Where and how do I find a Sustainability Framework that is right for my Company?

You’ve landed your dream job at a vivacious and promising new company that is moving fast and successfully. The company may have hired you to be their Sustainability Director.  You may have taken it on as a passion project along with your other duties or you may be at the helm and want to steer your company in the right direction. You get to shape what sustainability will look like moving forward for your Company, your work family.  You get to set the ethos for how this company will make decisions when it comes to people, planet, profit, and equity. It’s exciting and the possibilities are promising. 

It’s also extremely daunting. Where do you start? You are just one person and yet you need the whole company behind you to be effective. Company leaders hired you to solve this problem. They are expecting you to do it, yet you can’t do it without them. How do you indoctrinate a sustainability mindset into the whole company? How do you get leadership not just behind your task, but in front of it, where it is one of the most important guiding principles for all of their actions?

The first thing we generally seek to accomplish this task is not the first thing we should look for: a framework. A framework for Corporate Sustainability is vitally important; but it is not the vitally important first step. Some might think that doing work without a framework might lead to inefficiencies. However, implementing a framework without working relationships, support and buy-in is the biggest inefficiency of all. The framework comes later and we’ll get to that. Here are the steps to take before the framework:

Step 1: Early Development of Leadership Allies

Step 2: Quick Celebratory Wins

Step 3: Select a Sustainability Framework, Prioritize Actions Based on Leadership Feedback and Start Working Toward It. 

Step 4: Celebrate finishing goals, celebrate a certification.

Step 5: Repeat

Step 1: Leadership Allies

The first step is to research and listen to your people. Assemble a list of key people in the company that you feel are necessary to indoctrinate sustainable principles. Interview these key people. It doesn’t need to be formal. In fact, less formal is better and more off the cuff. You’re more likely to gain key pieces of information without anyone feeling threatened by the scary word “change” while they are busily trying to build the company. Talking to them informally over lunch or coffee, or the critical relationship building time before and after a meetings start. Be the open and friendly person in the room that people want to approach to feel comfortable before structured conversations begin. Do your research on these people. Find out what their leadership style is, what is important to them, what resources they are in control of and what their limiting factors are. Find out what their challenges are. Do not start the conversation with what you need. Start the conversation with what they need.

For instance, there may be a key purchaser for the company, or someone in charge of human resources, an overseeing engineer or a facilities director. Then there is the critical C-suite. Here are some questions you can pose:

What is your biggest challenge in building this company?

What are your limiting factors?

What do you hope to accomplish if you overcome those challenges?

How can I help?

This last question is key. They will be taken aback. It is open-ended. ‘Aren’t you in charge of sustainability?’ they’ll ask themselves. ‘What’s sustainability got to do with what I’m doing?’ They’ll think about it and kind of struggle. Here is where you don’t necessarily find solutions for them, but wiggle sustainability into the conversation. Let them struggle a little bit to figure out how you might help. Don’t let them dismiss you with, “Don’t worry about it. You can’t help me.” Be persistent. Say you really want to help, then maybe interject some ideas after they struggle a bit. Tap the decades of sustainability knowledge that has come before you to plant the seed that sustainability helps all facets of the company.

You may have an HR person that says they are having a hard time attracting and hanging on to top talent. Let them first attempt to think how you might help. Then casually interject some stats on how sustainability efforts attract and retain talent: A survey, which was the result of conversations with 1,000 employees at large U.S. companies, concurs with findings of some similar research in the past. More than 70% of millennials said that they were more likely to choose to work at a company with a strong environmental agenda. Millennials–who will make up three-quarters of the workforce in six years–are most likely to have done this; nearly 40% said that they’ve chosen a job in the past because the company performed better on sustainability than the alternative. More than 10% of workers said they’d be willing to go as far as to take a $5,000-$10,000 pay cut.

You may have a Facilities Director that says that they are struggling with mounting energy bills and real estate costs that are holding the company back from realizing profit for impatient shareholders. You could talk to them about how power purchase agreements for renewable energy yield instant savings, or how developing a brownfield with indemnity for past pollution can save the company money and build good will with local officials. You can talk about building new spaces to LEED standards to save money over the lifetime of a company. You can talk about how allowing a remote workforce limits the need for real estate costs and makes for better work/life balance for employees and drastically reduces greenhouse gas emissions.

You may have an engineer who views sustainability as a snag for R&D. This is where learning her engineering snags can be extremely important. She may have a large and costly waste stream that she doesn’t know how to deal with. She may have engineers that are bringing in hazardous materials without any plan for disposal or safety. She may very well be feeling like her team’s R&D is keeping her up at night.

That’s where you interject with wondering if you might be able to find greener chemistries for the hazardous materials, or a reuse/recycling option for the costly waste stream. You’re just wondering, intrigued, but not offering to do anything or threatening to change anything.

