Have the Conversation – It’s Where Business Sustainability Starts

July 26, 2012

I realized last week during our environmental innovation working meeting that many organizations and individuals share a similar perspective on sustainability. It’s the system of blending economic, environmental, and quality of life factors to achieve positive outcomes today and for the future.

But a common understanding isn’t enough. Progress toward a sustainable future within the business sector is achieved through clear objectives and a context that makes sense for an individual company. Sustainability isn’t about companies fitting into a prescribed list of what they should do and how to do it, but about finding adaptability to their own complexities within that common understanding.

So what have some sustainable companies done to get started? According to both business and non-business experts at last week’s meeting, sustainability begins by having a conversation.

A sustainability leader at one of the world’s most well known technology companies described it as “asking what if,” which leads to a conversation about how things can be done differently. Another thought leader said it’s about framing the conversation in terms of an ecosystem that is bigger than a single issue, such as carbon or water, or a single industry sector. 

Getting the conversation started is important. Throughout the meeting, examples and insights emerged that helped narrow down the three main audiences that are critical to a company’s sustainability conversation: suppliers, internal champions, and NGO partners.

Suppliers: Sustainability today isn’t predominantly driven by the consumer, but by the business-to-business supply chain. One meeting participant noted that products are only as sustainable as the least sustainable supplier. But many suppliers have assets or innovations that companies can leverage toward overall sustainability goals, if only there is conversation taking place throughout the supply chain.

One great example of a sustainability conversation between a company and its suppliers is Mattel’s “Resource Expedition” story, which is featured in BCLC’s recent report called The Role of Business in Environmental Innovation. What began as an initiative for the company’s employees to internally identify resource efficiencies and reduce costs has now expanded to the vendor pool. The Resource Expedition is a three-day process through which employees review and evaluate the cost and environmental impact of mechanical, electrical, water, and employee behavior. Mattel alone has found more than 250 ways to potentially save millions of kilowatt-hours and gallons of water, and is now training suppliers on how to conduct their own expeditions.

Internal Champions: When one business executive learned that buildings in the United States waste 40% of energy and 50% of water, he and his team had a conversation about the goals they wanted to achieve at the company and set a path to get there. They started with an energy audit. As the saying goes, what gets measured gets managed. “So, we started measuring something,” the executive said. Within one month, the company had a system in place that changed employees’ wasteful habits and saved the company money.

Expert Partners: Several meeting participants noted that companies and NGOs often face competing forces and different motivations in the sustainability conversation. But even conversations that begin uncomfortably can benefit both parties. Honest conversation with a trustworthy partner that addresses each party’s unique context can help define a shared path to meet sustainability objectives. “Very powerful things happen with a shared understanding of the concept of sustainability,” said one participant.

Is your company already in conversation about sustainability? Tell us in the comments section what your path is and what you’ve learned. Do you want to start a conversation in your company about sustainability? BCLC has tools that can help, including our Environmental Help Desk for Business and our Environmental Innovation working group. To learn more about either, contact Chris Ryan.