Dennis Salazar is the president of Salazar Packaging Inc.
Our perspective of sustainability is rather unique in that we sell a very wide variety of packaging products and solutions to an even wider variety of companies and the people within those companies. This puts us in a position to work with company presidents and CEOs as well as production line workers and people at packing stations.
What we have discovered is tremendous disparity in the relative importance of green from one end of the chain of command to the other. Specifically, as you move further away from the top people in an organization, the weaker and less important the sustainability message becomes. Please don't think this applies only to companies new to sustainability because we have found these observations hold true even in some of oldest and best known green companies in America.
These findings are not a result of a formal or scientific survey but are based on personal contact with hundreds of companies of all shapes and sizes. We are convinced they are accurate because often times, people are likely to be more open and honest with an outsider than they feel they can afford to be with their own top management.
Why the Green Disconnection?
In most cases there is no intentional effort to deceive when a company president, CEO or other top level representative delivers a presentation at a green conference and tells the audience about how important sustainability is to his or her company. I am equally confident there is nothing but good intentions when the marketing group within a large manufacturer decides to market its "greenness." I do however believe that such corporate initiatives are executed inconsistently - and sometimes not at all - for a variety of reasons that may never come to the attention of company leadership.
Poor Internal Communications - "No one ever told me."
It is possible sustainability was briefly covered at an annual meeting, company gathering or perhaps it is occasionally mentioned in the office/company newsletter. However, a change of this scope and nature requires constant reinforcement. Keeping in mind that the biggest obstacle to sustainability success is often internal resistance to change, sustainability must be fully and properly "sold" at the lowest end of the organizational totem pole.
I am no longer surprised when I discover that people on the production floor or their packing station are not even aware of their company's interest or concern about sustainability. Sometimes they are aware but were never really informed on the goal and purpose of their company's green initiative and how they can best help. Either way, green initiatives are likely to fail without full support at all levels. If you doubt it, I will describe a scenario further on that demonstrates what can happen.
Lack of Commitment - "If I wait long enough management will move on to something else."
Within some organizations, sustainability is viewed as a short term pet project rather than a long term commitment. This skepticism is a result of previous initiatives that were quickly abandoned when they did not produce immediate, positive results.
Credibility is lost with each one of those previously aborted initiatives even though there may be legitimate reasons for a company's management to change course. Often times though, these course revisions are misinterpreted as indecision, especially when they involve seemingly conflicting directives. This leads us to our next point.
Mixed Signals - "I wish they would make up their minds!"
A core belief and long term commitment to sustainability does not waver in the face of tough economic times, competitive pressures or any other outside influence. Certainly the primary purpose of any company - even a green company - is to remain a viable, profitable business. A core belief may be modified and adapted to market conditions but it should never be "put on the back burner for now" or postponed until the timing is better.
The resulting confusion and frustration is similar to what occurs within a sales organization when it is focused on "profitability" one month and "sales at any cost" the following month. If a primary green objective is abandoned, any progress that has been made is lost and it becomes even more difficult to regain the same momentum later.
Counter Productive Incentives - "Sure green is good but I am focused on my quarterly bonus."
A very wise manager I once worked for made me realize people do not do what you ask them to do; they do what you pay them to do. Does your compensation and incentive program drive the behavior you want and need? Remember - when given a choice between making more money and almost anything else, most workers will choose the money.
Many companies make a mistake by asking people to help make the company greener while offering an annual bonus or incentive based on "non-green" objectives. This motivates people to take immediate and short term gains rather than to embrace solutions that are greener and which, ironically, will usually result in even greater savings long term.
The smartest companies I know do everything they can to encourage and reward new ideas from their people and their suppliers. They realize that often times, the best ideas come from outside their organization and so, for example, procurement people are expected and incentivized to meet with new possible vendors and are required to bring new, long term cost reduction solutions to the table.
The Weakest Link in a Chain Is Almost Always in the Middle - "I'm sorry but green is not at the top of my to do list."
This disconnect problem is rarely at the highest levels of an organization. The problem is typically at low to mid level management and support personnel. These are the people who rarely have an audience with the top level green drivers of their company and operate in the trenches where news from above tends to trickle down slowly.
Some green leaders believe they have solved this potential problem by including a ground level supervisor on their green team or giving them a title such as Green Champion or Sustainability Team Leader. Often times these titles are almost honorary in nature because they have minimal responsibility and even less influence. It is also worth noting that for most of these people, sustainability is NOT a full time job and is probably the least important of the many hats they are asked to wear.
Internal Competition and Conflicting Goals - "I'm sure my guy can beat that price!"
It is also the middle level of an organization where there is likely to be counterproductive competition between managers and departments. This is a situation we are very familiar with because we often wind up caught in the middle.
We are usually brought in to review a packaging application by someone other than procurement/purchasing and are quick to deliver a low cost, highly sustainable packaging solution. To protect their turf or to preserve a vendor relationship, purchasing personnel down the line will sometimes share our pricing and ideas with the incumbent (non-green) supplier. Often, the incumbent vendor is able to maintain the status quo simply by reducing price on the existing, non-green packaging. In these scenarios, everyone loses to some degree. The biggest loser? The company's green initiative, which fails to take a single step forward.
Green Is Indeed Good, Especially in Times like These
We know that green is a smart business move, able to benefit the top as well as the bottom line. We are equally confident sustainability is a good long term investment, even in today's depressed economy. A recent study and report by AT Kearney supports our position.
I quote them as follows:
"…companies looking for ways to survive in the current economic climate should think twice before cutting back on sustainable initiatives. In 16 out of 18 industries, companies with a commitment to sustainability were the clear leaders in the financial markets."
It appears the stock market rewards companies with solid long term commitments to sustainability. Go figure.
Chain link photo - CC license by P/\UL