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How to create a ripple effect from your sustainability team

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The following is an excerpt from the recently released paperback edition of "Green Wisdom: A Guide for Anyone to Start, Engage and Energize a Sustainability Team," by Nikki Pava, with a foreword by Christiana Figueres, former executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (2010-2016) and founding partner of Global Optimism.

The book highlights the Green Wisdom shared by the Sustainability Team leaders from some of the most innovative brands — how their teams originated, how they embed their work into the corporate business model, how they re-inspire members when momentum decreases, and the best practices they use to promote team unity. The stories, tools and frameworks serve as inspiration for leaders to do good, to create valuable and engaging initiatives for employees and to show the same level of commitment to their company’s social and environmental values as they dedicate to making a profit.

The first steps to create your sustainability team

1. A team on a mission

A mission statement will keep the team true to its established goals and help team members stayed aligned when facing tough situations. Establishing a Sustainability Team mission statement makes all departments accountable for sustainability practices and promotes better overall communication across business lines. 

2. Your purpose

A strong mission statement is a statement of purpose. It works best when written by the entire team so that everyone involved feels that they own it. The mission statement defines the goal of the Sustainability Team and motivates both the current members and those who aren’t yet involved. Because of how foundational the mission statement is to the work of the team, it’s best that this task is a high priority and starts during the Sustainability Team’s formative meetings. 

3. Get writing!

A well-thought-out and comprehensive mission statement uses a simple format to demonstrate what the team can do for the company and how it will achieve these results. This gives a team the credibility needed to gather support from other executives and employees.

While there is no prescription for the perfect mission statement, it is helpful to break it down into three parts. By utilizing the three points below, you will cover many of the practices people can relate to and work towards. This will make the structure more accessible to construct into a clear and impactful message.

Here is an example of a mission statement, using the bold words as a guide for each sentence: 

  • State the aim of the team: "We believe that sustainability is the core of effective productivity and essential for the preservation of the world’s resources."

  • State what the Sustainability Team can contribute to the company: "By implementing sustainable practices and being aware of our impact on these resources, we can make a difference. We recognize that we have a responsibility to..."

  • Finish with a strong closing sentence that encompasses the bigger vision of all activities and initiatives: "We will produce our goods effectively, responsibly, and strive to achieve environmental sustainability in all that we do."

4. Adding the three sentences together produces:

We believe that sustainability is the core of effective productivity and essential for the preservation of world resources. By implementing sustainable practices and being aware of our impact on these resources, we can make a difference. We recognize that we have a responsibility to the environment and future generations. We will produce our goods effectively, responsibly, and strive to achieve environmental sustainability in all that we do.

The mission statement succinctly captures the purpose of the team and the direction in which it is heading, allowing the team to build confidence and credibility in the workplace. It can be posted in visible areas to remind team members of the overall goals and serve as an open invitation for newcomers to participate.

5. Make green wisdom accessible

The goal of creating an in-house Sustainability Team is self-sufficiency. Seeking the guidance of external consultants is a wise move, one that will benefit you at multiple points in your journey, but the long-term goal is to rely on the skills and knowledge of your peers. To reach this point, you must invest in the growth and development of your team. Create opportunities for them to learn directly from sustainability professionals. Connect team members with the latest tools and resources, and give them a platform to share their newfound Green Wisdom with their colleagues.

Getting a Sustainability Team off the ground is involved, but not complicated. It starts with a single leader, or small group, gathering like-minded visionaries. As you begin to meet, develop a clear mission statement that will cast the team’s vision for the company’s future and keep all parties accountable. Then, inventory your resources (using the Strengths-Based Resource checklist above), and identify easy wins.

Inspiring your company to 'walk the talk'

Many companies interviewed for this book walk their talk by striving to get closer to overall zero waste. Each year, they calibrate their operations to find better ways to reuse or recycle so their waste output number decreases. For well-established companies, drastic changes can be challenging and unnerving. Thankfully, huge improvements can be achieved in small steps when everyone on the team works together.

