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Why it Pays to Be Strategic: Sustainability Work Shouldn’t Waste

I was recently discussing the benefits of a strategic approach with a client’s sustainability committee.  A senior manager in the room said, “We don’t really plan…we just get in the car and drive.”  To be honest, a lot of organizations do exactly the same thing, especially when it comes to sustainability.

I totally get the urge to get going.  Really, I do.  Today’s world is completely oriented to “just get in the car and drive.”  You don’t even need a map or traffic report because the Google maps app on your phone does it all. We are so wired toward instant gratification that we want to see – and be able to demonstrate — results immediately.  This makes sense, too.  We all want to feel that we are making an impact and our work is providing value.  Planning can feel like it takes so much time and seem as if it doesn’t offer much to show in return.  People rarely look at a strategic plan and say, “Wow, that’s really amazing!”  Yet, they get pretty excited when you show them a 10% reduction in the electric bill.

Here’s the rub. How do you know you are doing the right things?  By the right things, I mean those things that will best support your business goals.  Early on in developing a strategic sustainability program we have our clients clearly articulate the business reasons the company is addressing sustainability.  Some of the most common reasons are risk reduction, reputation enhancement, and cost savings.  These are all sound goals against which sustainability can deliver.  By identifying and ranking their primary business goals, organizations can use this information to prioritize the sustainability issues and projects that will have the greatest impact on their business.

Despite this, it is uncanny that no matter what the business goals are, almost every company wants to focus on improving recycling first.  Now, don’t get me wrong.  I have nothing against recycling.  In fact, it’s the opposite.  I am what you might call a recycling fanatic. So, I completely understand how this can be an area where people are frustrated and want to see changes.  But, to truly improve diversion from landfill takes a pretty significant amount of planning and work. First, vendors, contracts, and operational infrastructure need to be evaluated, and often changes will need to be made.  Then, a waste audit should be done to identify what is being handled incorrectly.  Based on the results, changes to bin arrangements, placement, number, and signage are made.  Then staff, customers, and possibly the public, are educated on the changes to the system.  The education often needs to be repeated (due to organizational turnover and the fact that people forget quickly), and may involve periodic contests or other incentives to maintain momentum.  All in all, work that will span quite a few months.

Now, this is NOT to say that you should forget about improving recycling.  It is just to say that it is useful to look at your business goals and see how recycling stacks up.  Does it decrease business risk?  Unless you are an electronics manufacturer, probably not.  Does it enhance reputation?  Generally not; frankly, people expect that you are already recycling.  Does it decrease cost?  Possibly, but there is a fairly significant upfront investment of time and resources.  Plus, margins for recycling are getting lower due to challenges in the industry.  So, unless you have lots of cardboard or metal in your waste stream, you are probably not going to see a great return on your investment.  Even if your major business goal for sustainability is to be a better environmental steward, there are likely other factors in your organization that create greater negative impacts than your landfill waste.

My point? Most companies spend a lot of time and effort to improve recycling (or switch to duplex printing, reduce bottled water use, etc.) when these projects should not be their main sustainability priority.  Such projects should be undertaken at some point, as they are important aspects of improving efficiency.  They are also often very useful for driving engagement and getting traction while you are planning, but they should be sideline activities — not the main attraction.

Taking the time to identify your organization’s impacts, assess risks, and narrow the list of things you could do to improve your sustainability will go a long way toward better results.  Applying a systematic process to do this will help you create a program that directly aligns with your strategic business goals.  This will deliver value that you can quantify and really be proud of when you report to your executive team.

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