MBA Students Work to Position Just Salad as Leader on Carbon Labeling

Just Salad carbon labeling
In June 2020, Just Salad announced a commitment to label all of its menu items with a corresponding carbon footprint, becoming the first U.S. restaurant chain to do so, by September 2020. Calculated in partnership with a team of NYU Stern MBA students through a Stern Consulting Corps project, Just Salad’s carbon footprint labels will become a core pillar of the company’s sustainability strategy and its “convenient sustainability” ethos.

“For well over a decade, Just Salad has pioneered zero-waste dining through its Reusable Bowl program, and we wanted to display that same level of leadership in the realm of climate-conscious eating,” said Sandra Noonan, Chief Sustainability Officer, Just Salad, reflecting on the origins of the project. “We thus decided to carbon label our menu and given the scope of that undertaking, we knew we needed a talented team that was equal to the task. Stern's Center for Sustainable Business immediately came to mind, and they made us aware of Stern Consulting Corps.”

The MBA student team included Drew Hackman, MBA ‘21, Kerry McGlinchey, MBA ‘20, Rebecca Meyer, MBA ‘21, Sanjana Padmanabhan, MBA ‘21, and Matthew Senter, MBA ‘21. “I was very impressed with the carbon footprint calculator that the team developed,” said Noonan of the students’ work. “They put an immense amount of work into making the calculator as robust and easy-to-use as possible. Given the complexity of calculating food-related carbon footprints, that was no easy feat.”
Read on to hear more about the students’ experience.
Did any of your other classes/projects at Stern prove helpful for this experience?

Drew Hackman, MBA ‘21: Some of our team members were concurrently in a class at Stern called “Sustainability for Competitive Advantage,” in which we explored how to “embed” sustainability into a firm beyond corporate social responsibility initiatives. Since Just Salad already lives and breathes green initiatives, we were able to focus on execution and governance in our recommendations to ensure the project becomes a sustainable implementation tool rather than a bolt-on, which client leadership met with open arms.
Did the team face any roadblocks throughout the project?

Matthew Senter, MBA ‘21: One roadblock that everyone faced this semester was dealing with the new reality of life during COVID-19. Even as this crisis presented extreme challenges to the entire restaurant industry, and Just Salad was busy adapting to the crisis, we were grateful that Sandra and Just Salad remained fully committed to the project.

Rebecca Meyer, MBA ‘21: In general, the concept of carbon labeling is still fairly new; while great work has been done within academic institutions and within a couple of pioneering companies, most customers have never seen or engaged with a carbon label. As a result, there is no gold standard for carbon labeling that we could look at and adapt to meet Just Salad’s needs. At the same time, our team was steeped in troves of fascinating research on the carbon footprint of food. We had to thread a needle of providing just the right amount of information through the carbon label itself – too much, and customers would be overwhelmed; not enough, and it would be meaningless.
Why is important for the future of this company, industry, and the business world in general?

MS: As climate change becomes increasingly dire, consumers become more educated and demanding, and governments implement additional carbon pricing and taxing schemes, it will become increasingly advantageous to be a leader in carbon labelling and environmentally friendly practices generally. Our work will help Just Salad to further cement their reputation as a leader in sustainability, which is good for their brand and business. Second, the hope is that it will lead to increased awareness of the impact of food choices on the environment, causing other restaurants to follow Just Salad’s lead.

RM: In addition to driving consumer attitudes around climate-conscious food choices, our carbon calculator also spurred interesting insights for the Just Salad team internally. For example, we learned that cheese contributes a disproportionately high carbon footprint, driving up the climate impact of otherwise low-emission menu items. As a result, Just Salad is considering adding plant-based cheeses to its menu.
How did this experience prepare you for future classes/projects? For your future career path?

Kerry McGlinchey, MBA ‘20: One of the skills we developed during this experience was how to deal with ambiguity. Oftentimes there is no one way of approaching a problem outside of the classroom. This project gave us the opportunity to dig in and analyze what we were trying to achieve and what had already been done, then put together a comprehensive proposal based on these analyses.

Sanjana Padmanabhan, MBA ‘21: Another key skill we learned was developing and delivering clear messaging to our client to ensure we remained on the same page, especially once our project became virtual due to COVID-19. In a virtual environment, it is ever more important to explain things thoroughly and deliver clear, concise messaging, and I’m sure we will all take this learning going forward in our internships and beyond.