It seems like everybody is getting on the eco bandwagon. From your corner dry cleaner to the largest companies in the world, sustainability is a hot topic that is fast becoming a mainstream business issue. However, the degree to which a company is able to leverage sustainability for real return for the company and for the planet varies significantly depending on where it lives in the organization.
For some companies, it’s all about eco-efficiency an engineering or technology challenge, a retooling of process or product to get that green product launched. For others, it is a grassroots, employee-based initiative, focused on energy-saving actions like turning off lights and carpooling. Maybe it is a new marketing campaign, repositioning products in a new light. Many companies have appointed a vice president of sustainability to elevate the issue within the organization.
While each of these activities may be important, taken individually, they have nowhere near the transformative power that sustainability has when it is woven into the fabric of everything a company does. Take the grassroots approach. When people first get on board, they typically put in recycling bins and throw out all of the Styrofoam, but these actions aren’t part of a coherent, unifying plan. In the end, these “random acts of greenness” (to quote green business journalist Joel Makower) don’t add up to the level of impact needed to improve your organization’s or the planet’s bottom line. Over time, people get lax and forget which bin is which, and eventually, disposables creep back in to the mix.
On the other hand, consider the company where a grassroots, employee-based initiative catches the attention of the leadership team. Recycling and eliminating waste may become a part of the organization’s goals and are then elevated beyond the break room. Operational efficiencies are targeted next, and a plan to institutionalize new behaviors and new priorities emerges. Pretty soon, the company’s products become part of the transformation, and the company begins to reap both bottom- and top-line benefits.
It’s been my experience working with Interface, our parent company, and also with organizations with whom we consult, that sustainability is maximized when it lives throughout the organization. There’s no doubt that there’s a place for sustainability in the processes and products that define you, because that is where sustainability is applied, and it’s also where you will likely see the fastest return. But the really meaningful change the kind that will multiply or grow over time and see you through business cycles happens when you engage both the culture and the leadership of your organization. That trifecta culture, leadership and applied sustainability is the key to enduring and impactful change.
If you’re intrigued, have an experience to share or are already started on the journey, I’d love to hear from you.
Jim Hartzfeld is founder and managing director of InterfaceRAISE, the sustainability consultancy of Atlanta-based carpet manufacturer Interface Inc. He can be reached at email@example.com.