Applying classroom knowledge to solve real-world problems

Through the S-Lab class, students apply knowledge from the classroom to solve real-world problems and see firsthand how businesses are tackling the massive challenges of sustainability. In the process they develop and refine decision making tools that advance the sustainability field.

The analyses of the S-Lab teams help host organizations take action to improve social, environmental, and economic outcomes in the long-term. For a closer look at the 2018 S-Lab projects and their results, please check out this sampling.

Allagash Brewing Company

The client: Allagash Brewing Company was founded in 1995, as a one-man operation in Portland, Maine, by Rob Tod. Today Allagash beer is available in 17 states and the District of Columbia. The company is dedicated to crafting the best Belgian-inspired beers in the world.

The challenge:Allagash produces CO2 during the beer fermentation process and seeks  to reduce these emissions to zero.

The task:Help Allagash better understand feasible pathways for CO2 recovery from the fermentation process to be used for carbonation.

The approach:Completed a CO2 lifecycle map and causal loop diagram. Conducted financial Analysis (DCF), carbon Footprint analysis, and feasibility study. Created a financial and production model to assess feasibility and track CO2 consumption and production in the future. Conducted an alternative CO2 reduction strategies assessment.

Key insights: Under current conditions, a recovery system is not financially feasible. At present, Allagash consumes 50% more CO2 than it is able to recover through its beer fermentation process. If Allagash were to install a CO2 recovery system, they would need to continue purchasing CO2 from their supplier at a cost of $0.22/lbin order to supplement their recovered CO2, yielding negative financial results. Allagash will not reduce overall emissions through CO2 recovery because (1) their supplier produces CO2 as a byproduct and would either find a new buyer for Allagash’s non-purchased CO2 or emit it into the atmosphere and (2) Allagash’s recovered CO2 will still be released into the atmosphere during the beer consumption stage. Allagash must hit 85% production/consumption CO2 ratio to be financially feasible:

•CO2 offsets are a short term solution

•CO2 production monitoring will help Allagash to better understand their production and consumption of CO2


Ceres Inc.

The client: Ceres is a nonprofit organization working with investors, companies, policymakers, and public interest groups to integrate long-term sustainability goals into corporate and investment practices.

The challenge: Almost all global equity portfolios have significant water risk and no guidelines for investors to assess the water risk of their portfolios. Ceres needed help to engage asset managers and asset owners with various early-stage water footprinting techniques to catalyze other investment funds to do so.

The task: Analyzed lessons learned from carbon footprinting efforts in investor portfolios, applied those lessons to current water footprinting methods and recommended frameworks to help Ceres engage with asset managers and asset owners on water risk.

The approach: Identified publicly available data of water usage and pollution in organizations, industries, and regions, which impact key water risk and opportunities. Provided Ceres with insights on the following:

  • Reviewed current footprinting methods and provided and ideas for future portfolio water footprinting methods
  • Key lessons learned from carbon footprintin
  • Applications from lessons learned to avoid in water footprinting and improve current practices

Key insights:

  • There is a lack of consensus regarding water risk metrics
  • Current data is inconsistent and of poor quality
  • Simplicity is key: Metrics must be explainable and defensible
  • Water volume by itself cannot answer the fundamental question of water risk exposure
  • Lack of transparency in the current methodology is cited by asset managers as a reason not to use current tools
  • Being proactive can help investors mitigate the financial and environmental risks associated with water use and water pollution

Farmer's Fridge

The client: Farmer's Fridge, the Chicago-based company whose mission is to provide better access to delicious, nutritious food by using technology to transform the supply chain. The company builds and deploys automated Fridges that allow them to provide affordable, restaurant-quality meals with the goal of replacing traditional fast food. They currently have over 180 locations in Chicago and Milwaukee, including various hospitals, universities, airports, retail stores and office buildings, offering breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks with a whole foods and plant-based focus.

