, I began using all my personal time to research air and water pollution; I educated myself about the science of climate change, and read case studies about entrepreneurs who had done things differently — and succeeded. I had found the passion I was looking for upon graduation.

In 2008, just as the global economy faltered, I joined office-furniture-manufacturing company Haworth as its head of sustainability for emerging markets. I promised that if they let me be an environmental entrepreneur within their organization, I would increase profits while helping them go "green." In the next years, we announced the first zero-waste-to-landfill factory in China. We made the business case for offering clients sustainable wood and removing unnecessary and possibly unhealthy chemicals.

Like many entrepreneurs, no sooner than I had helped build it at Haworth, I wanted to begin my next "eco start-up." In 2013, I landed at JetBlue Airways where I launched its sustainability department.

Being an environmental entrepreneur at an airline means bringing new ideas about how to reduce emissions while flying an ever increasing number of miles, how to reduce waste while giving people more food, and how to keep customers engaged while explaining the associated greenhouse gases.

Our first goal was to reduce our "carbon footprint." We partnered with Carbonfund.org, a nonprofit focused on educating about and minimizing greenhouse gas emissions. Since 2008, we have offset almost two billion pounds of greenhouse gases by planting trees in California, capturing methane in Utah, and protecting rainforest in Brazil. While that is a big number, it is still a very small percentage of our emissions. More must be done.

Now, I am leading JetBlue in the exploration of sustainable jet fuel, or "biofuel," that we can use safely, without changing our engines, operations, or customer experience.

The challenges to achieving sustainable jet fuel are immense, and require a coalition of companies, scientists, NGOs, and even international organizations such as the United Nations. It is hard, but if we get it right, we have the ability to transform industries, to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and even save costs.

"As Henry Ford said, 'If I had asked them what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.'"

My entrepreneurial spirit has also led me to smaller projects at JetBlue that add up to big changes. Last fall, I worked with the Port Authority and other partners to turn an empty parking lot at our JFK headquarters into a 24,000-square-foot farm growing potatoes, kale and even garlic. Our employees volunteer and get to pick the veggies for their families. We also started a composting program at Terminal 5 for everything from coffee grinds to doughnuts. Coming full circle, we use some of the dirt for our farm through that program.

Making food in New York has become a huge trend, and we're helping to promote that, too. We launched BlueBud, a program that mentors local food companies. Our first BlueBud "buddy" is Hot Bread Kitchen, a New York nonprofit that helps women and minorities become culinary entrepreneurs. We've taken Hot Bread under our wing, so to speak, providing feedback, mentoring on how small businesses can best sell to big ones, increasing their publicity and even their sales. (Look for Hot Bread Kitchen on JetBlue soon!)

One of the hardest parts about leading the environmental charge is that you need to do it before you need to do it. A leader in corporate sustainability should be getting their brand to new solutions before regulations demand it and before customers expect it. As Henry Ford said, "If I had asked them what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse." To make new solutions and change markets, my colleagues and I are proceeding together, and we are proceeding as if success is inevitable.

Commentary by Sophia Mendelsohn, head of sustainability at JetBlue. She is responsible for shaping policies and practices that enhance JetBlue's competitive advantages and reduce environmental impacts. More information can be found at www.jetblue.com/green. Mendelsohn was recently a featured guest on the National Society of Leadership and Success' Thought Leader Series. The organization is the nation's largest collegiate leadership honor society. Her interview can be seen at societyleadership.org. Follow her on Twitter @SophiaLeonoraM.

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