Saturday, March 1, 2014

Sustainability in practice: Doing. With less.

In an earlier post, I noted that one of the central pre-requisites of embedding sustainability in the enterprise (in addition to it being a process and not a moment; more on that later) is a cultural shift. This post deals with the rationale that underlies the need for cultural migration away from heavy dependence on materials inputs and low-cost access to waste sinks, to consumption minimalization.
Remember, sustainability only succeeds when it becomes a holistic, corporate strategy—not an add-on, an after-thought or an accommodation such as black-letter compliance with environmental regulation. For any transformative strategy to succeed, it must be embraced throughout the enterprise; if it is not, it simply becomes a stuck-in-the-mud mantra, or—worse yet—a failed slogan.

Under the rubric of Environmental Sustainability, a cultural shift is both very simple, and very profound. It is simple, because it complements the core directive of any enterprise: profit-making. It is profound, because it requires the rejection of a long-standing bias that says that environmental protection can only be a cost. But viewed through a different lens—that of efficiency, of getting the same unit of output with lower levels of constituent inputs—brings these two (falsely) disparate concepts together. Why? Because using fewer inputs means spending less on input materials—and it also means generating fewer non-productive outputs. Another name for outputs? Waste. Fewer outputs means less waste to be treated, remediated, stored, landfilled or offset. Each of those waste stream management activities costs money. So yielding the same unit of productive output from fewer inputs pays a double dividend: lower materials costs; lower waste stream management costs. And the environmental benefit is also two fold: fewer input materials means less extraction (mining/harvesting/refining/processing--all of which have attendant waste streams and carbon output from energy usage); less waste means fewer demands on the “eco-assets” of the planet as a waste sink.  The enterprise saves money that flows directly to the bottom line; the environment is treated more gently on both ends of the production cycle.  Profits rise; environmental impacts fall; the enterprise enters a sustainable production cycle

But back to the idea of a cultural shift for moment—those are the component parts, but it is actually a much simpler undertaking. Collectively, the enterprise stops thinking exclusively in terms of maximizing profit, and elevates the comfortable and constructive interplay of the so-called “triple bottom line” to priority status. Consciously, the decision makers recoginize that long-term profit for the enterprise depends on the long-term health of the planet. To achieve this balance, the enterprise needs to take less and more importantly dispose of less into the various common waste sinks (air, water, land) that have been so inefficiently exploited in the past (a review of the classic essay by Hardin, "the Tragedy of the Commons" is helpful...

But a funny thing happens on the way to the landfill: people realize that short-term profit can be captured from sustainability activities, that what was once viewed as a cost center is actually a profit driver: sustainability is an engine for value creation in the enterprise.

Finally, it is absolutely essential to manage expectations (both your own and that of the C-level) about the timeline for shifting internal perceptions and behaviors.  In this way, embedding sustainability in the enterprise is a process.  It won't occur at the end of the metaphorical bayonet point of a corporate mandate.  Rather, it occurs gradually, as your team deploys a planned, coordinated communications effort aimed at first eductating employees, and then rewarding them for involvement in the program's cross-enterprise success.

As a result, it is critical to up-ramp your Sustainability program gradually; you need to ensure success with early initiatives in order to develop credibility with rank and file employees and to demonstrate to management that a properly conceived and executed sustainability program can yield measurable activities that translate to waste reduction and further to bottom line profit. But more on that in a future post, when I will outline the essential steps for triggering such a shift, through Marketing the Environmental Sustainability Program to Internal Stakeholders.

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