One of the biggest challenges sustainability champions face is how to convince executive leadership — and rank-and-file employees — to embrace company-wide changes for the benefit of both environmental sustainability and corporate profit.
For 15 years, I have advised and been inspired by dozens of corporate leaders in the area of sustainability. The title of this article is taken from a chapter I authored for the 2004 anthology Positively M.A.D.: Making A Difference in Your Organizations, Communities, and the World.
More recently, I interviewed Cristina Amorim (pictured left), chief sustainability officer of Life Technologies, to glean her insights on creative approaches to lasting commitment to profitable sustainability.
Cristina is an environmental engineer by training, whose career has encompassed compliance, EH&S and risk management, CSR, and sustainability. Her sustainability strategies have resulted in a reduction of US$5 million in annual spend at Life Technologies, with projects ranging from installing energy-efficient Bloom Energy boxes (see photo and savings on TFI’s home page) to leveraging a Design for Environment (DfE) training program (DfE Online®) to ensure that her company’s products include DfE principles.
Following are Cristina’s recommendations for creatively convincing her colleagues and teams to support corporate change that benefits products, people, planet, and profit.
Reverse Executives’ “No” to Business-Smart Sustainability Measures
Cristina says that her key to responding to a “no” from fellow executives is to listen and understand why they have an objection. Then she returns with data to rationally prove the case. She says, “This is much more effective than basing it on what I think would be successful for the company.” For example, she says, “We knew we could save $800,000 and reduce environmental impact by shipping a product at ambient temperatures instead of frozen. An executive feared that customers wouldn’t like the new packaging, saying, ‘But the savings will be wiped out if the change disrupts my market by 2%.’ ‘That’s a good point,’ I responded, ‘how do you suggest we go about it?’ We decided to pilot the product in a small market, monitoring any customer complaints or defections. We delivered to that executive the pilot’s findings: not a single customer was bothered by the change.”
Respond to Employees Who Say, “This can’t be done”
Again, when the push-back comes from employees, Cristina says the best strategy is to listen – usually they have valid reasons based on their differing perspectives. She adds, “Conflicting perspectives actually create better solutions; we hear points that we hadn’t fully considered. There’s always a solution for everything.” To convert the skeptic, first lower their guard (“Sure, tell me why. Help me think from your side.”), then develop a compromise. “Why don’t we test it?” As Cristina says, “Productivity engages employees.”
Motivate Corporations to Protect Both the Environment AND Shareholders
Increases in customers’ environmental concerns and producer-responsibility regulations mean that the “circular economy”, as Cristina refers to it, is now here. “We’re moving from “take and make waste” to “closed loop”, she says. “Now we consider our products’ end-of-life stage. Those who join the circular economy first will win. No one wants to leave behind the legacy of pollution, depletion, and garbage. It’s exciting to prove that something can be done, and fun to show another way.”
Start by Setting Priorities
The best place to start, Cristina advises, is to look at the entire value chain to understand your company’s largest environmental impact. Prioritize the first three issues and put effort where you get the best results. You can’t do everything at once.
Benefit Society in Ways that Are Natural for Your Industry
Cristina notes that the Life Sciences industry is, by its nature, the epitome of sustainability. She says “It’s trying to solve the 21st Century’s most pressing issues: disease, sufficient food and water for humanity, better health care, renewable fuels, and even forensics to reunite people and solve crimes. We are sustaining humanity with products and science.” Likewise, link your sustainability projects to your industry’s natural and positive contributions to society.
Keep Sustainability Strategies Strong — No Matter What
As of this article’s writing, Thermo Fisher is in acquisition talks with Life Technologies. This raises a good question – in today’s world of constant mergers and acquisitions, how can the integrity of a sustainability program be maintained? Per Cristina, it all comes down to data and results: if the sustainability initiative is anchored with true data and results, it will easily survive.
Cristina says, “Corporations are run by finance and Wall Street. Sustainability delivers.” She adds, “Look at the entire organization through sustainability lenses, and you’ll see waste that hadn’t before been questioned. To reduce costs, we used to look just at what we buy, not what we waste. The sustainability lens makes us more creative for improving the corporation.”
* My chapter in Positively M.A.D. profiles a sustainability champion at Polaroid, and opened with, “Ian [McKeown]‘s ultimate goal was for his corporation to waste zero resources: ‘At the end of each day [he said], I want only people and finished product to leave the plant.’”
Keynoter, author, and thought-leader Pamela J. Gordon wrote the book on Lean and Green for the tech industry, co-developed DfE Online ? the world’s foremost design-for-environment training, and formed the Executive Think Tank on Supply Chain for mapping a successful, responsible future for the tech industry. Since 1987, she has been CEO of Technology Forecasters Inc. (TFI), a strategic consulting firm helping tech companies thrive through best-practice supply chains and profitable sustainability. She was recently named among the Top 10 Women of Sustainability and appointed judge for CleanTech Open. Ms. Gordon is a prolific author (nearly 1,000 articles to date), popular keynoter, instructor at the University of California Berkeley Extension, and guest expert on radio/TV.