The challenge: Farmer’s Fridge has not begun to measure areas in which they have an environmental or social impact. The company has set ambitious targets for growth and recognizes that establishing an understanding of their impact is necessary before changing operations down the line becomes more challenging at a larger scale.

The task: Help Farmer’s Fridge understand which areas of their operations have the largest environmental impact and how to measure such impact.

The approach:

  • Developed a visual diagram of Farmer’s Fridge’s operations
  • Divided the operations into impact areas
  • Used industry tools to define metrics to quantify applicable business, environmental and social impacts
  • Conducted a card sort test with customers and management to understand what impact areas matter to these stakeholders
  • Prioritized the metrics areas based on their ease of measurement, estimated environmental impact potential and impact on Farmer’s Fridge in terms of revenue, cost or risk

Key insights:

  • High level impact areas are: Kitchen & Office, Transportation, Jars, Fridges and Consumption/Disposal.
  • Current fridge emissions are estimated at 148 Metric Tons GHG emissions/year for 116 fridges. FF should continue to monitor this metric and continue to collect data on real time energy usage as the company gears up for growth. 
  • Truck emissions is estimated at 60.29 metric tons of GHG emissions for 6 truck routes/year. Emissions could be reduced through continuous optimization of routes, transitioning to electric vehicles, route and truck sharing with other companies, and redesigning loading. 
  • Reduce transport emissions through getting the most out of every move, redesigning logistics network, collaboration with other etc. 
  • As it relates to the jars, emphasize Reduce, Reuse and then Recycle, in that order.
  • Sustainability communication should be directly linked to the company’s values. 
  • Measurements should be recalculated on a consecutive basis as the largest impact areas will fluctuate depending on operational choices and scale. Monitoring, measuring and analysis of metrics as an iterative process, that will evolve as the company and its impact grows.

GE Power

The client: GE Power is an American energy equipment and service provider, owned by General Electric. GE Power is one of the largest energy equipment providers in the world; it’s technology provides nearly one-third of all electricity generated globally.

The challenge: GE Power seeks to generate $1M in new revenue from a new emerging market small-scale solar business, with a particular focus on Africa markets.

The task: Help GE Power realize market potential in Africa and increase revenue with a scalable business model of positive net impact through providing affordable, reliable, and sustainable power by employing a hardware-and-software strategy.

The approach: Conducted a preliminary market analysis of the Africa microgrid sector, conducted interviews and market segmentation, and studied market conditions of key players, competitors, entrepreneurs, economic conditions, institutional organizations, supporting policies and government incentives.

Key insights: GE Power should consider three strategic solutions:

  • Be first to market in Africa, go big, build a digital platform to sell GE products and competitor products, broaden scope with mobile apps
  • Focus on exceptional customer service, build conventional customer loyalty, and product affordability
  • Build growth partnerships, become an epicenter for innovation with small business owners, community leaders, and entrepreneurs


The client: Patagonia is an American outdoor and adventure apparel company widely known for its environmental activism, high quality gear, and leading edge commitment to high road employer practices.

The challenge: Patagonia is committed to the Fair Labor Association’s fair compensation project to pilot and implement living-wage models in their finished-goods supply chain

The task: How much does it cost to implement a living wage in Patagonia’s factories? What are some of the methods the company could use to implement a living wage?

The approach:

  • Research / interviews were used to: 
  • Understand Patagonia’s opportunities and challenges for living wage implementation
  • Introduce the idea of living wage initiatives to factories
  • Review 20+ reports on living wage theory and practice
  • Review previous living wage work done by Patagonia
  • Create methodologies and frameworks for achieving living wage
  • Research successful case studies

Key insights:

  • The Living Wage goal will be complex and hard
  • “Living Wage” is an ambiguous entity
  • Getting credible sources of benchmark targets is hard and really important to win factory buy-in
  • Getting internal teams on the same page is critical
  • Industry groups can’t solve it alone, entities like FLA are important allies, but have limited direct influence towards goal
  • Data transparency is a real roadblock; many critical assumptions in living wage calculations are typically not available due to competitive reasons
  • It’s easier to cover average wage vs. all wages
  • Factories vary significantly & no one-size-fits-all; success will depend on being focused with which factories to work on, while tailoring approaches based on individual situations
  • Getting to living wages will be difficult, but the tools exist to make a strong push

Toyota Mobility Foundation and MBTA

The client: The Toyota Mobility Foundation (TMF) is a General Incorporated Foundation in Japan, set up by the Toyota Motor Corporation, committed to supporting equitable access to transportation for all. Established in 2014, TMF helps overcome all kinds barriers to mobility for all people.

