Defying the Downturn: How to Achieve Success Through Sustainability


Defying the Downturn: How to Achieve Success Through Sustainability

Some companies have put sustainability programs on the chopping block during the recession, but a few influential organizations, including GE and Waste Management, are actually expanding their sustainability initiatives, and using them as a tool for innovation. Their focus is not on whether green should be a part of their strategy during a downturn, but on how green will grow their business and enhance their corporate culture.

Steve Fludder, vice president of ecomagination at GE, and Paul Ligon, managing director of GreenOps at Waste Management, made a strong case for their organizations' integrated approach during a webinar hosted by the EcoStrategy Alliance, a new online community for executives who manage sustainability, launched by LRN and GreenOrder. (Disclosure: GE and Waste Management are clients of GreenOrder.)

Both Fludder and Ligon have worked to create business cultures of environmental innovation that yield value. Together they offer compelling examples of how sustainability can integrate into the fabric of an organization, set a strategic direction, and support growth throughout an economic downturn.

During the webinar, Fludder outlined success factors for GE, including the critical alignment of environmental and business goals that proves to customers, shareholders and employees that, in the words of GE CEO Jeff Immelt, "green is green."

For Fludder and GE, "ecomagination is not explicitly a sustainability initiative -- it's really a business strategy... it's about focusing on solutions that have a compelling economic proposition." GE's ecomagination program grew to $17 billion in revenue in 2008, up 21 percent over the prior year. Additionally, their own internal greenhouse gas reduction efforts have resulted in over $100 million in savings.

Ligon echoed the "green is green" sentiment: "We look at [this space] as an enormous opportunity and, interestingly, in the downturn we are getting into this more aggressively, not less." Waste Management plans to invest $500 million of capital spending in new technologies over the next 10 years and has goals in place to double renewable power generation by 2020. Already, Waste Management's landfill gas and waste-to-energy projects produce enough electricity to power more than 800,000 homes, saving the equivalent of about 8.2 million barrels of oil per year.

Fludder and Ligon both agreed on four factors essential to the planning and execution of comprehensive sustainability initiatives that deliver value:
1.    Understanding of and commitment to sustainability by senior executives
2.    Alignment of environmental and economic goals to ensure credibility and support
3.    Employee engagement throughout the organization
4.    Creation of an energized culture of sustainable innovation.
Andrew Shapiro, president of GreenOrder, framed the discussion in historical terms. In his words, "these economic times distinguish corporate initiatives which are merely window dressing from those which represent a true commitment to innovation throughout the business enterprise."

Drawing similarities to the dot-com era, he noted that some of the greatest innovations in the IT sector occurred after the bust of 2000. Today, companies that can leverage sustainability as a competitive advantage will become the green equivalent of Google, Amazon, Facebook, and eBay. Transformative sustainable strategy has the power to create points of differentiation, engage stakeholders, and drive profitability.

To hear the full webinar, entitled "Using Green to Win," follow this link to register and view the session, including presentations and Q&A.

Mateo Bueno is a consultant and Elise Richards is a summer associate at GreenOrder, an LRN Company. GreenOrder is a strategy and management consulting firm that has helped leading companies turn sustainability into business value since 2000.

Image CC licensed by Flickr user amandabhslater.