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The sustainability talent you’re looking for, it’s in your operations department

Tree made out of gears

Operations and sustainability are partners in the same mission. Image via Shutterstock.

2020, the year of Zoom classes, was my second year at the Fuqua School of Business and the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke. I would sit at my desk in my tiny graduate school bedroom, or occasionally take a class outside in my hammock to break up the monotony. Like many, I had been catapulted into the world of virtual learning and was easily distracted. I found myself frequently wanting to turn off my camera, claim my microphone wasn’t working, and go back to making sourdough, or on some mornings, crawl back into bed. 

Among the drudgery of it all, there was one class that truly caught my attention. That class was Operations Strategy with Robert Swinney. Even from his virtual teaching suite set up at Fuqua, he was able to reach through the virtual haze of online Zoom classes and make what could have been a completely boring topic — how companies decide where to place factories — utterly engaging. Sometimes he struggled to keep up with all the virtual hand raising, rapidly calling on students to hear their perspectives. He’d ask how we’d weigh all the pros and cons of potential influences on location: access to highways and airports for ease of shipping, tax breaks of the country, the local talent pool. As I look back on that exercise now after graduating into a sustainability profession, a whole other set of pros and cons come to mind, ones that factor in the environment. Operations is an extremely relevant mindset for sustainability, one that I use every day to make changes at my company that protect the climate. 

I often wonder why I felt like one of the few students that ever got excited about operations. Perhaps thinking of a career in operations conjures images of stomping around a manufacturing floor with clunky safety shoes or safety glasses that always fog up. Perhaps it seems intimidating for anyone that doesn’t come from a technical or engineering background. Or maybe it’s the foreign terminology such as kaizen and muda and the complicated calculations for throughput, machine use or optimal safety stock levels.

If that last sentence was confusing, or caused internal dread, don’t worry, it does for me too. But I wholeheartedly believe that operations careers are so much more than machines and warehouses. Anyone seeking to break into a sustainability career should also consider working in operations. 

Fundamentally, the operations of companies focus on what it takes to deliver the product or service the company is offering. It is the engine of the company; how things go from ideas to reality. And if corporate social responsibility professionals want to champion for change be it energy efficiency, circular design or better supply chain practices, we need to get involved with the folks who manage these aspects of the day-to-day work. Operations and sustainability go hand in hand. Here’s why:

Everything can be distilled down to a process 

While this seems logical in a manufacturing company, it may be less intuitive in service organizations or tech companies. However the truth is everything we do to run a company — from product development to marketing to defining sustainability goals — can be mapped in a process flow. Accurately defining the steps it takes to achieve an outcome can help us to better understand the inputs and outputs. 

For example, if we are mapping the creation of a product, understanding those inputs and outputs can inform sustainability initiatives such as Life Cycle Assessments. If that process is related to other aspects of the organization, outlining the process will uncover the needs of each stakeholder, where the limitations exist and how we can change the process to fit our sustainability initiatives.

Both operations and sustainability professionals consider a broad range of stakeholders

A key part of working in operations is running process improvement projects. In my experience, doing these involves working with the engineering, quality, environment, health and safety (EHS) and many other internal departments to align on the changes.

Making sustainability changes works in the same way, engaging stakeholders to take cross-functional work to the next level. We make changes that don’t just consider internal parties but also customers, governments and the environment. And we don’t just do this once, but repeatedly.  

I believe that our ever-increasing demand for sustainable alternatives will drive competition, leading to lower costs for consumers and the rapid product innovation cycles.

This is the thing I have always loved about operations: the principle of continuous improvement. We can always work towards making it better. There isn’t a line where you call it "good enough" and walk away. Similarly, sustainability is iterative. It is not enough to simply reduce our waste or our carbon emissions by 25 percent once and leave it at that. Rather, we are constantly thinking about how we can improve upon our improvements and move toward the ultimate objective of a stabilized climate. 

Sustainability takes advantage of cost efficiency achieved from operational improvements

One of the biggest hindrances to sustainable improvements is that they are expensive. On the materials side, historically heavy reliance on cheap alternatives has shaped our world so that some of the most damaging items are the most sensical to use (think plastic). 

Now as innovative recycling and reprocessing solutions begin to appear, thoughtfully designing our operational processes with the circular economy in mind can help to lower production costs. As these solutions scale, we can continually improve upon them to drive down the cost closer to that of existing alternatives. 

On the energy side, improving the efficiency of your operations often includes initiatives to reduce total energy usage. By employing process improvement strategies, we can improve our operational efficiency while also reducing the energy needed to produce our offering. This helps to reduce the overall energy consumption, and subsequent carbon footprint, of our organizations leading to long term cost and carbon savings. 

Additionally, as we build and retrofit factories and facilities, renewable energy is becoming ever more important in the conversation. Renewable energy, when thoughtfully considered and engineered into facilities from the beginning, avoids producing Scope 2 emissions in the first place, leading to lower emissions and cost when growing our businesses.

The Hire Learning column highlights knowledge from those inside the sustainability office to make sense of the career in this decisive decade. Have an idea you want to write? Email [email protected]. ]

While some might think this just leads to more money in the pockets of large companies, I believe that our ever increasing demand for sustainable alternatives will drive competition, leading to lower costs for consumers and the rapid product innovation cycles we’ve all appreciated but has lead to a society that consumes too much (think iPhone releases).

By encouraging sustainability-minded individuals into careers within operations (which might not seem like an obvious place to start a sustainability career), we are bringing even more talent into addressing climate change at the ground level

I live at the intersection of operations and sustainability day in and day out with my colleagues at Circ. Even as a startup that is scaling, we are constantly looking for ways to improve our operations as we go. For example, just recently, an operations team member proactively replaced super sacks (think huge bags for material) that we were using to move material between our sites with a reusable alternative. The decision made business and sustainability sense, there were no downsides. And it wasn’t a top down driven corporate sustainability initiative. It came from an operations employee who doesn’t even have sustainability in their title. 

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