The challenge: Ridership for Transportation Network Companies (TNC) has grown rapidly, up to 96,000 rides per day in Boston in 2017. Increased TNC ridership has led to a decrease in MBTA ridership and revenue.

The task: TMF seeks to understand the dynamics between TNCs and public transportation (subway, surface rail, and bus) and find a healthy balance that achieves an increase in access to mobility and a sustainable transportation market, with a focus on the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA).

The approach: Develop a framework/structure (a causal loop diagram) that describes the relationship across key variables that impact the transportation ecosystem in Boston and devise a data collection methodology to understand rider behavior/decisions.

Key Insights: More work is necessary to fully explain this system and implement effective policy solutions. Some of the specific future activities are:

  • Refine the choice-based conjoint survey with broad distribution to represent Boston’s entire demographics
  • Test and refine the mixed utility of key variables
  • Study multi-stage and multi-mode rides and transfers
  • Study the “last mile” as an element of ride choice
  • Identify and focus analysis on areas with the highest potential for impact or most effective leverage points

William Sonoma, Inc./West Elm

The client: Williams-Sonoma, Inc., is an American consumer retail company that sells kitchenwares and home furnishings. Headquartered in San Francisco, California, t is one of the largest e-commerce retailers in the U.S., and one of the biggest multi-channel specialty retailers in the world. The West Elm brand was launched in 2002.

The challenge: Williams-Sonoma, Inc., seeks to run a pilot program at its West Elm stores to increase landfill diversion to 75%.

The task: Develop targeted recommendations for a pilot program at West Elm stores to divert 75% of waste at the store level from landfills to recycling and composting streams across all operations by 2021.

The approach: Analyzed West Elm’s waste streams, focusing on identifying landfill diversion opportunities at the store level. Conducted interviews, site visits, a store questionnaire, and benchmarking research to understand recycling challenges and learn about best practices. Mapped the West Elm Fenway store stock room waste stream and identified key pain points.

Key insights:

  • Staff is enthusiastic about the challenge of recycling more and there is opportunity around awareness raising and accessibility of training and language used to describe efforts.
  • The company’s packaging reduction efforts are a key input to landfill reduction. 
  • Backroom space scarcity and the variability of local laws and regulation around recycling and composting are limiting factors.
  • Efforts can be bolstered by showing net savings across departments and P&Ls and considering incentives for the stores teams at key points in the recycling process.

World Resources Institute 

The client: WRI is a global research non-profit organization established in 1982, focusing on turning big ideas into action at the nexus of environment, economic opportunity and human well-being.

The challenge: WRI sees the collaboration of businesses and national governments as a key opportunity to enhance overall climate commitments under the Paris Agreement.

The task: Using a global food and beverage company doing business in Chile as an example, create a template WRI can provide to corporate sustainability staff as they produce briefing documents for their C-Suite executives, preparing CEOs to engage meaningfully on climate issues with national leaders.

The approach: Developed a framework for the template including six stages.

  • Understand internal activities and goals
  • Select a strategic country to target for engagement
  • Conduct research on target country
  • Find the intersection of interests
  • Identify best method of engagement
  • Prepare briefing document 

Key insights: There are many positive and promising aspects to this model, and we believe that the above framework provides a good template for designing an initial engagement strategy and brief for company leadership. However, it is important to also consider the challenges of this model as companies begin to more actively consider their role in national affairs.