What was once considered the domain of a few overly committed individuals is today increasingly becoming a standard part of corporate philosophy: Sustainability. While part of this change in attitude can be attributed to a new generation of corporate leadership and the shift in overall thinking on environmental concerns, another clear factor is the same thing that motivates all corporate policies: Profits. Sustainability has been shown to be good business, as energy efficiency and other environmentally sound strategies reduce costs across the board, and as such has been embraced as one of those obvious, easy win strategies: There simply is no down side.
But what companies are struggling with is how, exactly, to plan and implement these strategies. What companies as large as DuPont, Unilever, and Wal Mart have discovered is that the typical top-down approach, where management constructs a policy and then mandates it for their employees, simply does not work for sustainability issues, for three main reasons: One, management often does not have the ‘hands-on’ experience to see places where things like every day power consumption can be reduced; two, employees don’t feel like they own these policies when they are handed down ‘from the mountain’ with no effort to include them in the process; and three, policies created in this manner typically are more focused on the profit side of things and less on the sustainability side, which dampens enthusiasm.
The answer is, eschew a top-down approach, and crowdsource solutions from your employees.
Crowdsourcing Energy Saving Ideas
Companies like Unilever have realised that their employees are their greatest asset, a ‘hive mind’ that is constantly sharing experiences and opinions about their work, the environment they conduct business in, and the impact of their jobs on the world around them.
Recently, Unilever named every one of its employees ‘Head of Sustainability,’ even issuing them business cards with the title and a manual with suggestions and policies about how they can improve sustainability and the company’s overall carbon footprint, as well as reduce costs. While the idea is gimmicky, it underlines the idea that the employees who are ‘in the trenches’ are the ones who come into contact with the equipment, work sites, and policies and therefore often have the best insight into how to improve them. The response has been enthusiastic, as employees now feel a sense of ‘ownership’ in the environmental impact of the company. Taking this personally means they also take solutions personally.
These employee-sourced ideas range from the extremely local and simple (such as installing an EcoSwitch on office equipment throughout a site) to the more ambitious, such as suggesting waste materials could be recycled and re-purposed for a small profit instead of simply dumped. Not every idea will be practical or even possible, but encouraging ideas will eventually lead to something brilliant.
Sustainability Equals Profitability
The Old Thinking was that environmentally sound policies were more expensive and less profitable than a more wasteful and pollution-prone process. Companies are discovering the simple fact that when the energy and cost savings of these policies are factored in, any additional expense in the form of new or upgraded equipment, more complex procedures, and more rigorous sourcing and disposal practices is matched or even exceeded by the cost savings of less energy use and local materials sourcing that involves fewer shipping costs.
DuPont, for example, instituted employee-centred sustainability programs and reported $1 billion in energy savings as a direct result of these new initiatives. When savings (which are as good as profits on a P&L statement) hit the billion-dollar mark, even very large companies have to sit up and take notice.
Management of course has a role to play in sustainability issues. The point is not to abandon responsibility for environmentally-sound policy to the employees, but rather to include them in the brainstorming and trial run process. Getting past the layers of separation between management and the nitty-gritty of daily operations can be clarifying and illuminating. Rather than avoiding it, management should be ditching the old top-down approach of corporate culture when it comes to sustainability and embrace a 21st-century egalitarian attitude.