Translating Environmental Volunteer Experience into the Workplace

Sep 9, 2011 1:00 PM ET

Translating environmental volunteer experience into the workplace

By Matthew Hammer, September 9, 2011

This spring was the second in a row for me that included a week in the coffee-growing region of Costa Rica. For the last three years, Ernst & Young has arranged volunteer expeditions for teams of its people, first to Costa Rica and now also to Brazil, in conjunction with the Earthwatch Institute, a global organization that supports scientific research into sustainability issues.

Initially, I thought volunteering for Earthwatch was just a way to serve a personal interest in the environment. It seemed to have very little to do with my work in Ernst & Young’s financial services office, advising large banking clients on managing risks such as the new regulations that emerged in the wake of the financial crisis. After two trips to Costa Rica, however, I see things differently. I now believe that climate change and sustainability issues affect all of our clients.

The expeditions I was on included both field research and a skills-based project for the coffee cooperative Coope Tarrazu, which represents 2400 farmers and is committed to sustainable coffee production. After a great experience last year as a volunteer, I returned this year as a volunteer team leader. In the mornings, we helped Dr. John Banks of the University of Washington, an Earthwatch scientist, look at the relationship between pollinators, coffee production, and the habitat in which the coffee is grown: forest versus a field barren of shade trees. As the forests disappear, bees may be less numerous and less effective in pollinating coffee plants. In order to boost production in their absence, farmers may turn to over-fertilization with synthetic fertilizers, which kills the soil and contributes to greenhouse gas emissions.

It was our job to set traps for the bees and take them back to the lab, where the scientists would analyze their number and species diversity. We also conducted observations ourselves, watching coffee plants and counting the number of pollinators that came to them. I’ve never been a science person, but I really enjoyed gathering data. I also believe that supporting the sustainable production of such an important crop worldwide is a significant way to make a difference.

In the afternoons, we advised the coffee cooperative Coope Tarrazu on projects they’d selected. Last year, we’d looked at various pricing strategies and helped them find ways to hedge their risks in the financial market, since coffee is one of the most volatile of all commodities. On the first day this year, it was gratifying to learn from the CFO that they’d taken our recommendation on pricing and that it had positively affected their bottom line.

For this year’s project, Coope Tarrazu asked us to help them to think more broadly about sustainability as both a business and a social issue. Since the United Nations Global Compact is the gold standard in the field, we used that to help Coope Tarrazu create a roadmap for itself. We also laid out a way for the cooperative to measure its carbon footprint. The country of Costa Rica has pledged to be carbon neutral within the next 10 years. In addition, one of the cooperative’s competitors is offering “carbon-neutral coffee,” giving the farmers another powerful incentive to become more sustainable.


At the end of the week, we did a presentation for an audience that included both the coffee farmers and the CFO of the cooperative. It was the first bilingual presentation I’d ever done, with the PowerPoint in Spanish, my talk in English, and the translations provided by a member of the team—a real learning experience.

My time in Costa Rica has persuaded me to personally take on the challenge of being more green, and I now live in a green, LEED-certified community in Charlotte, North Carolina.

However, it has also broadened me professionally. I am looking for new ways to integrate what I do with Ernst & Young’s climate change and sustainability services practice. A corporate responsibility plan that includes a shrinking carbon footprint may not be a regulatory requirement for my banking clients. But they are well aware that it is an issue that interests both investors and the general public.

Ultimately, it was fascinating for me to see all aspects of the coffee business from the ground up. Dr. Banks’ program is called “From Community to Cup,” and that certainly describes the volunteers’ experience. None of us will ever look at a cup of coffee the same way again.