Green Genes

In the early 2000s, eco-minded Genentech employees began to notice that the company could put more everyday environmental practices in place. They didn’t know how to approach company-wide changes, and couldn’t just barge into labs, interrupting scientists who were working on new cancer drugs to ask them to please sort their trash. So instead of starting at the top, they began with the bottom.

In August 2003, Tim Bishop, who worked in the Environmental, Health and Safety department, called a meeting to give employees an opportunity to pitch ideas to company leaders about how to green Genentech. He drafted an internal flyer, specifically for this event, with Kermit the Frog and the Hulk –“You, too, can be green!”– and expected only a handful of people to show up. After 75 employees packed the room, he had to close the doors since he hadn’t ordered enough lunch.

At that session, employees approached the problem of greening in typical Genentech style: brainstorming creative, innovative ideas. Bishop turned the session into a game, where anyone whose idea got three “yes” tokens from senior leaders on a new sustainability committee would see the idea implemented. “I said ‘GO,’ and the room exploded with action,” Bishop says. Everyone scribbled down pitches. In 20 minutes, the group generated 150 ideas.

“To see the enthusiasm, energy, creativity, and commitment of these employees really made an impression on the leaders,” says Bishop. It also made an impression on the employees who were there, and an internal movement – Green Genes – was born.

The grassroots greening of the company started right away, with employees taking a creative, and often scientific, approach to environmental problems:

Potato "SpudWare"

It isn’t always easy going green. When plastic cutlery was replaced with new “SpudWare” made from potatoes, the early versions would melt in hot soup, break on solid foods, and dissolve in hot coffee. A few iterations later, our compostable utensils are working just fine.

Reusable Water Bottles

In the mid-2000s, single-use individual water bottles were everywhere at Genentech. In 2007, Green Genes members presented the science behind the rationale for discontinuing plastic water bottles, along with the results of a taste test of bottled vs. tap water. Revealing the results led to the distribution of over 10,000 Kleen Kanteens – one to each employee on campus. Today, our most recent buildings have stations specifically designed to fill up your personal water bottle, which helped us to reduce use of disposable bottles by 10 percent in 2015.

Army of Darkness

A playful guerilla-style group within the Energy sub-team of Green Genes began a campaign on turning out lights, installing motion detectors, identifying locations that needed improved lighting controls, installing light switch stickers, and even stealthily reaching into conference rooms to flip the switches.

Now, Green Genes has grown to 3,500 people, including 200 Green Guides, who volunteer to educate others on campus about being more environmentally conscious. Along the way, Green Genes has helped the company evolve to one that is known for its sustainability. “In the early days, the Green Genes group was about composting and reusable water bottles, and now being green is integrated into the work we do, our scientists, and our science,” says Katie Excoffier, Sustainability Manager. “It’s the way we do business.”

Over the years, Green Genes’ focus on environmentalism has created much broader changes in the company. Composting (which Green Genes started in cafeterias in the early days) has expanded to most buildings around campus. Water and energy conservation programs have been put in place, and employees can attend Eco Fairs, popular beach clean-ups, and Lunch and Learns on topics ranging from beekeeping to the drought.

When Genentech merged with Roche in 2009, environmental sustainability became a key business goal for the company. Last year, Genentech announced ambitious new goals to reduce CO2 emissions from onsite energy use and transportation sources, and cut water use and landfill waste.

Genentech has also built new green buildings. Building 35 on the South San Francisco campus was designed in partnership with the Department of Energy’s FLEXLAB at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, with the goal to provide employees with a sustainable and healthy environment. That building consumes 60 percent less electricity and 71 percent less fuel than the national standard for similar sized structures.

Green Genes has even managed to make its way into the labs. While no one wanted to bother the scientists about recycling, it turned out the scientists began reaching out themselves. “They said, ‘we’re generating all this plastic waste, isn’t there a way to recycle it?’” Excoffier says.

With its Green BioPharma program, Genentech is integrating sustainable practices into its core business, addressing how scientists can conduct research in the most responsible way and still be efficient. Experts in sustainability help scientists set up their labs on a customized basis. Those labs, which use plastics, glass, chemicals, solvents, burners and vents, are now able to recycle non-standard materials, reduce energy consumption, and decrease waste.

Tim Bishop, who left Genentech in 2006 and returned this year, worried that the Green Genes club might lose steam after his departure. Instead, he has seen it thrive in ways he couldn’t have imagined. “The Green Genes team has been a force for change. I not only see changes around the campus, but in the awareness and behavior of all the employees.”

Since its first meeting, Green Genes has successfully pushed the company to become much more committed to environmental sustainability, but that doesn’t mean the grassroots group has gone away. Even as Green Genes has grown to 3,500, its members never settle for “good enough” when it comes to going green. Every day, they keep asking, “Why do we do it this way?” and “Is there a better way?” to push to make Genentech and everyone who works here more environmentally conscious in the workplace and at home.