Large companies and organizations have been making good on their recent commitment to corporate citizenship by dedicating resources to help the globe overcome some of its most pressing challenges. Sustainability has been among these key areas of focus, leading to environmentally friendly corporate initiatives from Apple’s commitment to closed-loop supply chains to the development of Patagonia’s next-generation responsible business venture capital arm.
While it’s crucial for these organizations to make top-down commitments to sustainability, business units, groups and even individual teams within them can take their own steps in playing a key role in sustainability in the new normal.
1. Commit your team to your corporate purpose.
At the corporate level, a clear statement of purpose from executive leadership has become a critical tool in supporting sustainability. The same concept can be borrowed by unit and team managers to empower their employees to find ways to take action.
The process of defining purpose makes it clear that businesses exist to serve society and not the other way around, and the link to sustainability becomes clear,” University of Pittsburgh School of Business professor CB Bhattacharya wrote in a May 2020 article for the World Economic Forum.
In the pandemic era, Bhattacharya recommends that companies bring their purpose to life by pursuing concrete sustainability goals and focusing on a few material areas. Unit managers can follow up on that commitment in their daily work by asking themselves questions such as: What new sustainability developments will affect demand for our products and the supply of our raw materials? What type of sustainability do stakeholders expect from our part of the business?' By adding a sustainability variable to the business unit decision-making equation, middle management can help make good on big corporate promises.
One way to do this is to evaluate your immediate team’s carbon footprint. Although you might have policies in place already, application may need some ground-level execution. You can start by examining how your electricity, gas emissions output, and water intake were measured in the past, and consider re-measuring with a new reduction target in mind.
Encourage your senior leaders to reiterate your corporate purpose, sustainability objectives and reduction targets to all constituents, but especially the employees who will be implementing them "on the ground."
2. Empower your employees.
Getting employees buy in to sustainability measures is critical. Motivate your employees—and build enthusiasm for your efforts—by explaining why sustainable business practices benefit everyone. Tell them how they can make a difference by incorporating these new processes and tools into daily operations.
Empowering your team requires stepped up communication. It's something the leadership team at major home health product manufacturer Sunstar learned first-hand during COVID-19.
“The pandemic developed with unprecedented speed, and the amount of information created confusion,” says Julia Linz, senior director of HR at Sunstar. “We tried to provide regular and clear communication to our employees—especially when conveying tough messages.”
Sunstar set up a dedicated online channel to share best practices on sustainable business practices, remote work, and other timely topics, to post updates on health authority regulations, and to provide a space for confidential questions. Company leaders have also learned to seek multiple perspectives on managing the crisis from local market leaders and departmental managers.
Encourage employees to select greener suppliers to reduce the overall burden your products and services have on our planet.
Encourage employees or teammates to brainstorm and implement new ideas that serve customers in a more environmentally friendly manner or generally make the office a greener space. A few examples employees can take ownership over include embracing electronic file sharing to reduce paper and ink cartridge use, using reusable coffee mugs and water bottles, or even bringing plants into their workspaces to recycle stale air. They may seem like minor contributions, but if enough employees across the globe deploy them together, the benefits can add up.
Fracture, a medium-sized company in the Inc. 5000, allows customers to upload digital photos, have them printed on durable glass, and shipped in an eco-friendly, ready-to-mount package. According to CEO Abhi Lokesh, the organization’s employees are researching ways to offset the company’s carbon footprint from raw material shipments and receivables. “Fracture is also working with We Are Neutral, a partner helping us neutralize carbon emissions through offsetting and reduction initiatives like tree planting,” he says.
3. Turn WFH green.
You can also empower your employees by providing them guidance on how to be greener while working from home.
For instance, office furniture and supplies present a huge opportunity. If employees need to buy new desks, they should purchase solid wood rather than particleboard, which contains more volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that negatively impact air quality. New computers should be EPEAT-certified and meet Energy Star requirements, and home offices should be lit by compact, fluorescent bulbs.
Encourage less printing—and therefore less paper—by setting up e-documentation and other apps that transfer and store work-related materials in the cloud.
For example, large telecommunications company Nextiva recommends that employees purchase reusable notebooks and suggests appropriate brands. “Erasable notebooks are eco-friendly and also have a scanning app for sharing and storing documents online,” says Nextiva chief marketing officer Yaniv Masjedi. “Aside from being much greener and saving companies money, reusable notebooks are actually more functional due to integration with the cloud.”
New items should be made from and shipped with environmentally friendly packaging, using as few boxes as possible. Even choosing a greener company for daily takeout can make a difference! Finally, companies can prompt employees to save energy and electricity by heating and air conditioning their homes sparingly and turning off lights and devices when not in use.
4. Reconsider your supply chains.
During COVID-19, many with purchasing responsibilities have shifted policies and vendor selection criteria, including caring for the vendors in their supply chains by shortening payment terms and ordering extra inventory.
As you make changes like this, you might also select greener suppliers to reduce the overall burden your products and services have on our planet.
Fracture’s Lokesh has led an effort to select greener vendors and packaging options. Fracture's packaging has faced a tall task: it had to bring home our customer experience, yet be sturdy enough to protect our glass prints, yet embody our core value of treading lightly on the planet. “Working with green suppliers, we’ve landed on a clean, minimal, and robust package made of 100 percent recycled cardboard,” Lokesh says. “We’ve eliminated traditional filler like peanuts and bubble wrap, and we’ve also removed unnecessary paper receipts in the package.”
Generally speaking, supply chains can be an excellent place to improve a business’ sustainability, according to an April 2020 Bain & Company’s Sustainability and Corporate Responsibility white paper.
“Shifting to near-shore or onshore production and shorter supply chains will reduce emissions. Manufacturing pollution levels will drop as new sites are designed to comply with environmental policies, leveraging new technologies to be more efficient,” the paper stated. "As they make these moves, businesses will be able to take advantage of stimulus money tied to environmental efforts and make supply chains more resilient to disruption in the future."
Sustainability will play a leading role in future adverse events. You can better prepare for the next disruption by reassessing your environmental footprint and making adjustments today.
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