What Your Company Needs in a Sustainability Strategy

Originally posted on the Creative Coast website – click here to read the original article.

We are fortunate to have worked with a number of folks in the Savannah area, from nonprofits to municipalities to Fortune 1000 companies – helping them craft sustainability strategies that are part of their overall business or operational strategy.

What the heck does that entail? Most of the time, people start out thinking we’re talking about making sure they have a recycling plan, or a policy to turn off the lights. Get those two things down, and bam – you’ve got yourself a gosh-darn sustainability strategy, right? Well, not so much.

Sure, things like recycling are important and very visible signals of sustainability that everyone can participate in, but a comprehensive sustainability strategy a recycling program does not make.

Question:  which is more successful – a recycling program with a 100% rate or a 0% rate?

We push that the answer is the 0% rate. If you’re recycling 100% of your trash, you have still created a bunch of waste – you’re just making sure it goes into the right bin. The true sustainability strategy is to find the cause of the waste and eliminate it – thus not needing a recycling program. That’s where we’re trying to go – and that is a component of a deep sustainability strategy.

Here are three points to consider in your sustainability strategy, no matter your organization’s size or mission.

1.  Enhance Value for the Organization

This may seem self-evident, but a lot of times it is not. See the anecdote above. Many people want a sustainability strategy because it sounds nice, or seems like the right thing to do (and it is just putting your can in the right bin!). While I am a firm believer that it is indeed an obligation we should all recognize, when done correctly, your sustainability strategy can be so much more than just a moral imperative.Your program should add value through any number of mechanisms.

Cost savings through utility or waste reductions are typically the first that come to mind, but you should also see new opportunities to enhance your brand, to differentiate your product or services, to attract new customers, or to attract or retain top talent.

Just think, if Company A and Company B both make widgets that are similar from a cost or performance perspective, do you think people might be attracted to purchase a widget from the company with a strong sustainability program that can market their widget as having less of an environmental impact than their competition? I sure do. And if both were hiring, I’d opt for the one with a better program that allowed me to work towards a cause besides increasing shareholder wealth. And the company probably has lower cost structure too. There is a lot of value in a strong sustainability program – much more than just being the right thing to do.

2.  Check What Your Peers and Competitors are Doing

Like any successful organizational change, it helps to be able to benchmark where you are and where are going. It is easy to look at internal metrics and set goals – i.e. 10% reduction in electricity consumption over the prior year – – but to have a truly robust strategy, where do your efforts rank vis-a-vis your competition and others in your industry?

If you are just worried about your 10% electricity goal, but your peers are also looking at greener materials for their product, working with their suppliers to optimize logistics and shipping, and oh by the way, also have a 30% electricity reduction goal, your program might not be up to snuff. Measure against your peers and competitors programs – then seek to leapfrog them.

3.  Engage Employees at All Levels

Some sustainability programs start at the top. The CEO or owner simply says, this is how it is going to be from now on – get on board or get out. Other programs start at the bottom – grassroots efforts to promote sustainability push their way up and spread organically. Many programs are a combination of both.

What is key is to get as many people engaged as possible. Often times this can be driven by senior leadership — you’ll be engaged if they tell you to be engaged! Other times it is simply inviting people into the process. Sustainability shouldn’t be one person’s job, or just “another thing we’ve got to do” on top of your real job. It is something that is part of the way everyone is doing his or her job. Turning off your computer when you leave at night isn’t something extra to do – it is just what you do as part of your job, same as turning in your timesheet. Eliminating waste from a process isn’t something that is new to the job – it is working smarter at the same job.

Getting the appropriate “sustainability” mentality embedded throughout all levels of an organization can be the most challenging aspect of a comprehensive sustainability strategy, but getting leadership on board (How? See points 1 and 2 – there is a lot of value, and your competition is probably doing it) and engaging a wide body of the employee population can really drive the success of your program well beyond the low-hanging fruit.