While the US government scales back its response to climate change, businesses are taking the lead in reducing resource use, cutting emissions and eliminating landfill waste. There are nearly constant headlines about the efforts of big companies—from Apple’s efforts to transition from newly mined minerals to recycling used components to Unilever’s overall leadership that helps it attract and retain talent—examples abound.
Sharing Sustainability Efforts
One hears less, though, about what smaller companies are doing. Small and mid-sized companies, especially manufacturers, are also making significant strides. The smaller manufacturers often supply materials to bigger entities and complete sustainability reports for these larger customers. In our experience, some smaller companies are leading on innovation—cutting energy costs, rethinking fleet policies and achieving zero landfill waste. Nimble, creative and less bureaucratic, these companies can make big achievements quickly.
Unfortunately these innovations are a well-kept secret; many businesses are not sharing their achievements internally with employees or externally with the general public.
Even some large companies don’t share enough. I remember talking with an industrial engineer at a sustainability event last year; she was telling me about a project her company had just completed that cut a plant’s electric usage by hundreds of mega-watt hours—equivalent to the total annual usage of a small town in their area. I congratulated her and said I was sorry I missed the story she said, “oh, we didn’t talk about it publicly.”
Examples like that make me wince. Every success story is potential momentum for the next round of successes. It is vital that we share these stories. More, though, when change is not visible it’s like it didn’t happen. If we want progress on sustainability we have to share our stories.
There are lots of good business reasons to talk about your sustainability successes:
- Increasingly investors want to see evidence that a company is making resource-smart decisions; more and more investors are looking at sustainability data. Even privately-held companies benefit from looking savvy to the financial community.
- Employees—current and future—prefer companies that are environmentally responsible. This is doubly true for millennials; more than 8 in 10 of them want to work for companies with a commitment to the environment. If you aren’t talking about your efforts you’re making it harder for your HR team to recruit and retain talent.
- Customers increasing prefer buying from sustainability-minded companies. Every study at the individual and corporate level indicates that buyers prefer entities with a strong sustainability record.
- If you don’t talk about your efforts all of these stakeholders might well presume you aren’t reducing waste, mitigating risk and aiming to protect resources. Is that what you want folks to think?
Sustainability is a Journey
So why aren’t you telling your story? I ask that question a lot and, especially when I ask it in the Midwest, I hear some variation of “well, we’re not done yet; we’ll talk about it when we’ve got everything figured out.”
News flash: you will never have everything figured out. Sustainability is a journey where every success leads to new opportunities for improvement. No matter where you are on that journey you can talk about the progress you’ve made and the challenges ahead.
Part of the key here is humility. I’m not advocating that you launch a parade for implementing common-sense energy-efficient lighting. Be clear about where you are in the process and what you have accomplished to date, acknowledge that there are still lots of opportunities for improvement, and explain your strategy for addressing those opportunities over time. If you own that your efforts are a work in progress you invite assistance with those efforts, rather than accusations of green-washing.
Additionally, focus on the positive. Good news inspires—and it’s contagious. Talk about the bright spots and how you’re using those successes to gain momentum for the challenges ahead.
Take the Opportunity to Start Conversations Around Sustainability
Invite a conversation. The vast majority of employees want to help their companies be more environmentally sustainable. Instead of putting on a brave front that you’ve got everything figured out, acknowledge that sustainability is a team effort and you welcome thoughts and ideas from everyone.
Finally, paint a compelling picture. Regular people—inside and outside your organization—don’t think in terms of BTUs or metric tons of carbon. Talk about energy savings in terms people understand—the energy to power a home for a year, for example, or in dollars saved. Even then it’s good to convert dollars into tangibles—I always like when school districts talk about their savings in terms of books for the library or teaching positions. And use visuals—because pictures are way more compelling than words.
If telling your story seems daunting start internally, share more information, more effectively, with your employees. You can see what resonates there and then take the story to the larger community.
Most important is that you start sharing. Business influence is incredibly important to our climate efforts right now and it’s vital that everyone can see this leadership. So speak up already!
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