Over the past few weeks, we've participated in a number of external stakeholder reviews and listened to presentations on several green corporate strategies. The general media tend to publish stories about how the abstract entity of "business" is working to become more sustainable. But after our recent travels we're reminded that these changes aren't achieved on a wholesale basis, but rather one company at a time.

For firms that have not yet started on their journey toward a more sustainable business, the steps may feel more like they should come from Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. The five-step program for businesses embracing a sustainability strategy (which almost always includes an environmental component) might look like this:
  • Desire: The need for a company to "do something" can be driven by protesters, a board member, or the CEO's grandchildren asking what he's doing to stop global warming.
  • Pride: A small group is soon assigned to address the topic of sustainability, and as they look around their company they find numerous examples of just how good their workplace environment is -- people recycle, they print on both sides of paper, or they even have compact fluorescent light bulbs.
  • Satisfaction: The company initiates energy efficiency and waste reduction projects that all meet the financial hurdle rate and ROI requirements established by the CFO. Marketing wants to publish its first corporate citizenship report, which may or may not contain cautious but long-term emissions reduction targets.
  • Depression: The easy projects are done, and now management wants to know how they're going to make money at this sustainability stuff. A non-governmental organization (NGO) publicly chastises the company for not doing enough, and the core team responsible for the company's sustainability initiatives realizes "this stuff is hard."
  • Collaboration: At some point, companies realize they can't take this journey alone and they need their company collaborating within functions and business units and to drive for more collaboration with business partners, governmental bodies, NGOs, and customers to continually revisit their strategy as it relates to their sustainability journey.
Perhaps the most important message for firms first starting on this journey is that they are not alone. While the largest firms may be getting most of the headlines, given the resources of large firms like IBM, Dow Chemical, or Caterpillar, there are plenty of other companies stepping up their efforts that you can learn from. At AMR Research, we're looking forward to an exciting 2008 as we expand membership in our Sustainability Peer Forum and continue to publish case studies and report on new technologies that will help you transform your business.

Corporate Express Focuses on a Sustainable Earth

One of the companies we've talked with recently is the U.S. division of Corporate Express, a business-to-business suppliers of office products. The launch point for our discussion was a survey recently conducted that gauged the attitudes and opinions of 7,660 office employees about the increasing trend of U.S. companies to incorporate environmentally friendly practices in the workplace. According to the survey, American preferences toward environmental safeguards in the office continue to increase.

There weren't really any surprises in the survey. For example, 83 percent of employees would like to see their companies use environmentally friendly cleaning chemicals in their offices, and nearly one in three workers say they possess allergies that are aggravated by environmental conditions in their offices. As with many such surveys, it is actually more difficult to understand why the numbers aren't higher. Along with the release of the survey results, Corporate Express announced the launch of a new line of products called Sustainable Earth.

One of the driving forces behind this line of products is the company's Chief Science Officer Roger McFadden. Our conversations with him were similar to those with his peers from other specialty and general chemistry companies -- a focus on the importance of taking a scientific approach to environmental issues.

One of Mr. McFadden's current initiatives is to educate its clients through a series of forums focused on differentiating the science from client perceptions. As Roger notes, customers have historically been taught that things that smell bad or hurt your eyes must be good as cleaning agents, and yet nothing could be further from the truth. This means it's important to get the product into people's hands so they can see how effective it can be without unpleasant side effects.

The Sustainable Earth line of products came to Corporate Express through an acquisition of Coastwide Laboratories in 2006. As we noted, along with the new line of products came Mr. McFadden. According to a Corporate Express spokesperson, this acquisition was a tipping point for the company to both assess what it had been doing as well as begin to develop a more comprehensive environmental strategy for the future.

Earlier this year, the company published its sustainability policy as well as its paper procurement policy. While these represent early efforts, in both cases the company is committing to a focus on the environment that will have widespread impact as it services approximately 66,000 organizations, which translates to over 24 million people.

Companies Learn New Ways to Lead

The Corporate Express story is not an isolated example. Around the world, companies are focusing on business strategies that are profitable, but also consider a broader view of sustainability. Mr. McFadden was proud to tell us how one of his customers, Portland's Tri-Met Transportation District, has reduced the district's chemical costs by approximately 70 percent by switching from traditional commercial cleaners to the Sustainable Earth line. However, it appears at this point that the more important "switch" for Corporate Express is how an individual can be the catalyst to change a company. Is there someone who's had a big impact at your company? Let me know at jdavies@amrresearch.com.

John Davies is vice president of AMR Research's Green Technology Research. For more news on sustainability initiatives, subscribe to AMR Research's free Green Alert.