What does it look like to embed sustainability across an organization?

Green leaf stamp illustration
ShutterstockOlivier Le Moa
Companies such as SAIC, Dow, DuPont and GE are taking unique approaches to sustainability.

A recent GreenBiz article by Joel Makower described how Cargill is preparing all of its employees to understand the concept of sustainability. The giant food and agricultural chemical company is also one of the largest private companies in the United States.

One of its managers who was very knowledgeable in sustainability felt it was time to build the profile of sustainability within the organization. The company organized a summit and invited employees from a variety of roles — supply chain, procurement, plant managers, finance, IT, sales, marketing, communications, legal, R&D, corporate affairs and government relations.

The invitation made it clear that attendees wouldn’t just be passive listeners but active participants. One goal of the event was to "create champions" throughout the company on sustainability. The summit was so successful that it was even expanded to its supply chain. 

If a company is committed to integrating sustainability into its operations, it cannot do so effectively just by assigning the responsibility to a chief sustainability officer or comparable position. As Cargill got employees from all of its departments to understand and thus implement sustainability in the various departments, all companies should follow this pattern.

A number of companies have adopted this strategy and been very successful. One of the first was Interface, the largest commercial carpet manufacturer in the United States. Its founder and chairman, Ray Anderson, not only made Interface sustainable, but also became an international spokesman for environmental sustainability for many years until his death in 2011.

Other companies that successfully have integrated sustainability into their operations by training most employees include Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC), the large technology integrator primarily for the Department of Defense, as well as Dow Chemical, DuPont Chemical and General Electric.

Another approach to a company’s employees understanding integrating sustainability within all operations is for them to have learned the concept while in school. But few programs offer courses in environmental and social sustainability. A typical graduate business school may offer programs in accounting, finance, marketing, operations, organizational behavior and most likely an MBA. But should the typical business school also offer courses in sustainability? It could, but there is a better approach.

These business schools should follow the example of Cargill and others. Rather than offering a course or program on sustainability, they should integrate the concept of sustainability into all of its programs. For example, in a business marketing class there should be modules on developing sustainable products and strategies on how to market and sell them. In a finance class, time should be allotted in discussing the investments and returns on sustainability strategies. How does a company justify making investments in new sustainable products or systems? Can a company justify investing in renewable energy systems?

Some of these questions need to be addressed by financial professionals. Students learning about operations must understand, for example, the various options for achieving LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification and making buildings truly sustainable in terms of using a sustainable site, materials and resources, energy and atmosphere, indoor environmental quality, water efficiency and innovation in design. A student in operations probably would want to know something about renewable energy, which could be covered in a module. 

The main point is that sustainability should not be treated as a discipline like accounting, marketing, operations and finance but rather it should be a concept embedded in all of the disciplines. In this manner, regardless of the student’s major, she or he will have learned all about sustainability and will be in a position to apply it in the working world.

Within a short period of time, companies employing graduates from the various business schools will have them finding ways to apply sustainability in their company responsibilities. While I have used business schools as an example, this recommendation can apply to other schools also. Eventually, everyone will incorporate sustainability in their everyday habits without even thinking about it. 

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