“A truly sustainable culture isn’t just reporting annually, collecting data, and stressing out to submit it,” says Pam Bobbitt, director of product marketing and channels for Cority. “Sustainable culture is taking that information and tying it to annual goals and objectives.”
Bobbitt has seen the difference firsthand. She started her career working as a field chemist in the waste industry, which expanded into broader environmental management and eventually into EHS. Several decades ago, she was an EHS manager for a new automotive manufacturing facility that had an onsite wastewater treatment facility.
“It was the first US facility of a Japanese company that was big into sustainability,” she says. “We were recycling 95% of our process water.” At the time, she thought that was cool, but has since come to see the bigger picture: that practice meant protecting the environment and cutting costs to production, which allowed the company to stay competitive on price.
Recently we caught up with Bobbitt to find out how a company can foster a true sustainability culture as well as the benefits it can have for an organization.
When you think about successful corporate sustainability culture, what does that mean?
The difference between “water cooler” sustainability and true sustainability is good for identifying whether you actually have a sustainability culture. Back in the late ’90s and early 2000s, sustainability was “green” and all those buzzwords. CEOs were going to the conferences, drinking from the water cooler, and coming back with initiatives like “we’re going to have zero emissions.” But they didn’t understand what that meant.
Coming from waste, where I started my career, there are a lot of people with zero-waste initiatives as part of their sustainability programs. When you have a really good culture, everyone understands and participates. It goes beyond just the environmental professionals. It’s R&D, product engineering, and working together from the very beginning of the lifecycle to find innovative solutions.
Do you have an example?
Sustainability culture means being internally creative, and thinking beyond your own company to help others become more sustainable.
I worked with a global food company that makes frozen pizzas. Extra dough was waste from their manufacturing process. They have a zero waste initiative, and found local farmers to pick up the extra dough to feed to their cows. It was free to the farmers and decreased their costs. The cows produce the milk or become meat, and it all goes back into the whole supply chain.
Can you tell when an organization has created a culture of sustainability?
We still see organizations that just annually report to the GRI or CPD. Once a year they’re collecting this data, a lot of times from the marketing department. Sustainable culture is taking that information and tying it to annual goals and objectives.
Many environmental leaders ended up being owners of sustainability when their companies decided they were going to report to these programs. But people forget about biodiversity, interaction with stakeholders, labor practices, supply chains. If you bring in a cross-functional group, and you’re tying corporate goals and objectives to the elements of whichever program you’re reporting to, then you’re creating a sustainable culture.
How does a true sustainability culture take root?
Companies started reporting to the GRIs and CDPs because it was the right thing to do, and it related to greenhouse gas emissions and global warming. They were going through the motions. Then analysts looked at the cost benefits and the impact sustainability initiatives had on corporations. By doing these things, you have better results and returns. You perform better.
Having a sustainable culture is explaining the value to each person and department. The CFO thinks about money. You explain to the CFO that by reducing our greenhouse gas emissions, we’re actually going to save the company money — in certain parts of the world there are taxes. Then he’s tied into it.
To have any type of culture — sustainable, safety, or otherwise — you have to get information back to employees that’s important to them, and make them feel part of it. For a risk officer, one of the biggest risks to the company is brand reputation. Making sure that you’re zero-waste, have green chemistry, and things like that ensures the brand. Now the risk officer is tied in, and it’s personal.
What happens when there’s no sustainability culture?
I have a good example from a chemical manufacturing company. One of their key sales was a chemical used in many other products across industries. This key chemical was only manufactured at one facility, where they had a fire that shut it down.
They didn’t think about a backup plan. They lost that revenue for over a year. Since they’re a supplier, this also put pressure on the sustainability programs within their customers’ organizations.
A couple of those companies had already looked at alternatives for their manufacturing processes. Although this is a key chemical, the companies had other things in mind such as green chemistry, what’s less hazardous for employees and has less impact on the environment. They put these elements into their plan B. They switched over and never went back. Others lost revenue because they didn’t have this ingredient.
Thinking about the future, is sustainability culture going to become the new normal?
I think it is. Economic pressures around the world, adjustments to tariffs and trade agreements, regulatory changes, changing laws around labor, the Paris Agreement and other legislation are going to push sustainability culture forward.
ISO changed with the beginning of ISO 45001 and went to a standard saying that all of these initiatives — 14001, 31001 — have to tie into your corporate objectives. All of that is embedded.
Sustainability is more than just a buzzword now. Ultimately sustainability is about ensuring the success of your organization over the long term, being able to adapt to economic, environmental, and regulatory changes. It’s important to everybody.