Going Beyond the Low Hanging Fruit
By Joseph Carpenter, Director of Operations and Sustainability
I’m a believer that there is a business case for sustainability. I see sustainability as a more holistic version of things like Six Sigma, lean manufacturing, Agile, SWOT Analysis, the Military Decision Making Process, or any other tool that aims to improve the functionality of a system. These types of programs are often not easy to implement, use, or manage, and neither is the journey to becoming sustainable.
That is why there is so much emphasis on the “low hanging fruit.” In general this means doing stand alone projects that require little-to-moderate effort with financial, social, and environmental benefit. I believe these types of efforts to be a productive and valuable step in the journey. However, going from doing some sustainable things to truly becoming a sustainable business is a challenge.
There are a variety of legitimate reasons for this struggle to become sustainable and I’d like to discuss a few in order to get you thinking about sustainability beyond the low hanging fruit.
What does ‘truly sustainable’ even mean?
First, it’s hard to understand what a “truly sustainable” business even means. Suzanne Farver, in her book Mainstreaming Corporate Sustainability, defines it as:
“Corporate sustainability means balancing environmental stewardship, social well-being, and economic prosperity while driving toward a goal of long-term success for the health of the company and its stakeholders. A sustainable corporation is transparent in its management of these responsibilities and is held accountable to its stakeholders for its results.”
I believe this definition to be of worth in helping to give an overarching guide post to work towards, but lacks the detailed prescription to take some steps towards towards it. This is where groups like the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) and Certified B-Corps have taken on the challenge of further defining what can specifically be considered and empowers a company to take action towards becoming “truly sustainable.”
Furthermore, I’ve come to have mixed feelings about the term sustainability because it has become a catch-all and fashionable buzz word that comes across as enviro-trendy; along with the fact that nothing is ever truly sustainable. Instead, I’ve started to gravitate toward words like resiliency because it brings out the feeling of continuous improvement and adaptation in the face of inevitable challenges.
It’s not just about the inclusion of a few small changes into your business that may help the environment, but about allowing you to see additional critical factors that affect your business and enable you to make more informed decisions because of it. For instance, if your business relies on large amounts of water, then the environmental considerations that affect access to this needed resource are directly tied to your financial viability. Find a tool that works for you and think it through for your organization.
Long-term well being and short-term considerations: A balancing act
Time and complexity are additional barriers for businesses looking to become sustainable. There are only so many hours of the day and employees on the payroll. When businesses are faced with the choice between doing business as usual, where things might be working “good enough,” and taking on the exercise of re-designing a system based off a methodology they are not familiar with – the choice usually goes to business as usual.
Herein lies what often comes across as a catch 22, short term versus long term needs in opposition. Of course, it isn’t a binary decision between being well-positioned for the future and accommodating the urgency of short term considerations – it’s really more of a balancing act and adaptation over time. This paradigm shift in mentality is not something that will happen overnight because ultimately it is asking people and organizations to think and act differently from what they have been accustomed to.
One way to start thinking and acting differently is using a process within the sustainability world called a materiality assessment, which helps you determine the most relevant aspects of sustainability to work and report on by engaging your stakeholders. This in-conjunction with frameworks outlined by GRI or certified B-Corps helps organizations understand and take action on their priorities versus random projects with little thought of proper alignment of effort. Here again, it’s about understanding where most effectively to use one’s time to address real world risks to the business in context of financial, environmental, and social considerations.
Knowledge is key: Learn about how larger systems affect your business
By spending the time to determine what is most critical to your business’s success you will quickly come to a third challenge to becoming a sustainable business. This is the larger system in which the business operates – of which may include economic markets, laws, community issues, red tape, policy and politics. Learn how these forces impact you.
I continue to drive home the point that the business case for sustainability is also about having a greater pool of information to make more informed decisions and take appropriate action. In my military vernacular I would say it feels more safe to stay in one’s own foxhole, but a lot is changing and being stagnant will eventually get you run over.
A way to start thinking and acting differently is to get involved in the political process and use organizations such as CABA to become more informed on issues that you care about. If you are concerned that aspects of climate change challenge your business’ ability to be resilient, then advocate for good policies that bring about a carbon free economy.
Traditionally, when researching the business case for sustainability, you will find a lot of sensible emphasis on actions that will improve return on investment (ROI), helping either planet or people in the process. The Natural Capital Solutions and the Business & Sustainable Development Commission did a good job of pulling together a range of examples and points where it pays to take a sustainable approach. You may find that the benefits can even go into areas such as attracting and retaining better talent due to employee values alignment with the company.
These types of resources are great and something worth exploring; however, I wanted to get you to think about what they say as a whole. I get out of them that sustainability methodologies are an effective and necessary business tool for both short and long-term success. It isn’t so much about a specific tool, but enabling the business to consider more data points than has traditionally been accepted as necessary, since we live in an increasingly resource-constrained and data driven world.
It’s said that climate change affects those most who have least contributed to it – and in the context of small business I believe this statement can be applied. Take the challenge to become “truly sustainable.” It’s a lot of effort, but as the saying goes, “shoot for the moon, if you miss at least you will land among the stars.” To get started on making your business sustainable, sign up to be a CABA member business.
Joe Carpenter is the Director of Operations and Sustainability at CABA. Previously, he served as an Officer in the U.S. Army for nearly 10 years, including three combat deployments, and working for a small manufacturing company in a number of capacities. Joe graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point with a Bachelor of Science degree in Management and from Harvard University Extension School with a Master of Liberal Arts degree in Sustainability; among a myriad of other educational experiences. Joe enjoys spending time in nature, working out, playing video games, watching improv comedy shows, and trying to figure out how things can be “done better.”