University of Vermont

Vermont Quarterly

Entertaining Efficiency

Tristram Coffin
Whole Foods Markets' Sustainability Team, Tristam Coffin ’08 center. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Department of Energy’s Better Buildings Challenge SWAP)


Entertaining Efficiency

Reality video role meshes with alum’s innovative work at Whole Foods

By Thomas Weaver

Tristam Coffin ’08, sustainable facilities coordinator for Whole Foods Markets, walks through a hotel lobby flanked by two similarly hip Whole Foods colleagues and three button-down executives from the Hilton Hotel chain. They’ve just toured the Hilton San Francisco, studying the massive building from kitchen to guest rooms to rooftop HVAC systems with an eagle eye on efficiency, all part of a webisode that spreads the gospel of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Better Buildings Challenge.

Titled “SWAP,” it is an unlikely, proudly nerdy, reality series built on the odd coupling of Hilton types and Whole Foods types in a mutual review of one another’s efficiency practices. The shows mimic the conventions of the genre right down to the soundtrack’s insouciant pizzicato suggesting there is mischief about to go down. Walking through the Hilton lobby, Coffin plays to that as he points at his own eyes, then back in the face of the Hilton exec — universal language for putting one’s foe on notice.

During a recent phone interview about his career, Coffin laughs at the mention of his “badass” moment and his light-hearted presence in the outtakes reel. “If you’re not having fun with what you’re doing, then you probably aren’t in the right place or the right position,” he says. “I have a huge passion for what I do. But when we’re environmentalists, the daunting tasks before us can beat us up and we won’t be to accomplish what we’d like to accomplish. It becomes about enjoying the small steps to make big progress.”

The DOE videos are a sidelight to Coffin’s work overseeing sustainability practices at 43 Whole Foods facilities from Monterey Bay to northern Nevada. Coffin began his career with Whole Foods in the northeast region not long after his UVM graduation, before moving to the Northern California offices, based in Emeryville, several years ago.  

He made his mark within Whole Foods, and more broadly in his field, with leadership on an ambitious retail store project in Brooklyn along the infamously fouled Gowanus Canal. Remediation on the 4.5 acres owned by Whole Foods and dealing with the canal’s designation as an EPA Superfund site were among the project’s baseline hurdles, but the company was determined to soldier on. “We wanted to take this otherwise rundown, polluted location and turn it into something we could be proud of and highlight as a beacon of sustainability,” Coffin says of the project, which he took lead of in early 2011.

Coffin rattles off sustainability achievements of the store, which opened in December 2013. It was the first LEED Platinum Whole Foods market in the country, one of a handful of grocery stores nationwide to earn that designation. There is a 20,000-square-foot hydroponic greenhouse on the roof, managed with Whole Foods’ partners Gotham Greens.

But the feature that really gets Coffin rolling is when he describes the state-of-the-art eco-friendly refrigerant system in the store, entirely removing synthetic refrigerants linked to global warming. He, kindly, slows pace as the conversation heads into more arcane matters of building cooling and food refrigeration, then shifts his focus to a big picture point. Coffin notes that though projects like the Brooklyn market’s rooftop garden or a recent deal he was involved with to bring solar energy systems to more than 200 Whole Foods outlets nationwide grab the attention of the media and the public, there are quieter gains to be made.

“There is a lot that goes into operating facilities efficiently, and usually those impacts can often times be ten-fold beyond some of the sexier things we could talk about for days on end,” he says. “If I can make things work efficiently from an operations perspective and a facilities perspective, then we’re going to be wasting less and reducing resource usage such as water, obviously a huge topic here in California.”

Looking back on his UVM days, Coffin credits the interdisciplinary knowledge base of his Environmental Studies major, coupled with experiences like working as a research assistant for the UVM Transportation Research Center, as being key to finding his direction and preparing for his career path. Stephanie Kaza, Rick Paradis, Jon Erickson, and Richard Watts are among the faculty who influenced him. “I could go on forever about these professors and how they, and the experiences they opened me up to, shaped the person I am today, but we would be here for a long time,” Coffin says. 

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