JetBlue's secret for sustainability liftoff: People

The Sustainable MBA

JetBlue's secret for sustainability liftoff: People

Sophia Mendelsohn, head of sustainability, JetBlue.
Sophia Mendelsohn, head of sustainability at JetBlue, has made a case that environmental work must be paired with community development for maximum impact.

This Q&A is an edited excerpt from a Nov. 21 Sustainable Business Fridays conversation held by the Bard MBA in Sustainability program, based in New York City. This twice-monthly dial-in conversation features sustainability leaders from across the globe. The previously published interview was with Lew Blaustein, who writes at the intersection of sustainability and sports at the GreenSportsBlog.

As head of sustainability for JetBlue, Sophia Mendelsohn is responsible for both the long-term vision of environmental responsibility and the operational reality of implementing change.

Through change-management, Sophia has worked to bring composting to airports, and established a recycling system that connects more than 50 airports and 800 flights a day. She also works on fuel savings and a program that has offset over 200 million pounds of carbon.

Bard MBA: How did you first get into sustainability?

Sophia Mendelsohn: China got me thinking about corporate sustainability. I lived and worked there for 10 years while I was in the manufacturing and export business. There I first-hand began to see the chemical impacts on people and the environment: grey skies and speaking with children who had never seen a sunset because there was so much coal and soot in the air.

This started my very personal motivation to look for companies that wanted to integrate environmental practices into the core of their business model and manufacturing processes. That was well over eight years ago.

I took my first sustainability job in China where I was head of sustainability at Haworth Incorporated for Asia Pacific, Latin America and the Middle East. Over there I focused mainly on two categories: chemicals in manufacturing of furniture and sustainable wood sources. We looked to take out the bad chemicals that negatively impacted air quality and increase the good stuff like sustainably harvested wood products.

When I returned back to the U.S., I actually found my job at JetBlue on LinkedIn, and applied emphasizing my previous experience in changing and growing systems.

I am thrilled to say that the area and the sustainability industry has only grown since I began years ago, and that the processes that were unique at the time are now commonplace.

Bard MBA: How did JetBlue start on its sustainability journey, and what were the key motivators behind that beginning?

Mendelsohn: Environment conservation, what’s beneficial for people and financial savings all come together to make the case for creating a sustainability position at JetBlue. The same combination makes the case to motivate others to work on that subject and under that context.

When JetBlue started, we always had people at the core who were primarily delivering customer service as part of the business model. JetBlue started with the idea that the better you treat people, both your own and outside of the company, the better the experience, the better the product, the better the profit. 

From that, JetBlue grew up with a very strong CSR in philanthropy. It grew a robust and generous program focused on community needs like literacy and the importance of play in areas where underprivileged children don’t have access to playgrounds.

Also, about three or four years ago, the competitive landscape in all of corporate America, as well as in aviation, began to change. There was a general realization across board rooms that social responsibility only could not cover the responsibility of externalities, natural-resource use and disposal. When we talk about sustainability or corporate environmental responsibility, ultimately we are hearing a call for protecting ecosystems for the benefit of people, communities and the economy.

At the end of the day, we are all cemented around these issues in some way socially. When things like climate change, natural-resource use and extraction became more visible on the radar of corporate America within the communal dialogue of our country, that’s when JetBlue said, "Let’s have a special department focused specifically on resource consumption and waste, and that will be the basis of our sustainability."

Bard MBA: You speak about putting people in the center and emphasizing a people-oriented focus in educating consumers about JetBlue’s sustainability initiatives. Can you tell us more about that?

Mendelsohn: One of the ways we educate consumers on what we’re doing — and I’m not sure "educating" is the right word — is more like sharing. We all work very hard to create these programs, to fund them, to execute them and, ultimately, sharing them is easy. That’s the reward at the end of the journey, and getting positive feedback from customers and crewmembers is part of the validation process.

We have the privilege of being able to put videos on board. If you’ve ever flown on JetBlue, you know that every single seat has a great TV, and it’s a wonderful way to communicate with customers about the projects we’re doing. That’s a very valuable source of communication that is unique to JetBlue, even within the airline industry.

We also, of course, use social media. JetBlue is one of the first companies to really use Twitter to deliver customer service. Who knew that a corporation could be hilarious in 140 characters? In particular, people want human-interest stories on Facebook and want to feel good.

They don’t just want to know how much they are charged for a ticket — that’s a very transactional engagement with a customer. For us, the ticket and the social media [are] the platform, and CSR and sustainability are the content that we can use to leverage that social media.

For example, one of the most fun ways we share with customers is by painting planes. Planes are enormous and when you see a plane at events with a special message, you can’t miss it; it is actually even more powerful than that TV right in front of your face. Most recently, we painted planes for firefighters and for our country’s veterans.

These aren’t just faceless, they are big rollouts where we honor the individuals. We roll out the plane with great fanfare for the first time because it engages our crewmembers, because it engages customers. It’s not every airline that will paint a plane for corporate responsibility.