From more sustainable packaging design to supporting music education, Sonos is tightening its focus on the future. We sat down with Director of Sustainability Mark Heintz to learn about the company’s latest environmental and social impact initiatives.
Mark Heintz spends a lot of time thinking about all the plastic in the sea. As a long-time environmentalist and Santa Barbara resident with a penchant for weekend paddleboarding, he cringes at the headlines about ocean-polluting plastics. But unlike most of us, Heintz carries concerns like this one into work each morning, where he has the opportunity to try to make a difference. As the Director of Sustainability at Sonos, Heintz focuses on things like minimising the amount of plastic Sonos uses in its product packaging, or how the company’s facilities and supply chain can reduce their impact on the planet.
In the company’s first-ever Sustainability Report, Sonos recently outlined its latest efforts to strengthen the sustainability of its products and operations across five key categories: social impact, product design, employees, supply chain, and facilities. We sat down with Heintz to learn more about what Sonos is doing to optimise its impact on the world.
You work as the Director of Sustainability at Sonos. What does that entail?
When I arrived at Sonos four years ago, I affectionately described our sustainability efforts as “random acts of greenness.” It’s not a criticism at all because most companies start this way. You see a bit of recycling here and maybe an energy programme for a facility there. My job was to pull these efforts together and develop a comprehensive strategy that captured all of Sonos’s social and environmental impact.
Sonos recently released its first-ever sustainability report. What are some of the important findings?
Our framework offers five pillars that define our company’s social and environmental impact: product design, supply chain, facilities, social impact, and employee initiatives that promote diversity and volunteering. We tied each of these pillars to goals and metrics so that we can be transparent and measure our progress over time. You can tell stories, but unless you’re willing to publicly define your goals and measure your results, you’re not showing a real commitment to corporate social responsibility.
How does the need to be more environmentally conscious influence the way we design our product packaging?
We try to use as much paper as possible in our packaging, to avoid plastics. Trees are a more renewable resource than fossil fuels. You can grow a tree in 20 or 30 years, but it takes millions of years to create oil. We want to both shift to paper and choose post-consumer recycled content fibre. In cases where we do need to use virgin paper—either to meet packaging strength requirements or because we need to print effective labels—we’ll choose certified paper, which means that we know that it’s not sourced from an old growth or endangered forest.
When we started to look at packaging through a sustainability lens, we began to challenge some of our long-held assumptions. For example, for our heavier products we traditionally used a foam cushioning system, but by experimenting with other materials we were able to create our first foam-free packaging. We were able to reduce the Playbar box’s size by 40%. This allows us to put 40% more Playbars on a pallet, in a shipping container, or on a truck. That helps us minimise our logistics costs and environmental footprint at once. The best sustainability stories save money and minimise our impact on the planet.
What about the devices that come in those boxes? Like all of the other technology in our lives, the Sonos system needs electricity to function and keep the sound flowing. What can we do to minimise the impact this has on the climate?
We’re making an effort to reduce the power our products consume when they’re not being used. Our products consume just a little bit of power to keep the WiFi working so they’re ready to start playing at any given moment. If you can reduce that standby power by even one watt, that’s a huge energy savings when we scale it to the millions of Sonos products out there in the world.
How is Sonos attempting to offset its carbon footprint?
As a global company, we want to minimise the environmental impact of the travel that our employees do. We tallied up the miles and the carbon used in our air travel and bought carbon offsets through a programme that supports carbon reduction projects around the world. We picked a project in China 175 miles away from our manufacturing activities—a gravity-fed hydropower project with no dam. Dams can cause all kinds of environmental disruption. The carbon savings enabled by not putting a dam there is the equivalent of all the carbon emissions from our air travel miles.
You’ve been focused on sustainability efforts for years at places like Hewlett-Packard, Deckers Brands, and now Sonos. What led you to work in sustainability in the first place?
The last role I held before I got into sustainability was product marketing for Hewlett-Packard’s printing business. At the time, I was attending business school in the evenings. After getting burnt out, I took a leave of absence from HP, travelled to Asia and South America, and got direct exposure to the conditions in which people in the developing world live.
When I was staying in a small village in Nepal, there was a woman there who ran the teahouse, and she would leave for four hours each day. After a few days, I asked her, “Where are you going every day?” She responded, “I have to hike to get wood to cook food and warm the teahouse.” She told me it only used to take her 20 minutes to get the wood, but as the area had become deforested, she had to hike further and further. The locals, on the other hand, used yak dung to heat their houses and cook. But tourists like me didn’t like that idea, so she went on this big hike every day to keep her guests happy. I found this experience both humbling and a little bit embarrassing as a westerner.
“You can tell stories, but unless you’re willing to measure yourself and publicly state your goals, you’re not showing a real commitment.”
How did that encounter change your perspective?
I came back to the U.S. having determined to change my career. I started out in the facilities department at HP, managing the recycling programme for a big printer manufacturing facility that was in the Portland, Oregon area. My friends and family thought I was nuts, because I had just received my MBA and switched from a coveted marketing job to a much lower level job at a facilities department, working with a custodial crew on recycling. But when you can follow your heart and your passion, work becomes much more interesting, engaging and, ultimately, rewarding.
What excites you about tech and sustainability today?
Companies are taking sustainability more seriously, staffing up, and hiring leaders. We’re starting to see more companies measure their impact and putting together annual sustainability reports. At Sonos, we see our team’s own interest in sustainability issues growing, as well. Younger employees are using a company’s sustainability performance to inform where they work and what they buy. Seeing that grass-roots interest is encouraging and helpful in influencing executive decisions.
How do you like to spend your free time?
I like to paddleboard in the surf, hike in the Santa Barbara mountains, and ride my bike. A good weekend for me is one in which I can do all three.