Be ready to share just one or two pieces of information off the cuff about how sustainability can help each key leader that you talk to. Again, be casual about it. This is not the time to promise anything or to make leaders feel threatened by change in an already fast-moving environment. You are merely planting thought seeds.

Step 2: Early Celebratory Wins

From these early conversations, some clear and irresistible opportunities may have presented themselves. Research these opportunities and see which ones are quickest, easiest, and have the best outcome data. Choose one or two and work with the key leader to get them done. Be sure to track the outcome data from the outset. You want to be able to spout money saved, waste reduced, energy saved. Outcomes can also be in the form of feel-good anecdotes. Don’t ever underestimate the power of a feel-good story to bolster your success in your immediate community and the greater platform as a corporation.

Most importantly: you want to give credit to the leaders for both the idea and the outcomes. When a leader is celebrated for an idea you helped them bring to fruition, more leaders will want to work with you.

Celebrate these wins within the company and externally. Try and get some earned media. Be sure that your leaders get mention and recognized. After these wins, you are now poised to implement a sustainability framework. You still have carte blanche to define what that looks like, but you will now undoubtedly have some backing from within various groups in the company.

Step 3: Select a Sustainability Framework, Prioritize Actions Based on Leadership Feedback and Start Working Toward It.

It’s hard to know what sustainability framework to pick at first. Here are some of the strong points for some of the top ones.

California Green Business Network: This certification, based in California, has sister programs all over the country. Google Green Business and your state and see what comes up. This certification is free in most of California. You get a free sustainability consultant that connects you with all the rebates and services available in your specific municipality. While the program is geared to small and medium sized businesses, many large businesses have used it as a framework for their sustainability program. The best part? Included in the process is environmental outcome metrics such as greenhouse gas emissions saved, kWh saved, water saved, etc. so tracking and touting success is easy.

The certification in California is broken down into 3 tiers: Efficiency, Certified, and Innovator. The efficiency tier is a short 10-item checklist that includes the big items that often involve utility savings and rebates. It is a no-brainer to do this tier, but you don’t really get much out of it other than cost savings and rebates. The Certified tier is where you get all the bragging rights and free public recognition. It is a longer checklist of ~50+ measures, depending on your industry. The measures are mainly environmental in nature. After a business is certified, they are added to a directory and phone app and promoted throughout the region and State. The Innovator tier includes more community and worker well-being measures and yields significantly more bragging rights and more free publicity through the Green Business Network. The Innovator Tier points businesses toward B Corp certification. Full disclosure: Environmental Innovations acts as staff to the California Green Business Network.

B Corp: This growing worldwide certification is gaining traction and for good reason. There are currently over 3500 certified B Corps in 150 different industries in over 71 countries. The B Corp Certification considers people, planet, profit and equity. You’ll need to have your ducks in a row. You’ll need your company’s finance person on hand to supply significant financial data, your HR person for employee data and you’ll need to have significant environmental data. But the process alone gives a roadmap for what is possible. A minimum score of 85 is required to pass but it doesn’t mean your company needs to stop there. You can use the online assessment tool to guide your company’s assent to sustainability. Expect a few follow up questions and calls from the B Corp assessor and use them to guide you in how you might move the sustainability needle.

UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are the world’s shared plan to end extreme poverty, reduce inequality, and protect the planet by 2030. They were adopted by 193 Countries in 2015 during the Paris Climate Treaty. There are 17 of them and they can absolutely be guiding principles for your company’s corporate social responsibility.

ISO 140001 Environmental Management System

ISO 14001 is an internationally agreed standard that sets out the requirements for an environmental management system. It helps organizations improve their environmental performance through more efficient use of resources and reduction of waste, gaining a competitive advantage and the trust of stakeholders. ISO is not a certifying organization. Third party consultants/auditors will need to be hired to gain certification, making this one of the more pricey and extensive certifications. The once popular gold standard of the nineties and the early 2000s now seems more geared toward Environmental Health and Safety than Sustainability. However, many of the steps that you take in your EMS will give you the data you need for parts of other frameworks. If you have a separate EH&S department, this could be their framework. Alternatively, it could be used to gather data and come up with standard operating procedures that lead to less waste and more efficient use of resources. Be careful not to fall into the SOP quagmire. All too often, professionals spend too much time developing SOPs instead of actually driving beneficial and profitable change.

Step 4: Celebrate and Step 5: Repeat

Find easy wins, celebrate them, find a new framework, celebrate the goals. Win the Company savings and interdepartmental success and win a sustainability framework you are proud of. All of these frameworks can be combined and aligned and build off of each other in the exact order in which they were written about. Go ahead- start collecting certification trophies.

Before you get started, what are your obstacles and limitations in setting your company’s sustainability framework? What do you expect your hurdles to be? We’d love to talk them through with you, at no cost. It helps us understand how we can help better. Contact us for a no-fee consult or reach out to us at info@environmentalin.com.