A Three-Part Approach to Corporate Sustainability

by | Jan 19, 2012

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Sustainable development is a vast and all-encompassing idea, and corporate sustainability is nearly so. No corporate sustainability leader can hope to make their company “sustainable” in the next year—or even the next five. So as we think ahead to our sustainability initiatives for 2012, how can we set meaningful goals that will lead to measurable good?

As a fairly new corporate sustainability leader, I find that answering this question can easily become overwhelming. So, I use a three-part approach to help develop and further my company’s sustainability strategy.

1. Tracking “facilities, flights and fuel”

The first corporate environmental impacts that come to mind are the tangible ones: energy and water consumed, and wastes produced, in physical buildings; employee travel; electricity use. In the field of environmental tracking, we’ve made the most progress in measuring these tangible “facilities, flights and fuel” impacts, as I call them.

One excellent tracking tool is the Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Protocol, a method for measuring climate change impacts standardized by the World Resources Institute (WRI). The GHG Protocol is a widely-accepted way to quantify a company’s greenhouse gas emissions, a process called a greenhouse gas inventory. This GHG inventory includes emissions from stationary and mobile fuel consumption (so-called “Scope 1” emissions), purchased electricity (“Scope 2”), and value chain impacts (“Scope 3”). Most organizations measure their emissions in scopes 1 and 2, and whatever portion of scope 3 for which they can obtain data, such as employee travel.

Carbon footprints, as greenhouse gas inventories are more commonly called, don’t comprise all of a firm’s environmental impacts, but they do serve as excellent initial assessment tools. Many firms begin with carbon footprints and progress to methods that use multiple ecological indicators. A great discussion of the pros and cons of using carbon as the singular environmental indicator can be found in the excellent article, “Carbon Footprint – A Catalyst for Life Cycle Assessment?” in the Journal for Industrial Ecology.

Using carbon footprints can serve as a standardized, tractable, and reportable method to track and communicate your sustainability efforts both internally and externally, especially if you submit the results to a voluntary reporting agency like the Carbon Disclosure Project.

2. Engaging, educating and empowering your employees

Many companies centralize their sustainability efforts to a small group, usually from facilities or Environmental, Health and Safety (EH&S). It’s tempting to do this, because large, consensus-driven groups can be messy and unwieldy for making decisions and getting things done. But such centralizing can lead to missed opportunities. While it’s important to have a core group who can catalyze and lead sustainability efforts, you need your entire organization engaged, educated and empowered to pursue your corporate sustainability strategy.

Many sustainability efforts are based on changing behaviors, and the only way to succeed is for the stakeholder groups affected to be involved. For example, your Green Team can mandate double-sided printing, but unless Legal stops asking for single-sided contracts and IT sets all newly purchased printers to duplex mode, behavior will slowly erode back to the old, less eco-efficient habits.

Students that I advise often ask me what they should major in to get into the sustainability field; I tell them that it really doesn’t matter, because every discipline relates to sustainability. So it is with functional groups in my company. Because of the interdisciplinary nature of environmental impacts, every functional group in your organization should have representation on the Green Team or other environmental endeavors.

Having all functional groups engaged in sustainability is especially relevant for the third part of the sustainability strategy.

3. Greening your core products and services

Imagine your ideal “green” company. The office is truly a paperless one, energy is conserved and even renewably generated on-site, and the building itself is certified LEED Platinum. But unless this company is in the paper, energy, or construction industry, its leaders aren’t truly bringing sustainability into the core of their business: that is, the way they generate revenues, which is the company’s reason for existing in the first place. In the sustainability field, we often talk about the “triple bottom line” of people, planet and profit; but the real opportunity for revolutionary change is in the triple top line—only by growing our revenues in a financially, socially and environmentally sustainable way can we hope to remain successful over the long term.

This third part of the sustainability strategy is greening your company’s products and services. The authors of the seminal article “Why Sustainability Is Now the Key Driver of Innovation” in the Harvard Business Review (registration required) lay out five stages of maturity for an organization developing its sustainability strategy. After environmental compliance and greening the value chain in the first two stages, “designing sustainable products and services” is the key to stage three (and beyond). Designing greener products and services is the only real way to achieve an environmentally neutral and eventually restorative company, but this means something different to each industry and firm.

For example, I work in the PLM (product lifecycle management) and CAD (computer-aided design) industry. We certainly incur impacts when we write software code (electricity) and ship product DVDs (material and transportation), but our total footprint must also take into account the millions of products ultimately developed using our product development software.

What is the biggest footprint you can imagine for your company, and where can you have the most leverage to reduce this footprint? Reducing that “total footprint” is central to this third part of the strategy. For my company, this means designing software that helps our customers measure and reduce the environmental impacts of the products they design, but the answer for each company is just as unique as the core ideals and competencies that makes you competitive in the marketplace.

I don’t know what 2012 will bring, but I’ll share the trials and tribulations of using this three-part approach as the year unfolds, and I hope to learn from your experiences as well.

Asheen Phansey is the North American sustainability leader for Dassault Systèmes® and sustainability product manager for the SolidWorks® brand. He also teaches sustainable business courses as an adjunct professor in the MBA program at Babson College. Dassault Systèmes is the world leader in product lifecycle management (PLM), providing solutions that enable businesses of every size and sector to design, simulate and experience tomorrow’s products. You can learn more about sustainable design tools from DS SolidWorks at www.solidworks.com/sustainability.

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