Now that I've been at this job for a little over a year, I wanted to take the time to step back and boil down some of the key themes I've discovered. While what I am about to share may not be earth shattering news about cutting edge technology that is going to solve global warming, they are the things that have been eye opening to me and will be critical to the overall effort in which we all need to participate.
#1 - Companies are where the action is at
While there has been some governmental policy progress over the last two or three years (Australia's carbon tax, efforts in the UK, states and municipalities implementing very compelling programs), from my point of view the exciting action in sustainability has been taking place at the corporate level. Leading businesses have not waited for government to get its act together in order to leverage sustainability as a way to create opportunity and lower risk (this has only been reinforced in my mind after the recent Rio+20 conference).
More and more businesses are making sustainability a strategic imperative, and reaping the benefits of doing so. The reasons may vary by company, but the results can't be argued with. Many organizations have customers that are demanding it of them (this includes B2C as well as B2B companies). Others have found dramatic cost and material savings in projects that generate rapid ROI. Many businesses have created new revenue opportunities by creating products that embody sustainability (CA ecoSoftware is an example), and many organizations have identified risk in their market and supply chain that require them to take action.
One thing is for certain: Not a single company I have spoken with that has made a commitment to sustainability has been sorry they've done so or have plans to stop.
#2 - Corporate Sustainability is all about Change Management
I remember reading a quote once that stated, "People aren't opposed to change, they are opposed to being changed." This underscores a key issue with corporate sustainability. Even though we found a large percentage of employees were gung ho about sustainability, in order to have a business that truly embraces it as part of its DNA, employee engagement is key. That is easier said than done.
Getting people to change behavior is hard. We all have habits that we've built up over years as individuals and as business people and when push comes to shove we are asking employees to change and act in a more sustainable manner. This is embodied in actions as simple as shutting off lights when leaving a room, and as strategic as consistently utilizing sustainability as a key business lens when approaching every project you are involved in.
Realize that engaging employees is critical. It will be a challenge, it will be harder than you think and take longer than you think. Stay at it, the results will be worth it.
#3 - There is a lot of low hanging fruit
Based on thousands of conversations with peers and our own experiences internally, any business person who tells you that there is no opportunity in sustainability doesn't know what they're talking about. Every business has projects that they can identify and execute on that will generate rapid ROI. Don't believe me? Dow claims they've been at lowering their energy burn since 1990, saved over $5 Billion (yes, with a ‘B') and still save at least $45 million additional every year.
The key is to turn these easy to identify projects into bite sized chunks. Build a business case around each opportunity and execute on it effectively and efficiently. When you lower your energy consumption by 50% in a portion of your business, it becomes an evergreen savings. Pick the low hanging fruit in your company and start saving money.
#4 - We need to think BIG!
At the end of the day, we need to affect sizeable, meaningful change. As a society, we need to lower our carbon emissions in a big way, and do so as quickly as possible As individual companies we can make dramatic improvements and make a difference, but even with fully engaged employees the positive impact we can make is finite.
Businesses need to work together to amplify our efforts. By working with associations and NGO's, we need to share ideas, collaborate and drive real change. By doing so, we can spread best practices, form industry consortia to combine efforts and lobby governments to get on board. There is a lot of activity going on here already with groups like CERES, The Nature Conservency, the WWF and others leading the way. Think big and think beyond just your company.
#5 - We're all on the same team
As a former Chief Marketing Officer, I was used to peers (other CMO's) that would be understandably reluctant to share any meaningful information. One of the most pleasant surprises in my role as Chief Sustainability Officer is that I am now in exactly the opposite position. The degree of openness and collaboration across companies when it comes to sustainability is terrific.
My peers are willing to share best practices, projects that have worked well, challenges they've run across and actions they've taken to address them. The feeling that we are all in this together is the underlying theme in my interactions with colleagues and it makes the whole process much easier.
This is one reason that I am committed to this blog - to share what I've learned and what works. Stay tuned and please provide feedback.