Setting the Foundation
Long Term Thinking
Companies can create a lasting legacy of responsibility and stewardship. This is usually only possible when sustainability is at the core of their corporate culture. Companies do not have to solely spend their time planting trees for this cultural priority to manifest. Planting trees is awesome, but any company in any industry can frame their culture to incorporate sustainability, long term thinking, and corporate responsibility.
I am returning to my normal work schedule after attending the Regenerative Design Summit in Chattanooga, TN this past week. I feel refreshed and energized after meeting some really cool people working in the building industry and beyond to create positive impacts for communities and the environment.
Considering Impacts on Humans and Nature
All companies should measure their impacts on humans and the environment. The metrics found in these measurements give company leaders a starting point for setting goals and action steps needed to improve their metrics. The long term and large scale thinking required to consider a company’s impacts on humans and nature is a good exercise for all involved. The process should be publicized internally and externally in a company to educate and inform its stakeholders. Even if certain metrics are not impressive or are downright depressing, a level of transparency can maintain the trust that your employees and clients have in your company’s leadership. If it seems more comfortable to stick with the status quo, consider the positive impacts you are leaving on the table by not quantifying your current efforts. The standard approach to capitalism has not required or rewarded companies for taking natural capital and human capital into account when measuring value, profit, etc. This will change in our lifetimes.
Measuring a company’s impact on humans and the environment can take many forms. You have probably heard of carbon emissions and ways companies are reducing theirs. Companies can purchase carbon credits which offset their amount of emissions. There are certifications that companies can obtain that prove their dedication to elements of sustainability. These include B-Corp, JUST, and more. Companies can obtain third party verified certifications for the products they create (i.e. Declare Label, EPD, GreenSeal, etc.) or their office spaces (WELL, Living Building Challenge, etc.).
Internal education of staff members and leadership will result in much more effective external education and outreach. Your team members should know how to take action on the sustainability measures you put in place. They should also know why they are taking action on them. If the purpose of sustainability has not been internalized, many initiatives will lose steam or not produce the results you hope for. If your team members are knowledgeable and passionate about your sustainable initiatives, you can count on more success overall.
Attending industry events and other continuing education opportunities are perfect settings for learning and sharing best practices. These kinds of outreach are essential to the success of your sustainability plan and promoting the sustainable aspects of your corporate culture. Outreach happens in formal and informal ways including marketing, word of mouth, social media presence, and advertising. It is a way to attract clients, new employees, and attention from the media. The efforts you take to reach out to your audience will allow you to share past, current, and future sustainability plans, actions, and improvements you have made as a company.
Practicing What You Preach
This is a big one, since sustainability can be a hot button issue. If you promote your company’s initiative of reducing carbon emissions but provide no incentive to your employees for using public transit, carpooling, or driving electric vehicles, your integrity may be questioned. As another example, if you work in an industry that can be seen as environmentally harmful, such as oil and gas, you will need to find creative ways to promote change and produce tangible results.
Understand that there are seemingly an infinite number of actions you can take to create a more sustainable culture. There are also an infinite number of ways to simply plan to take action, make a fancy marketing campaign about the plans but never take the action. Your audience is watching to make sure you follow up on plans. There are many metrics a company can use to track their progress and ways to publicize the metrics in an accessible format that anyone can understand and appreciate.
Sustainability has an entertaining but troublesome “trendy” side. In the last few years, packaging of consumer products has shifted to include leaves, shades of green, and the word “natural”.
Some companies are adept at greenwashing and can make a client or consumer believe that their products or services are so extraordinarily sustainable. When, in fact, a little research could prove them wrong. For example, a food product could be organic and made locally, but some of the ingredients may be sourced unethically. So, there remains some responsibility for the consumer to look into companies for facts, ingredients, metrics, etc. that prove actual sustainability.
Aim to be an influencer in the most positive of ways. Be an example of an organization that makes every effort to be sustainable and responsible while also succeeding financially. You may make mistakes, and I think it is beneficial to not hide those. Instead, turn them into a learning opportunity for your team and those who are watching you.
Integrating Sustainability into Small and Big Decisions
Any good corporate culture permeates into small and big decisions. It serves as a compass for all team members and leaders. So, a culture of sustainability should also play into day-to-day decisions and overall company direction. Your definition of sustainability and the associated values can help you decide who your clients and vendors are, how your office is designed, and how your company benefits the world around you.
