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My Company Just Started a Sustainability Department -- What Do I Do Now?

Getting a green team off the ground is just the start. Here's a handy primer to what it means to join in your organization's efforts to go green -- from basic definitions to taking dedicated action.

The creation of a sustainability department almost always sparks an overwhelmingly positive response from employees. The reality is that workers are often ahead of the game when it comes to environmental concern -- they've been waiting for their employers to embrace sustainability and green business and are relieved to finally see concrete steps taken in that direction.

However, even though most are excited to see their company embracing sustainability, few know what sustainability is, what this department does or -- most importantly -- how to get involved. The following is a primer on sustainability and sustainability departments, enabling employees to inform themselves and their departments on how they can best contribute to their company's sustainable business future.

What is "Sustainability"?

There are many definitions out there. A good place to start is with this definition, from the United Nations:

"Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." (Brundtland Commission, 1987)

In other words, we should live our lives and do business in a way that meets our needs, but doesn't muck up the ability of people in the future to do the same.

In the business community, sustainability is often referred to as the "triple bottom line" or the "integrated bottom line" and is often accompanied by the motto "People, Planet and Profit." These phrases each refer to a business that values environmental and social welfare, in addition to the financial bottom line. Most professionals in the field use these definitions only as starting points. You may find it useful to consider what it is about these definitions that works and doesn't work for you, and then come up with your own definition of sustainability, keeping in mind the underlying principles.

What is "Sustainable Business"?

Just like sustainability itself, sustainable business can be interpreted and defined in many different ways. A useful definition to start with comes from the Presidio School of Management:

"Sustainable Management (is) the ability to direct the course of a company, community or country in ways that restore and enhance all forms of capital -- human, natural, and financial -- to generate stakeholder value and contribute to the well-being of current and future generations."

Depending on market conditions, geography, activity, and supply chain, every sustainable business will look and behave differently. However, companies committed to sustainability share some characteristics:
  1. They are financially successful companies that seek to create wealth;
  2. They work to increase the well-being of their employees, customers, communities, and other stakeholders;
  3. They seek to actively restore, conserve, and support ecological systems.
What is a Sustainability Department and What Does it Do?

The goal of a sustainability department is to make the company more sustainable -- that is, to help the company ensure its long-term future by protecting communities, restoring and conserving ecosystems, and creating competitive profit. For some businesses, a small number of modifications may result in an entirely sustainable operation. For others, the path will be longer and more complicated. In either case, the result will be a shift that affects the entire company, similar to integrative concepts like Total Quality Management (TQM).

A company's sustainability department may start projects of its own, but much of its work will be through partnering with other departments and business units. This is because sustainability is not an isolated competency, like marketing or operations can be. Instead, it's a business mindset applicable to all areas of business activity.

Sustainability departments can range in size significantly between companies. Many businesses have just one person dedicated to working on sustainability. For some, sustainability is half a person's job, a shared responsibility, or the domain of interns and consultants. Others have a full department with several people in it. No matter what staffing size your company chooses, you can expand the influence of the sustainability department by supporting their work and projects of your own.

Whether initiatives are undertaken alone or in concert with other business units, projects that the sustainability department can impact will always strive to embody the concepts of sustainable business, which often result in:
  • Lower costs through reduced resource use;
  • Reduced risk of backlash/increased access to new locations by community outreach;
  • Capital investments in more efficient infrastructure, saving money and resources;
  • A more healthy, less wasteful, less toxic, and more pleasant workplace;
  • Monetizing resource use reductions -- by trading greenhouse gas credits or selling waste materials;
  • Providing input to business units at planning stages to design for financial and environmental efficiency;
  • Turning waste streams into revenue streams;
  • Modeling all of the energy and materials flows in and out of a business;
  • Studying the life cycle of the value chain.
Some examples of companies that have made great strides towards sustainability include Terracycle, Patagonia and Interface. For example, Terracycle is well known for their unique business model, where they collect waste food and organic scraps, compost the scraps using worms, and then sell their compost in used, cleaned plastic bottles. This process diverts two waste streams -- plastic bottles and organic waste -- and turns them into valuable products. Also, their product is non-toxic, emits minimal amounts of greenhouse gases, and encourages gardening, a socially positive practice. Terracycle and companies like them provide good examples of how to creatively embody sustainability principles.

How Can You Get Involved?

Let the staff of the sustainability department know that you would like to help! Sustainability groups frequently seek to reach out to representatives from other departments. You can help by introducing yourself to department staff and learning about some of the sustainability initiatives currently underway. This will help to create a network of sustainability-minded players at your company who can share experiences, best practices, and new ideas around implementation.

Once you've let the sustainability department know that you would like to support their efforts, start looking at your own business function from a sustainable perspective. No matter what your particular business activity is, try to think of it in terms of financial, social, and environmental impact. Reflect on what kinds of materials and energy your area requires to do business and what effect these things have on the people and environment where they are used and originate.

Take milk, for example, it requires gasoline, cows, grass, glass, and a farm. Also, consider the output resulting from your business activity, such as waste materials, work product, or environmental and community degradation/conservation. The better you understand the inflows and outflows of material, energy, and social/environmental impacts associated with your business, the better you will be able to work with your sustainability department.

Many people will quickly identify areas that are inefficient or wasteful. You shouldn't hesitate to bring these to the attention of the sustainability staff. The most effective ideas on making a business more sustainable will come from people who know business details best, so your suggestions and knowledge specific to your activities will be valuable.

Getting support from your managers to work on sustainability projects may be tough, even if they are like-minded. The problem is that most people see sustainability as a "supplementary" role or competency, not something that can integrate into existing activities. We suggest slowly introducing sustainability concepts into your business by starting to describe activities not only from a financial perspective, but also from an environmental and social one, too.

When you begin bringing in these new perspectives, focus on the financial effect that social and environmental impacts have. For instance, you could point out the wasteful use of paper and concurrent paper costs, or the excessive air conditioner use and resultant utility bill. This method will teach managers that social and environmental impacts do tie back to financial bottom lines, which should hopefully open them up and begin educating them to sustainable business thinking.

What Can You Do to Educate Yourself?

There is a surprising amount of information available about sustainable business, but not all of it is easy to find or clearly labeled. Here are some resources to get you started:

Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution, by Hawken, Lovins, and Lovins; Cradle To Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, by McDonough and Braungart; and The Ecology of Commerce: A Declaration of Sustainability, by Hawken.


Fast Company
Harvard Business Review

Get comfortable with this material, and start thinking about your own business unit from a sustainability perspective. Remember: there are no hard and fast rules in sustainability, and the solution will be different in every community and for every business. Don't hesitate to start pitching your own ideas and proposals!

Daniel Winokur is a strategic sustainability consultant pursuing his MBA in Sustainable Management at the Presidio School of Management. He has consulted for multiple businesses looking to start a sustainability department or initiative. Currently, he is working with Red Bull of North America, helping them to reduce their carbon footprint through fleet MPG improvements and a solar array. You can email him at dwinokur -at- with any questions about this article.

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