GreenBiz Forum day 2: Engaging suppliers, employees, communities

Stephen Ritz, who created the Green Bronx Machine to bring sustainability to schools, speaks at GreenBiz Forum 2015.
Gordon Murray
Stephen Ritz, who created the Green Bronx Machine to bring sustainability to schools, speaks at GreenBiz Forum 2015.

Between daily project timelines, annual reporting deadlines, unexpected hiccups and relative luxuries like a personal life, keeping sight of the big picture for sustainability is hard to do — even in a field where executives routinely scrutinize hulking global issues like climate change.

But evolving market dynamics — a globalized pool of labor, increasing calls for transparency in complex supply chains and new models for collaboration on hard-to-crack issues, to name a few — are reinforcing the idea that tunnel vision can be costly on multiple fronts.

On day two of  GreenBiz Forum 2015,  engagement emerged as the thread that ties together many of the most pressing issues permeating the field of sustainability. Whether it’s engaging employees to help bolster a company’s long-term growth prospects, collaborating with — or negotiating with — supply chains (and the daunting labor issues that come with them) or hammering out new corporate partnerships, taking a step back to see how the dots connect is increasingly a key part of the job of sustainability professionals.

So much is at stake with climate change and water scarcity — indeed with the planet’s health — that it really is imperative to engage all potential stakeholders in sustainability efforts and put to use every tool in the tool box.

Speaker after speaker said it's engaging with suppliers, with employees, with communities and with the  suit jackets in the C-Suite that is going to allow companies to be change makers in sustainability. 

And, given the clout of business and the economic power of their decisions, it is companies and large organizations whose actions will slow climate change and stave off further environmental destruction — or not.  

“I’m confident that there is no more powerful change agent than business,” said Peter Bakker of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, the opening speaker at Wednesday’s GreenBizForum sessions.

“But if the focus of your business is only on capital flows and income statements, you are not going to change things,” Bakker said. Moreover, such companies will decline because they have not incorporated the rising risks associated with climate change and water shortage into their business strategies. 

“The business case will soon be based on the risks in inaction,” Bakker said, ticking off stories of companies that have written off billions of dollars in stranded assets they can no longer count on as revenue-producing because of damage incurred from climate change. 

Along with the risk of inaction, world economies are soon going to reflect the price of carbon, he predicted, because of growing consensus that unless there is carbon pricing in the economy there won’t be meaningful GHG emissions reductions and extreme risk will ensue.

Lots of ideas were exchanged on how companies can up their game on sustainability.

“The odds of success are much bigger on big goals,” said Carter Roberts of the World Wildlife Fund, imploring companies and organizations to just do things, and not hesitate or move in tepid steps.

"If you set small goals and make it, so what? If you set big goals and get only 50 percent or 70 percent of the way there, you still can change the world. Setting a big goals unleashes a lot of innovation."

How does that translate?

Supply chains

Practitioners of sustainability have found that big results and substantive change can happen through collaboration and engaging others, be they supply chains, employees or customers.

The ultimate example, perhaps, of how setting a large goal and engaging others to reach it is the agreement among companies that purchase palm oil not to source product from farmers who slash and burn forests to grow product. This agreement around the Certified Sustainable Palm Oil production has led to a significant slowdown in deforestation in the Amazon, a consequence of the vast majority of commerical palm oil purchasers joining the accord. Their commitment to preventing deforestation pressured farmers and agricultural companies down the supply chain to halt deforestation practices.

Individual companies have shown the potential of collaborating with supply chains. Levi Strauss & Co. worked with suppliers to train them in new ways of doing things to produce cotton-based denim in waterless processes.  It worked, saving Levi and its suppliers money, and saving billions of gallons of water for better uses, said Liz O’Neill, in charge of sourcing sustainability at Levi.

Sustainability chiefs were regaled with the story of Green Bronx Machine, the nonprofit bringing the fervor and practice of sustainability and locally grown food and gardening to inner city kids all over the country. Stephen Ritz, its founder, garnered a standing ovation for his work.

"If you can’t give money, then please give love!” Ritz exhorted.  

It all speaks to the power of analyzing the power of human connection in this work.

Employee engagement 

Sometimes overlooked is the exponential power that employees can have in driving sustainability.

Aaron Hurst, founder of Imperative, said he stumbled upon the power of employee engagement by trying to launch a pro bono work clearinghouse and discovering that the majority of U.S. workers find more engagement in their outside and volunteer activities than in their work. Studying why that is so, he found that most workers want to make a difference but also like the relationships built in such work and the personal growth they experience.

“So, we formed the Imperative foundation ... to figure out how to boost people’s sense of making an impact, boost relationships and boost personal growth” and he urges companies to pay attention to these needs of employees.

Programs at Caesars Entertainment’s “CodeGreen” sustainability program for employees resulted not only in most employees getting involved, but it boosted employee morale and engagement in such a way that they drew more customers. Those Caesars facilities with the strongest code green activities had measurable increases in customers and return customers to such a degree their experience became the fodder of business school case studies.

Sony Pictures Entertainment, whose appeal to moviegoers is at stake, has invested heavily in employee engagement around sustainability. Not only does it ask employees to get involved in actions, but it gives each employee $5,000 to invest in either a home solar rooftop installation or purchase of hybrid or electric vehicles.

But the employee sustainability officers from Sony, Caesars and several other companies attending the GreenBiz Forum warned not to just throw out a cookie-cutter sustainability program and expect it to work with all employees or divisions of the company.  For one thing, it may need to be communicated differently to various employee groups. Caesars found it could not rely on email, for instance, to reach employees involved in much of its hospitality operation because they were not at desks with computers.  

Campbell Soup Co., the iconic food manufacturer whose name conjures up images of childhood and home for many, has a forward-looking sustainability program to involve all employees, from its commercial kitchens to packaging. Dave Stangis, who leads Campbell’s sustainability efforts, advised making sure employees at all levels of the company are engaged and on terms that speak to them.

Risk, conflict minerals and fighting back

But it’s not always easy when companies branch out into new domains, particularly when it comes to risk mitigation in long supply chains.

Todd Brady, global environment director at Intel, gave the example of conflict minerals, or the gold and metals sourced from the Central African region around the Democratic Republic of Congo. Though it is by now well established that forced labor and warlord profiteering often surface in the mining process, Brady recalled vacillation on how much one company can do to make change.

“We’re in the supply chain ourselves. We’re a tiny customer,” Brady recalled as initial arguments against large-scale action on conflict minerals. “It’s a sticky social issue. You can’t win. It’s over in the Congo — that part of the world is a mess. This is a government-type issue.”

Still, he said, Intel’s C-suite saw the issue as a way to plant a flag in the ground on sustainability issues. The company has since seen a 55 percent to 75 percent reduction in funds from illicit mining for tin, tantalum and tungsten, he said, along with benefits including better employee engagement on corporate social responsibility initiatives and being prepared to confront new regulations or materials standards in the area.