The recently released Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change study is the latest in a long line of research that affirms how urgently and drastically we need to act to halt the progression of climate change. If we are to preserve our planet for future generations, we have to curb emissions by about 60 percent immediately.
These reports are frightening, but they also show that everyone has a part to play in keeping Earth a habitable home. It’s a call to action, not despair.
I felt this call personally when I was confronted with my own seemingly hopeless situation. I was gripped by an intense need to make the most of my time, skills, and opportunities when my son was diagnosed with cancer, and again when I was diagnosed with stage four neck and throat cancer. I didn’t know if our cancer came from genetics or the environment, but I knew the environment — the factor I could control — can play a role.
My decision to align my business with a mission to improve our planet was one of the best I’ve made. As we’ve sought to reduce our CO2 emissions, filter pollutants from stormwater or reduce urban heat loads, we have found new purpose in every project. Employees have eagerly embraced this mission, discovering new passion for their work along the way.
Private sector businesses can be just as mission-driven as nonprofits. In my experience, the world of creating and selling products allows for even more creativity and gives me the chance to make a greater impact than I could have otherwise.
If you’re ready to get more creative with your own sustainability efforts, there are a few principles you should follow. Consider these the three “green rules” of any sustainability plan:
1. Embrace a culture of sustainability.
It should go without saying, considering the dire picture scientists are painting, but sustainability is more than a marketing gimmick. A true commitment to renewable energy must be integrated into the entire company culture.
This means thinking about the big moves like setting a time frame for taking your company paperless and the small ones like celebrating individual efforts by your employees. It means giving sustainability efforts primacy of place in your newsletters and on social media. It means encouraging personal responsibility on the part of everyone in your organization.
It also means communicating the ways in which moves toward renewable energy and less waste are improving your business and community, both locally and globally. Studies have shown the correlation between sustainability efforts, impact on sustainable development, and company bottom line. Make these correlations clear for your employees.
2. Think sustainably about your purchasing.
If you want to multiply the effect of your initiatives, then apply the same standard to your vendors that you apply to yourself. Instead of buying the same packing materials, shop around with suppliers offering recycled content - it is more affordable than you may think. Seek partnerships with vendors who will help you reduce waste in packaging and product design. Replace existing lighting with LED bulbs.
Some decisions might require more research. Will electric or hybrid vehicles pay for themselves in the long run? A switch like that might require some upfront costs and extensive planning, but spending on sustainability will maximize your budget and boost your bottom line in the long term. Make it clear to your team that this is time and money well-spent.
3. Take real action.
Once again, sustainability can't be a gimmick. Your customers, not to mention your employees, will see through “greenwashing” — any attempt to paint yourself as being more environmentally friendly than you actually are. A recent study showed that employees who perceive their employers’ sustainability talk as disingenuous will put forth less effort out of mistrust. If your own employees don’t believe in you, then it’s only a matter of time before your customers lose faith as well.
It’s better to start with small efforts that you can complete than to aim for a big publicity splash and have it backfire. Even small changes like replacing incandescent lightbulbs with LED lightbulbs, converting to paperless processes to reduce the amount of paper the company uses, or starting a recycling program will have an impact. Involve your employees in making a plan, brainstorming together about ways to reach your sustainability goals. With each new initiative, communicate with the whole team about how this fits into the long-term plan.
Faced with dire predictions about global climate change, it’s easy to feel hopeless about the future. But we have more resources available than ever to change those forecasts, and it finally makes good business sense to do it. We’ve finally reached a point where environmentally friendly practices make just as much business sense as doing things the old way. It’s an astounding tipping point: Next year, it will cost the same to choose renewable energy as it does to burn fossil fuels. How much can we accomplish with a whole decade of affordable clean energy?