I am the Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO) for Marstel-Day, LLC, a company that performs environmental consulting services and is itself an environmentally conscious company. When I stepped into this job, I knew that I’d have top management’s support, that our employees believe ardently in conservation, and that our environmental practices are time-tested and extensive. Don’t get me wrong. At no point do I mean to suggest that the job is a simple one.
Being green is a journey, and success is more likely when the philosophy and support originate from the top. The other day I heard our company President relate a story about a seminal moment in the creation of her green management philosophy. Several years ago she attended a meeting at the headquarters of another environmental consulting firm where she noticed and applauded several innovative green practices. When she asked that company’s chief executive where the ideas for those practices came from and how they were being implemented, she received this response: “Oh! I’m not sure. You would have to ask our Chief Sustainability Officer – that’s his job.”
This is precisely the kind of thinking that creates an environmental silo, a place where only CSOs and their teams will venture. In the context of company reporting it may be sufficient to hire a CSO to make sure your company follows the rules – but it won’t do a thing for seeding and maturing a company’s green ethos or establishing its sustainable posture in the world.
So back to my comment about a journey. You might think that a
company which has been using green practices for a number of years would
have this stuff under its belt. Locked and loaded so to speak. Well
mostly yes and sometimes no. Let’s begin by talking about the immutable
law of the business world: change. In our case, we’ve experienced a
period of rapid employee growth. Suddenly we’re no longer a small
company where you know every face you pass in the hallways. These days
there are lots of new faces around, people who come and go in concert
with their travel schedules. So how do you make eco-practices second
nature to a rapidly growing group of new employees? Let’s face it –
identifying and instituting green practices may be a science, but
putting them into practice and having them become second nature to an
expanding workforce is more of an art. Here are highlights of some
precepts that have worked for us.
First: Start at the top
Grassroots networking is a great thing for political campaigns, but within a company structure there needs to be a clear and unequivocal message from the top: the company President. The occasional Facebook or Twitter post is not enough. Whatever the company’s green message is, it needs to be communicated regularly and broadly from the highest levels of the company – whether it be to social media, at conferences, in staff meetings, in think pieces, or via internal communiques. For example, when our company extends an employment contract to a potential employee, that contract includes a clause stipulating that the employee will be working on a conservation project for Earth Day each year. That’s a clear indication of the importance the company leader places on environmental action. You will also be directed to our company’s podcast series, where the company President interviews thought leaders on key environmental issues of the day.
Second: Make the information easily accessible and pervasive
Shortly after joining the company, you will be directed to an online policy manual that talks about our green purchasing philosophy; it includes a section about our intent to achieve the best dollar value as well as the best “green” value in any purchase or contract we undertake. Within your first three months, you’ll attend an orientation where we tell you more about our green philosophy. At that point you will also be given a tour of the resources available on our intranet site – including listings of green vendors and green supplies, copies of the Green Housekeeping Guides which speak to our green practices by location, and we’ll show you where you can submit green ideas online.
Then there are the “Breaking Bread” and “All Hands Staff Meetings” each month, where at least one segment is guaranteed to focus on a topic related to greening our business. Add to these the short articles in the company e-newsletter, and it’s hard to avoid noticing there’s a green culture at work (yes, the pun is intended). With the passage of time, you will also begin noticing that our Facebook and Twitter feeds carry updated environmental news on a daily basis.
Third: Involve everyone
While having a CSO may be inherently desirable, great ideas and change only happen when everyone is involved. Make sure whomever is leading your efforts has the ability to reach out across the company to involve people in all areas – HR, IT, Project teams – for green visioning. Within our company, shortly after you’re hired you’ll hear about something called the “Green Vision Council” – an ad hoc group of employees who either volunteer or are tapped by the company President to spend about an hour a month throughout a six month rotation to initiate and implement green ideas across the company.
The membership of this council changes every six months and is
chaired by a different staff member each rotation. The idea is that
employees from every area of the company – project managers to admins –
will either get to chair or participate on the Council. It is a simple
way to ensure that multiple perspectives are considered and that we
don’t overlook an opportunity to green any nook or cranny of the firm.
Because we have a lot of recent college grads in the company, we try to
have at least a couple of them on the Green Vision Council, reasoning
that coffee pot talk (i.e. the new water cooler) can go a long way
toward spreading the word. We also encourage the Council to have at
least two projects a year that will impact everyone. So when somebody
shows up in your office asking if they can collect your recyclables to
weigh them, chances are you’re going to ask what’s going on. And so the
word and involvement spreads…….
Fourth: Empower your staff
While this concept applies to everyone, it is especially true when you are adding new staff. Make sure that your employees (new employees especially) have not just the information, but also the right to be green in the office. We all know that being green can sometimes be more expensive. But once you’ve made the commitment, make sure people know that it’s okay to spend that extra amount. Even if they can’t use your centralized purchasing function (this is especially true if you’re located in a small one or two person office), they need to know that it’s ok to stop by the local Staples store to pick up some green supplies and charge them to their corporate card. Or when they need a bookcase for their office, let them know that our preferred vendors are local thrift shops and antique stores.
Fifth: Celebrate your success
Have a party or at least have some fun. Last year we tried something new – instead of having a holiday party, we had a “Green Gala” where the theme was for everything to be as sustainable as possible. We also hold a sustainable breakfast series where employees can munch donuts and coffee while exchanging ideas with local experts. And when we decided to write a climate action plan for our various sites, we took a staff meeting and let everyone brainstorm the impacts most likely to affect their location, and then drive the action planning around their choices.
Sixth: When it’s time, take the leap
When it comes down to measuring your progress, you will know when it’s time to go beyond an informal system and move forward into a more metrics-based compliance regime. When we were smaller, we could just look around and see where the company was making progress and where the gaps were. These days, we’re bigger and more geographically dispersed, and suddenly, we’re facing questions we can’t answer without a better tracking system, such as:
- How many business miles per employee do we travel each year?
- How many business miles per dollar of revenue?
- What’s our carbon footprint for the space we occupy?
- How many cubic feet of trash do we recycle each month?
- How much energy usage do we need to offset each year?
- How many trees have we planted as part of our Earth Day activities?
- How many of our supply dollars go to green supplies each year?
- How many energy and water reduction practices do we have in place at each office?
When this happens, pick the system that is best for your company. In our case, we went after the P391 – NSF International’s Sustainable Service Provider protocol, which sets out both mandatory and optional requirements for implementing and tracking sustainable practices. Once you begin to measure your practices, you realize two things. The first is that sometimes green practices require reinforcement. That happens when we see numbers trending in the wrong direction (e.g. why didn’t you use Skype to hold that one hour meeting with staff 50 miles away instead of driving up to be there in person?). The second lesson is that sometimes the numbers you do have are worthless. Case in point: Our current expense system won’t allow us to accurately segregate our spending on green supplies from non-green supplies without employees providing copious comments whenever they submit a voucher. Consequently, we’ll be enhancing that tracking system next month – making the process easier for everyone!
And so it goes. We come up with ideas, we road test them, we measure the results, we celebrate the ones that work, and go back to the drawing board for the ones that don’t. Each month we take a few steps forward and the occasional step back. We’re in the enviable position of having wholehearted management support for our efforts, and that sends a message to every employee that conservation matters. Walking the walk matters. And ultimately, we’re all trying to keep our eye on the ball and give it an extra push as needed. That’s how change happens – and we’re committed to the change.
First published on the Recycling Chronicles as Second Nature: It Takes Commitment From the Top, Middle and Bottom to Integrate Green Practices in a Business.