Office Depot's Three-Pronged Strategy for Corporate Sustainability

Yalmaz Siddiqui is a dark-green environmentalist, who once started a business called, of all things, "eco-eco." But in his job as the senior director for environmental strategy at Office Depot, the $11.6-billion a year office-products giant based in Boca Raton, FL, he doesn't talk about saving the planet. Instead, he focuses on the business benefits of sustainability, particularly those that accrue to Office Depot's customers.

"It really is rare for me to invoke climate change or landfills or toxicity in my internal arguments," Yalmaz says. "We're in Florida. We're not in San Francisco or the Pacific Northwest. Impassioned arguments about environmental issues don't resonate."

Whatever his approach, it seems to be working: Office Depot has green cred. In Newsweek's ranking of U.S. companies, they were the top retailer and No. 8 overall, ahead of rival Staples (17), Best Buy (19), J.C. Penny (64), Starbucks (82) and Whole Foods Market (106). While the rankings are debatable, Newsweek wrote:

Office Depot, at No. 8, is the single retailer to make it into the U.S. top 10. It's had its share of operational successes -- saving 3,000 tons of wood and up to $1.5 million a year simply by delivering goods in paper bags rather than cardboard boxes, for instance. But, as with IBM, perhaps more significant are the tools Office Depot provides to its largest customers, including cities, states, and large corporations. It shows customers the environmental and financial tradeoffs of their purchasing decisions on everything from copy paper to cleaning supplies.

This customer-centric approach helps explain what Office Depot can do, and what it can't, when it comes to "green." You won't see solar on the roofs of Office Depot stores, at least for now, because the return on the investment is insufficient. You will see attention paid to energy efficiency because the ROI makes sense, and you will see even more attention paid to selling greener products because profits from those sales drop right to the bottom line.

yalmazI spoke to Yalmaz by phone the other day because I'm interested in how people inside companies -- intrapreneurs, they're sometimes called -- promote change. There's a small army of these folks in corporate America, and the work they do matters.

With Washington gridlocked (or worse) on environmental issues, it's up to corporate America (as well as state and local government) to deliver the change we need.

Yalmaz, who is 41, started "eco-eco" after college to sell organic clothing, reusable organic cotton bags and other dark-green stuff. "It didn't resonate with the marketplace," he said. Subsequently, he got a masters in environment and development, did consulting work with PwC and IBM focusing on the forest, paper and packaging industries and then joined Office Depot in 2006.

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