A suggestion about workspace layout made by a Green Team volunteer who works in the shipping department at Dr. Bronner’s made a huge impact on decreasing waste output in 2017. By merely changing the manner in which it collects and processes waste, the company was able to see a significant drop in waste output, even while production increased. "That's a win that we've been able to see in the last year," Shiber-Knowles reflects.

While the Green Team at Dr. Bronner’s will analyze and reduce the company’s waste output first, the team is excited to tackle many aspects of sustainability that will motivate a bigger cross-section of the entire company over time. "I anticipate that we will touch all aspects of our environmental footprint and potential handprint over the coming years," Shiber-Knowles shares. "We have a solid foundation for tackling our waste goals first, and I imagine we'll next look at water use and electricity, start an on-site composting process, and we'll probably do some cool water and grey water projects."

Shiber-Knowles says that the team members at Dr. Bronner’s have also talked about researching more effective construction and demolition practices and installing hand dryers in all bathrooms, in addition to focusing on their social and environmental purchasing policy. With so many potential areas to contribute, she believes that even more team members will be excited about contributing their energy and green wisdom into at least one project.

Mountain Rose Herbs is another business that is walking its talk and taking responsibility for their actions through their waste reduction initiatives, all of which have been greatly influenced and inspired by the efforts of its Green Team members.

In 2015, MRH diverted 96.2 percent of its waste. This means that only 3.8 percent of all material that left the company’s site went to landfill. As a result, MRH became the first TRUE Zero Waste Certified company in Oregon by Green Business Certification Inc. The title is a big victory for the company and a motivating factor to continue striving towards 100 percent waste diversion. While this feat required buy-in from all levels of the company, Bascue attributes the Zero Waste award to the Green Team and facilities staff. "Our facilities crew members are really the ones who made this happen," she says. "They sort every piece of material that’s put in the trash bin and all the different bins. They examine the material and decide whether it can be upcycled or recycled. Without our devoted staff, we couldn't have achieved this goal."

For MRH, packing peanuts represent one of the challenges embedded in that last 4 percent. Dry herbs sourced from vendors in the Pacific Northwest arrive at their facility with minimal packing waste. However, despite requesting that their vendors stop using packing peanuts, the fragile items that MRH sells, such as teapots and tincture containers, continue to arrive at their headquarters surrounded by the small, puffy, pieces of styrofoam.

The company could simply externalize the issue, passing along the peanuts to those who purchase the fragile items, but Bascue knows that MRH customers would not appreciate opening a package awash in tiny little pieces of styrofoam — even if MRH is reusing the material.

To ensure that the little peanuts do not end up in a landfill, a Green Team member from the receiving department formulated a simple solution. MRH formed relationships with local non-profit organizations that can use or recycle the styrofoam peanuts. A point person in the Receiving Department collects, sorts and stores the peanuts in large bags before transporting them to the new location. "It is challenging to find a partner who will consistently take the volume [of styrofoam peanuts] that we have," admits Bascue.

While it would be easier to put the peanuts into the dumpster once the boxes of breakable teapots from other parts of the world are opened, Mountain Rose Herbs walks its talk by dedicating time and energy into finding a way to recycle or reuse these small plastic bits.

Analyzing and fine-tuning waste processes is one of the many ways the Green Team members work together on issues that have a direct impact on the entire company. Though their work was not motivated by winning prestigious awards, being named the first TRUE Zero Waste company in the state sure doesn’t hurt.

The green wisdom ripple effect

Walking the talk isn’t easy. Sometimes it means overhauling decades-old operational systems or tracing sustainability issues down the supply chain and asking people on the other side of the world to change their behavior. But as these examples show, your relentless commitment to positive action, even within a small group, can transform the way a whole industry does business.

Whether it starts at the top or the bottom, awareness and care at any level changes how people relate to their roles and can lead to solutions that reach far beyond the company doors.