Lately, I have started rethinking the value of businesses “going green.” When companies spend money to make their products or manufacturing methods “greener,” but find consumers are reluctant to pay a corresponding “green” surcharge, what they have done is to substitute one form of green – the environmental kind – for another — the monetary variety. And while virtue may be its own reward, it’s also true that a company that engages in enough unprofitable behavior may soon become unsustainable.
Now when you say anything is in danger of becoming unsustainable, that implies more urgency than the idea of simply modifying it in some way to go along with a “green” agenda. So what I would advise today’s companies to do is to dispense with the idea of going green, and talk about becoming sustainable instead. It may seem like a mere semantic substitution – but semantics can mean the difference between a message that nobody buys and one that’s truly effective.
“Sustainability” is about people, planet and profits – all three of which are essential parts of the equation – whereas “green” is a one dimensional concept. It is also one that many consumers simply can’t wrap their heads around. Far too often, they associate it with hippies, or elitists, or folks who lack a sense of practicality, and give more importance to trees than jobs. Now green can, under some circumstances, be a tie breaker — but it is not a key selling point that is going to distinguish your enterprise. Sustainability, on the other hand, symbolizes survival– something that can be successfully conveyed even to those who disdain a green rationale.
So how do you go about creating a sustainable company that, in turn, can promote an image of sustainability to the public? Here are five tried and true ways that I have used in many instances, and am convinced that, taken together, form the best approach:
1). Now this might sound surprising, but start with yourself – that is, how your company’s policies affect you personally, especially if you’re in top management or even the CEO. What does that mean, exactly? Well, how many of you C level executives are working at a healthy sustainable rate – which means you are rested, eating healthy, exercising, going to work with a clear mind? If you start with yourself, you will internalize the importance of sustainability as it relates to the company, and be able to apply it in other areas of corporate life.
2). Meet with key employees and if possible take a pulse on where they are in regard to their own health and the sustainability of their pace. The question you might ask them is, “what can we do here in the office to eliminate waste, do our jobs more efficiently, and be generally less stressed at work.” By showing that you’re concerned about the well-being of employees and the danger of their “burning out” (which in today’s demanding work climate, is increasingly a factor), you might be surprised at the responses you’ll get – suggestions for sustainable policies that will not only improve your company’s image, but end up saving you money (as has happened at companies like Walmart and Proctor & Gamble.)
3). Put a team together to do a complete life-cycle assessment of your supply chains, again looking to eliminate waste and inefficiencies, as well as toxic or otherwise hazardous materials whenever possible. The key here is to make sure you include your suppliers’ sources and ask the same questions. Then, if you’re bold enough to carry the analysis a step further, move on to end-of -life discussions for your products and how they can be disposed of more effectively and efficiently. Keep in mind that all such measures, rather than adding to your operating costs (as has often been alleged about green improvements), will actually end up saving your company money.
4). Set up a “filter” for all such proposed policy changes to identify those that don’t make good business sense. Make sure, in other words, that the changes themselves are all sustainable before you implement them. I can’t tell you how many green initiatives have fallen victim to budget considerations because they lacked basic sustainability, and were thus relegated to the category of dispensable temporary measures.
5). OK, having successfully accomplished all the previous steps to sustainability – feeling better and exercising more; making the office environment less stressful, with happier employees humming around, cutting out waste and inefficiency in your supply chain, resulting in a lower carbon footprint, less water use, and the elimination of toxins in the environment – now here is where the real magic comes in: Don’t tell anyone. Rather than using how sustainable your operation has become as a selling point, and thus opening it up to suspicions of greenwashing, let the word leak out gradually – perhaps from your employees or customers. When it does, it will have much more of an impact, establishing your reputation as a company that is simply committed to doing the right thing, quietly and efficiently, without having to brag about it. You might even find your organization featured as an enlightened, sustainable business model on the news or one of those magazine-format shows.
As Kermit the Frog once reminded us, “It’s not easy being green.” To which I would add, “No, it’s much easier being sustainable.”