Defining what Sustainability Means for Your Organization
This blog will never be able to define sustainability for your team. I think it is a great term that can be morphed to describe your values and goals depending on your industry. Generally, a sustainable culture would prioritize minimizing waste, limiting environmental harm and promoting the wise use of energy and natural resources. The word sustainability has been thrown around a lot and may be getting replaced with words like regenerative. You know your culture best and can define your approach to sustainability.
Connecting with Other Like Minded Organizations, or Starting a Community
Pursuing a sustainable culture in a capitalistic society will not be easy. It requires long term thinking as well as certain sacrifices that non-sustainable organizations do not make. You may sacrifice a relationship with a vendor who operates unethically or a potential well-paying client who does not share your passion for sustainability.
Finding professional organizations in your industry or with similar values will keep you motivated and provide resources you may not have on your own. Many companies are living out sustainability in their corporate cultures, and many of them would be willing to share some of their best practices. Most cities will have a sustainability or environmental club, and these organizations are a great way to start building your community.
Find Ways to Incorporate Sustainability into Your Day to Day Operations
Put into practice and make it an effortless habit to consider long term effects of day to day decisions. Decisions including buying from certain vendors or hiring like minded people can have positive or negative impacts both long and short term.
As we keep up with news in our industry, it can be especially enlightening to search for industry partners making waves in sustainability. You’ll be able to glean best practices and actionable steps you can customize for your team.
Assign a Person or Team to Corporate Social Responsibility
The concept of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) has taken many forms in small and large organizations around the globe. Large corporations even have individuals with titles such as CSO (corporate sustainability officer). Even if your company is not a large corporation, you can still assign a team or person with heading up sustainability efforts, tracking, programming, and any other duties applicable to your industry. You can also show your support by sponsoring local sustainability organizations and events.
Companies provide products and services, and of course they all consume products and services as well. All law firms provide legal services while also consuming office supplies and perhaps leasing commercial real estate for office space. Their employees also consume fossil fuels to commute to and from said office. You can probably think of many other examples of how companies consume products, raw materials, and natural resources.
Most corporations can reduce their consumption of all of these to some extent. There are also ample opportunities to recycle or reuse (don’t we just love those words?) across industries.
Check for Leaks
A way to reduce consumption is checking for leaks. I mean this literally and figuratively. Literal leaks like leaky faucets or windows can greatly increase a company’s consumption of water and heating and cooling costs. Not to mention, leaks can cause mold and related damage while leaky windows can also negatively affect the indoor air quality, humidity, and temperature.
Additionally, if a company is paying for office space, company vehicles, or air travel that is not improving or promoting the company’s success and profitability, alternatives or efficiencies should be considered.
An immediate way to reduce consumption as well as reduce required storage is going paperless and phasing out paper files and marketing materials. Companies can also pursue ways to buy from local vendors, cutting down travel time and distance for products and often packaging waste as well. If the consumption of cheap, one time use products is common in your company, that can be considered a leak and fixed accordingly.
I generally enjoy freebies at conferences and get really happy about free pens, post-it-notes, etc. These can often be cheap and end up in the trash pretty quickly. There are less wasteful, higher quality alternatives to these freebies including recycled notepads, reusable tote bags, solar powered chargers, etc. The most valuable freebie that a company can give away is a positive company culture and education on best practices though.
In corporate office parks, downtown high rises, and parking garages, there are usually ample ways to immediately improve the local environment. Planting a pollinator garden or green roof beautifies the concrete jungles many of us work in as well as provides refuge and nourishment for pollinators and insulating properties, respectively. I can sometimes hear parking garages or lots begging (not really) for the installation of solar on the top level to provide shade for cars and passively generate electricity. Office buildings can also find ways to reduce light pollution by installing site lighting that meets dark sky standards to benefit migrators and nocturnal animals. These improvements have very few downsides and may even go unnoticed to the average human population but provide immediate, life-sustaining benefits to the environment.
There is a lot to think about in this post. No matter your current position in your company, you can enact change and create momentum in terms of your company culture and the actions that result from it.
If you are feeling discouraged regarding the current state of sustainability, no matter where you live, know that there is hope. There is a wave of change and positivity moving through the world whether it’s immediately visible or not.