'Start Here. Change Everything'

Teaching Students How to Make a Difference

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David Slayden
David Slayden
So much is right about Justin's Nut Butters. True to the company's mission, the products are made in small batches using a proprietary grinding process and premium organic and natural ingredients that are sustainably harvested and sourced as locally as possible. Just a quick visit to the website, and you will be convinced that the company is committed to green, transparent, socially conscious business practices—from the Nut House section that hosts community posts of recipes to the Going Green part of the site that chronicles Justin's challenge to becoming greener.

When Justin's came to Boulder Digital Works at the University of Colorado with a mission to become greener, we thought, "How is this possible?" Justin's is based in eco-sensitive Boulder, Colo. The headquarters is solar-powered. Justin's cartons, boxes and caddies are made with wind power. No PPOs, GMOs, VOCs or BPAs. And the majority of the ingredients used in Justin's products are certifiably organic.

But despite Justin's commitment to sustainable business practices, a key part of the product continues to pose a threat to the environment: petroleum-based packaging, or PBP. Justin's faces a basic contradiction: As the business grows, so do its contributions to landfills. It's causing a growing rift between what the company stands for and its actual business practices. No matter how many other good acts Justin's follows through on, the PBP problem will only grow.

Petroleum-based packaging has a half-life of roughly 1,000 years. The alternative is biodegradable squeeze packs, a solution that is seemingly simple and right for the environment—and that is also consistent with Justin's brand identity and business model. There is, however, one hitch: Biodegradable squeeze packs are not the industry standard, and they are several times more expensive to manufacture than petroleum-based versions. Despite its good intentions, Justin's is a small company with little leverage to change standard industry practices in food and beverage packaging, especially compared to a Heinz or McDonald's.

So Justin's has challenged us to blow the lid off the larger issue of PBPs and sustainability. Working with industry legend Alex Bogusky as the initiative's creative director, we've engaged our 60 Weeks graduate students in a real-world project that brings together core competencies of creativity, technology and business being taught in Boulder Digital Works classrooms, where we train mid-career professionals in the digital mindset and skill sets needed in today's world. What better place than a revolutionary program with revolutionary students to come up with a revolutionary idea for a forward-thinking business?

It is a classic David-and-Goliath moment. It is also very unlikely that a company of Justin's size can influence an industry to change through the usual means of leveraging purchasing power. But that's what we're doing.

Our students are not pursuing the usual means of change—a campaign or product innovation. Instead, we're employing talent and creativity to do the right thing. We are working to raise the public's consciousness and provide people with a means to make a difference by inspiring consumers to demand changes in industry packaging standards.

Boulder Digital Works is a cutting-edge graduate and professional education initiative and, like Justin's, we have big ambitions and a mission to change the traditional way of doing things. In October 2009, we were founded on the need for integrated thinking and the belief in a breakthrough educational model that could prepare professionals for today's business challenges. Working with Justin's is a natural extension of our approach, thinking and dedication to integrated solutions. We've enlisted our students for this initiative because they are working alongside the industry's best talent every day to master skills in creativity, technology and business, and because their training has prepared them to take on broad-scale, real-world business problems.

The Justin's project also provides us with an opportunity to make tangible the Innovation Lab at BDW. Innovation is core to our learning mission at BDW, and projects such as Justin's provide us with compelling challenges that demand original thinking and produce socially beneficial results. We invite other companies that value innovation and want to make positive contributions to the world we live in to contact us for details about how they can work with the Innovation Lab at BDW.

With an anthem of "Start here. Change everything," we're giving Justin's a platform to start a social movement. Prepare to be part of it.

David Slayden is executive director of Boulder Digital Works at the University of Colorado.
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