Creating a mindset Featured

4:09pm EDT February 16, 2011
Jennifer Altstadt, Weatherchem Jennifer Altstadt, Weatherchem

Weatherchem Corp. considered itself a sustainable manufacturing company long before Jennifer Altstadt arrived. But when Altstadt, the president, began using the buzzword “sustainability,” she received some pushback.

“We had a few managers talking about, ‘We have a lot to do to take orders and ship our products; we don’t have time to be tree huggers,’” she says. “That has the wrong context that sustainability is something you do separate from business. With the training and the discussions that are involved, sustainability is how we do business; it’s not separate from business.”

You, your managers and your employees all have to buy in to the idea of implementing sustainability initiatives in order for your company to see any success. So when you suggest forming a company mindset around sustainability, your staff has to recognize the direct link.

“Where we focused first was internally,” says Altstadt, who has about 100 employees. “You can get caught up in the, ‘What does it mean to the outside world?’ It goes beyond the scorecard that large customers might be asking for. To begin, you really have to look internally and create the basics. A basic recycling program has to be in existence. Start small, start simple and see where that goes.

“It’s really been the employees who start to come up with the ideas, and it’s listening to employees where they want to take it. Are they interested in doing more with the community? Are they interested in doing more with wellness? With that mindset, then as you are just doing normal operating, buying equipment, you think, ‘How do we do it a little more different?’ We do start thinking about energy and long-term effects.”

Your employees can’t just show interest, they have to take ownership in the initiative. Instead of forcing ideas, ask them where in the business they think efficiencies can be found. Along with direct conversation, put in place feedback mechanisms specifically for sustainable ideas.

“No. 1 is you just have to listen,” Altstadt says. “That sounds simple, but you have to make time to be available. It’s simply making sure that it’s not only I or the management team that agrees that this is something important. We listen to the ideas. We do have a formal suggestion box that we take seriously. Our vice president of operations, for the most part, is the person who reads those and makes sure they’re implemented.”

No matter how you’re gathering employee feedback, you have to provide individuals with suggestions or a response. Altstadt is informed of who made a suggestion so that she can personally take time to thank that employee.

With a response, Weatherchem also provides small recognition for the idea, usually a gift card for groceries or gas between $25 and $100. The instant recognition encourages employees, even those beyond sustainability, to participate with the suggestion box.

Weatherchem’s sustainability initiatives include going landfill free, making all recyclable products and using a chiller that uses naturally cold air from outside to cool its manufacturing space. The chiller generates energy savings of about 40 to 45 percent compared to previous equipment.

To keep ideas and momentum going, you also need to set measurements where possible and update employees on the progress being made.

“The word ‘sustainability’ makes people feel good. It’s not about cost cutting. At times, that’s one of the benefits, but when you talk about leaving the world a better place and what can we do to help ourselves and help the world, it’s something that makes people feel good,” Altstadt says. “So involvement becomes natural.”

How to reach: Weatherchem Corp., (330) 425-4206 or www.weatherchem.com

Find a champion

Glimpsing at the positions companies are hiring for these days, many of the titles include sustainability manager or sustainability director.

Whether you’re a large company that can hire a full-time employee to implement sustainable measures or a small company increasing your commitment as you grow, you need to have a champion or champions if you want to see continuous improvement.

“You do need a dedicated resource, especially at the very beginning of the program,” says Anna Frolova-Levi, a vice president at Weatherchem Corp.

That resource may be a person or persons. Depending on the size and structure of your company, as long as every top and middle manager has bought in to the program, designating a single person might not be necessary.

The main reason for dedicated resources is that, before you can implement any processes, there are the responsibilities of research, setting metrics and explaining to employees what a company culture based on sustainable measures really means.

Either way, putting people, time and funding behind projects is usually a signal to employees that the focus is important to the company.

“It’s all about people in the end,” Frolova-Levi says. “You have to bring people with you to get excited about the whole concept.”