There are a number of ways you might come to the realization that you need to incorporate sustainability into your organization.
The answer to how you start? Begin by trying to understand what sustainability means within your company. For some companies, it might have to do with how you use a certain mineral that comes from another country. You may use a lot of water, without which you can't produce your product, and water is becoming more scarce and getting more public attention. You might want to save money by utilizing fewer resources or using your staff more efficiently. The more you understand how you are going to define sustainability within your company, the sooner you can begin to incorporate it into your business.
If your first sustainability project took a lot of time and money, you're going to be concerned: How can you scale this and make it work?
First, go back and examine the project and see what you can learn. Was this project something that would have been time-intensive and labor-intensive no matter if it was the first or the 100th project? Or did it take more time and effort because it was the first time you've done it? Did it take five days just to find the person who understood how a certain piece of equipment functions? If that was the case, you're going to understand early on next time who you need to talk to so you don't waste five days. Were there all sorts of approvals that were needed to get this project going? If there was no support from leadership, perhaps no one really felt secure approving any new ideas or changes.
Second, and more importantly for the long term: You are trying to create a new parallel system. For every innovative sustainability idea, there will be a process that is clearly outlined and designed to progress at a timely pace. Once you've set up a parallel system, it won't take half the company to do one project. People will know who to go to if they have an idea. Those people will know what to do with that idea, how much data or description is needed, to what working group to send the idea and when that group meets and what information they will need. It won't take 10 people to say yes because you'll know where to go, whom to speak to, what information is needed for each step along the process and who is empowered to stamp "approved."
The process is: You have an idea – wherever you are in the structure of the company, top, middle, bottom – and you go to your manager with that idea. You are not required to have much more than the basic idea. You and your manager try to flesh it out. Let's say the idea is that the company could use less water when you produce your product. The employee sees this issue because he or she watches all the water coming in to the manufacturing plant and sees that 90 percent of it is going out before the product is even formed. Maybe the manager has a better idea about how water can be conserved. Or maybe the manager takes the idea to the engineers, and asks if there's a way to either recycle the water or use less of it? And the engineer comes back with an idea, and that more fully formed idea goes up to a committee that has different constituents from within the organization to review and analyze the idea. The idea is to make anybody in the organization feel comfortable with proposing an idea. You don't have to have the ROI figured out ... If you see water coming in and most of it going out and you think it's a waste, we want you to ask, “Why is that?”
Give people real hard facts about how sustainability can help them in their personal lives. If you show them how they can save some water in their homes, they might use that knowledge to ask the question that allows you to save water in your manufacturing process.
By showing how it relates to their personal lives, you can then translate it into what you're doing from your company's point of view. First, you say to your employees, "I'm giving you some information, showing how sustainability relates to you personally. I'm also showing you that this is important to me as the CEO." Then, you can make the ask: "If you think about sustainability in your home and how it's valuable to you, can you bring some of that thought to the company?”
The group dynamic changes for any team when you add a new member. But this isn't just someone new who's running another department. This is somebody who interacts and engages with all the departments. This person is going to go to each manager and work with them to change their operation – to see that each department can do business more sustainably. In many cases, this is a peer who has top-level permission to come into all of the departments and ask disruptive questions – ones an internal supervisor might not ask.
So the sustainability manager can seem threatening when he or she sits at the table.
If your resources are going to become more scarce; if you're going to have to pay a tax on the carbon you use to create your product; if oil and gas prices are going to go up – your return on investment in sustainability is not simply a straight-line calculation.
It isn't just: "How much did I invest today and how much will I not spend tomorrow?" The question actually is: "How much did I invest today, how much will I not spend tomorrow, and how much of an increase in price did I avoid as these resources become more costly?"
It's a pretty good bet that the resource you're using today will increase in price, decrease in availability or become more difficult to obtain because of regulation of that particular resource. So it isn't just: “I'm paying $50,000 for a new condensing boiler to heat the water to heat my building. Since the boiler is more efficient, I'll use less energy to heat the water.” Because if you're using coal or oil to heat that water, you should also assume that prices for coal and oil will rise in the next 10 years. What may have looked like a 10-year payback (and may be a tough sell) instead looks like a 6-year payback, and a much easier sell.
The return on investment isn't just financial. It's also security. You don't have to worry as much about oil prices rising because you are using less oil to heat the water to heat your building. Your resource availability is more secure.
People in decision-making seats have to understand that the value of a sustainability project can be more qualitative and less-definitively quantitative. But that doesn't diminish the value of the investment.