30 Under 30

Dynamic sustainability teams do these three things

people working on bridges
ShutterstockCamp1994
To start, build bridges across teams and departments.

Lately, I have been reflecting on the summer of 2015, the season in which I embarked on a purposeful career in corporate sustainability, fresh after graduating from the environmental science program at North Carolina State University. Wide-eyed, motivated and eager to make a positive impact, I learned from the best under the wings of brilliant minds at Interface, who helped me understand the intricacies of what fuels a business aiming to become restorative, a world-renowned beacon in the industrial world and a reverser of global warming. 

Three years and two roles later, I have compiled this short list of three resounding lessons peeled from my experience working on such a dynamic sustainability team as well as personal musings and discoveries — all reinforced by the experiences of mentors, industry peers and other fellow GreenBiz 30 Under 30 honorees.

1. Build cross-departmental bridges

So many of today's corporate sustainability teams comprise three or fewer employees, responsible for an overwhelmingly wide scope of deliverables, including anything from authoring annual corporate social responsibility reports to building marketing campaigns to designing energy, water and waste reduction plans.

Many of these green teams are not only spread thin and faced with high expectations, but they are doing so while also working in silos. Green teams working on "organizational islands" are the easiest to eliminate when the economic going gets rough. In order for a green team to remain sustainable and truly thrive within a business, it must be intimately connected to the core business strategy, creating value for both internal and external players.

For example, a sustainability team can partner with sales and business development teams to build trust with prospective consumers by demonstrating the positive impacts associated with purchase. For example, Interface’s sustainability team functions partially as a sales support resource, equipping account executives with capacity-building tools and training that enable them to be the "mouthpieces" of our mission and engage with key regional stakeholders. Helping to lead that effort in the Americas, and translate tougher technical sustainability topics into digestible content for customers, has been a rich experience. Furthermore, a sustainability team also can partner with human resources to create community impact experiences that give employees a greater sense of purpose and meaning at work, leading to an actively engaged culture and increased pool and retention of talent.

The opportunities are limitless. Sustainability strategy can be threaded into almost any business function, creating dynamic opportunities for increased revenue production, cost savings, risk reduction, brand awareness and operational efficiency.

2. Approach social impact with humility

When building programs that invest in the well-being of underserved communities suffering at the hands of poverty, climate change or social and environmental injustice, assuming a posture of humility is vital. It's easy for a sustainability team to approach a community ready to implement a previously engineered idea based solely on perceived needs rather than stated needs.

However, forming an effective social impact initiative starts with being present and building grassroots relationships with community leaders, influencers and members. Step two is about establishing trust through listening, learning and demonstrating that the company is here for generational investment, not isolated philanthropy. Instead of informing a community in need of your fix to their problem, create space to identify solutions collaboratively. This approach allows a sustainability team to build a more authentic foundation for an initiative that fosters shared value for all parties involved. 

3. Set impossible goals

Lately, I have been reflecting on time spent last year with renowned environmentalist Paul Hawken and a few members of my sustainability team. We picked his brain and listened to him answer our various questions and challenge our ideas with great sagacity and brilliance. Toward the end of our conversation, Hawken left us with one simple, profound thought: "Big goals breed big innovation."

In his recently released book, "Drawdown," Hawken presents a comprehensive, science-backed plan to reversing global warming — a feat previously viewed as impossible. But, after setting this roadmap, he opened up a new realm of possibility that already has influenced unprecedented ideas and prototypes. 

The issues that our planet and society face are too devastating and massive for companies to settle for cautious, conservative and comfortable targets. True leadership in sustainable business is manifested by companies that choose to set impossible goals that can't be accomplished without disruptive innovation. If more companies were willing to put their credibility on the line in order to promote a healthier Earth, imagine the creativity, collaboration and collective fervor it would take to succeed — forever transforming sustainable business as we know it.

In summary, establishing pathways toward greater collaboration, partnering with communities in need more authentically, and establishing aspirational targets are three ways by which a sustainability team effectively can increase its scope of influence within an organization, create powerful brand narratives and amplify its ability to steer a business toward becoming a force for good.