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Jumpstarting sustainability — without big ideas, money or executive support

You don't need a multimillion-dollar budget or an environmental activist as a CEO to catalyze change for the better at your company.

At companies such as Ben & Jerry’s, Starbucks and Patagonia, top executives seem fully committed to managing their companies’ environmental impacts.

Meanwhile, your company might be only minimally engaged on sustainability issues (if at all), and executives might not view sustainability as a value-add essential to achieving business goals or mitigating operational risks.

At your company, no one is tasked with focusing on sustainability issues, and your job description and department budget do not cover environmental management. You want to make a difference, but think you cannot get anything done.

You are wrong. You do not need big ideas, money or executive support to be a successful change agent. Let’s address each supposed limitation, one by one:

1. Big ideas

First things first: there is no requirement for you or your company to “change the world.”

Even though some other companies achieve big milestones through tracking and dramatically reducing carbon emissions, water use, waste, etc., small-scale initiatives can be very worthwhile.

To get started, assess all of the various functional areas of your company (at a high level) and research best practices to create a list of possible opportunities for sustainability improvements. Do not spend too much time on this list; it is only a starting point.

Next, start talking with people at the company about environmental stewardship and your list of sustainability initiatives. It’s critical to listen to their ideas, because this is where the magic happens.

When I served on the Environmental Commission of Highland Park, Illinois, I lobbied at a grassroots level for individual school green teams, which would work to green schools through recycling programs and other initiatives. I never could have imagined that one school, Highland Park High School, would have created a butterfly sanctuary or a biodiesel lab. These ideas, and the successes, belonged 100 percent to the students and faculty on the new school green team.

2. Big money

You also don't need a big budget, or any budget, to start a company dialogue on the importance of environmental stewardship. Of course, many initiatives require capital, but others do not.

When I worked as vice president and associate general counsel of Williams-Sonoma, I did not have any budget for sustainability work. Nevertheless, I created slogans and a logo, and helped employees across the company take “small green steps” to “green our home” and “help our business by helping the environment.”

The small steps were noticeable and meaningful on many levels. For example, I helped launch a composting program for the corporate cafeteria, which resulted in a net savings on waste disposal fees. I also convinced the cafeteria manager to offer a small discount to coffee customers who brought in their own mugs.

Other small steps included greening the specifications for store builds; working with other retailers and transport companies to reduce environmental impacts of freight transport; and reducing packaging materials on catalog orders.

Keep in mind that all of these successes were achieved without expensive carbon footprints, performance metrics or expert consultants.

3. Big executive support

Having executive support is very helpful — but not essential — to your work as a change agent.

Look for people who share your passion for environmental stewardship. Having champions in the business units is key. They are the ones who get things done, and they become the ambassadors for inspiring and recruiting more champions and for publicizing successes.

Although any individual success might be small, it becomes a story that is sharable and a source of pride, especially when coupled with other successes.

The grassroots work also becomes the basis for conversations with company executives. You can use the successes to help prove the business case for a company-wide commitment to environmental stewardship.

The small, zero-budget initiatives that you started with might then become part of a much larger program and commitment with dramatic successes. But even if they do not, the small successes matter and make a difference. Your efforts are never wasted.

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