As a parent, this time of year is always bittersweet – refreshed after a long summer vacation, my children head back to school eager to catch up with friends and fill their brains with new material. As a business owner, I envy them; the fresh start allows them to take on assignments enthusiastically and energetically tackle projects at hand, and as children, they do it all with a far more open mind, filled more with hope than skepticism.
Even after the best or longest vacations, adults often struggle to achieve that same zeal. Nowhere have I seen this—an inability to look at projects with fresh eyes, take on new challenges eagerly, and assess situations in an unbiased manner—impact business operations so much so as it does sustainability.
We’re still at a point in time where sustainability efforts require a bit more effort to get off the ground – especially in industries like manufacturing, where my company plays a role. So when employees at any level come into a sustainability project with hesitation, cynicism or even a hint of indifference, the likelihood of that initiative getting off the ground—never mind succeeding—is limited.
With that in mind, now is a good time to treat yourself like a child when it comes to sustainability and use some good old grade school advice to kick off—or maintain momentum—on programs.
Do your homework
You wouldn’t show up to class without doing your summer reading, so why would you tackle a new sustainability project without taking the time to learn more about the benefits, risks, costs, etc., of a new initiative? Or better yet, how will you know what efforts to prioritize if you don’t know the full spate of options available to you? Sites such as this one are a good resource, but we also advise our clients to speak with—and in certain circumstances, hire—sustainability consultants that can provide unbiased opinions and advice on how to reduce waste, increase recyclable materials, and the like. Good vendors will likely have someone on staff within the organization that can at least get you started on understanding how others in your industry are tackling sustainability, what the best practices are, which new strategies are emerging, and what to avoid.
Play nice with others
Socialization is a critical part of our educational system in the US because it’s crucial for tomorrow’s generation to be able to effectively interact with one another—sharing, working as a team, trusting one another, and looking out for the best interests of those around you. It is also a critical part of any sustainability effort. Although often overshadowed by environmental efforts, social initiatives should be at the top of any sustainability priority list. From ensuring employees work in safe conditions, to coordinating paid community service days, social elements are necessary for any company that wants to build a responsible business in ways that span far beyond the basics learned in business school ethics courses.
Use your imagination
As any grade school art teacher will tell you, kids have an uncanny ability to make masterpieces out of pipe cleaners, empty egg cartons, and some finger paint, among other miscellaneous items. In business, we’re often forced to work with—and deliver results based on—the resources available. This is where it requires staff to put on their creative thinking caps, and sustainability is often the place that requires it the most, since resources (read: budgets and staff) have only started to be allocated there in recent years and still fall far behind other business-critical operations. At Strive, we’re fortunate that part of our business is to conceptualize and design retail displays, which by nature, involves creativity. So instead of simply using recycled materials to meet our clients’ sustainability needs (which is now status quo), we also encourage our design teams to consider how the design itself or its role in the retail environment will support economic, social, environmental, and governance elements of sustainability. This has played out in several ways, including one display that could be easily reconfigured to be used for multiple seasons, and another that donated a portion of all product sales to a non-profit organization—ultimately raising millions.
Get good grades
We all can probably remember studying those spelling and vocabulary words as kids, or pulling our first all nighter to finish that big paper in college. It took tremendous time, dedication and energy, but was necessary because we knew we’d be judged on our performance. Fortunately, businesses are also starting to be held accountable in a similar way for their sustainability efforts—or lack thereof. Many companies hold their vendors to a particular set of standards, and there is a lot of talk about establishing a universal set of sustainability guidelines. It may be years before those are formalized, but in the meantime, companies can prepare themselves for the inevitable by creating their own guidelines and objectively grade themselves on a quarterly or semi-annual basis. The reporting should cover all major sustainability elements—economic, social, environmental, and governance—both from strategic and tactical perspectives. Marc Karell of Climate Change & Environmental Services provides some great recommendations and advice for how to go about this in his recent article, Certifying and Rating Your Sustainability Successes.
Regardless of whether you’re an A+ student or struggle to keep up, the best advice boils down to two words echoed by parents around the world: “Be Good.” This adage applies not just to kids in school, but also to those of us in business who want to set themselves—and their companies and industries—up for long term success.
Jeff Sharfstein is president and CEO of The Strive Group. The Strive Group is comprised of four operating entities that design, manufacture and pack-out point of purchase displays for major consumer products companies. A fifth entity, Strive Logistics, LLC, provides transportation solutions to display customers and others. Jeff Sharfstein began his business career with Pride Container Corporation, a company founded by the Sharfstein family, in 1968. He left in 1990 to start World Distribution Group (now Strive Logistics) and returned to Pride Container Corporation as its president in 1997.