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Sustainability programs for businesses

Business, Feature | May 1, 2012 | By:

Achieve “green” goals incrementally with an ongoing program and employee participation.

When stepping up to the plate, most baseball players concentrate on getting to first base, not making a home run. Businesses that want to achieve “green” goals when it comes to sustainability benefit from a similar line of thinking.

“Sustainability can’t really be a project; it needs to be a program. It’s an ongoing process to be better,” says K.J. McCorry, a sustainability consultant and founder of eco-officiency in Boulder, Colo. “Where I see companies making mistakes is not giving enough consideration to what initiative they pick.”

Of course, like a baseball player, ultimately you want to score a run.

“To be successful [in sustainability] you have to have goals; because if you don’t know where you are going, you don’t know how to get there,” says Sue Gilliom, customer service manager at Rainier Industries, a fabric products manufacturer in Tukwila, Wash. “We have a policy that has three main points [respect for the environment, compliance with laws and regulations, continuous improvement]. We want our employees to understand what those three parts are and how their jobs affect those things.”

Getting started

McCorry recommends starting with an assessment. “Figure out what your company is doing now that would be considered “green.” Go to every department and ask questions: How are they managing waste and the resources they are using? You can hire consultants to help, but you have to get some sort of information as to where you are now. Then home in on two or three areas that you would like to work on,” she says. “You want things that can really engage employees.” McCorry offers this example: If you set a goal to reduce energy by 10 percent, ask employees to turn off lights and computers at night. As you move forward, build initiatives around that.

Although Gilliom agrees that employees are part of the solution, she notes that, “You need to have buy-in from upper management. If not, they aren’t going to give you the resources and the power to make [a sustainability program] effective.” Rainier has a two-sentence environmental policy and a list of 11 “aspects” of an environmental management system. (See “Benefits of running a sustainable business“).

The comprehensive sustainability program at Designtex, a textiles design and distribution business based in New York City, began with the search for a biodegradable product in 1994.

“We looked for experts to help us understand what a sustainable textile would be,” says Carol Derby, director of environmental strategy. “We brought in Michael Braungart and William McDonough of MBDC [creators of Cradle to Cradle®]. That was an important step because we had thought of developing a combination of recycled polyester and organic cotton. They said that would amount to a monstrous hybrid, that we needed to think about the life cycle and where the product was eventually going. Starting with a product was a very hands-on way for us to get familiar with life cycle thinking and brought us face-to-face with issues we wouldn’t have understood if we had started at some other point. It was very helpful that we began in our core business.

“Having a product then [Climatex® Lifecycle™] to take to market, we became much more comfortable talking to our customers about sustainability—about our understanding of it and hearing their definitions of it,” Derby adds.

Moving forward

For companies launching sustainability efforts, Gilliom recommends recycling. “That’s the easiest thing you can do,” she says. In 2011, Rainier’s recycling efforts diverted 73 percent of its waste from the landfill, an overall savings of $31,392. According to Gilliom, recycling is the most cost-effective action in sustainability programs. “Hauling costs $135 a ton to take it to the landfill. Recycling is about a third of that cost,” she says. To make it easy for employees (including those who don’t speak English) to sort waste, Rainier placed color-coordinated bins on the shop floor.

Damon Carson, founder of repurposedMATERIALS in Denver, Colo., offers companies an opportunity to think beyond the well-developed realms of paper, plastic and cardboard. “Most people know what to do with those,” he says. “Where we fit in is the hard-to-recycle things.”

Carson, who previously owned a garbage company, began his new company a little more than a year ago with the idea to find new uses for obsolete billboards. Since then, repurposedMATERIALS has expanded to include stainless steel barrels, rubber roofing membranes, tires, insulation and more. One novel solution was the use of old strapping to create a jungle gym for monkeys. As Carson explains it, “One industry’s trash is another industry’s treasure.”

Repurposing makes economic as well as environmental sense for businesses with byproducts and other “trash.” In many cases, waste has to be prepared for recycling.

“One of the things that makes repurposing cost effective is we take it as is,” Carson says, noting the time and labor that may be involved in cutting or shredding a material. On top of that, repurposedMATERIALS pays to take the waste off your hands.

Keep it going

Once a company has begun strides toward sustainability, it needs a “green team” or an individual in the company that will be accountable for the program, McCorry says. “You have to have a plan and do it strategically so you are setting yourself up for success.” Derby agrees. “I don’t think you can rely on it being self-monitored if you want to continuously improve.”

Rainier appoints an “owner” for each of its 11 environmental aspects and holds quarterly management review meetings with documentation on each area of its sustainability program. One of its aspects is vendor impact.

“For all new vendors,” Gilliom says, “we have them fill out a questionnaire. We check on their environmental initiatives. If they don’t have any, we try to give them different ideas—whether it’s packaging or using more recycled strapping tape—and we rate them. If they have a rating on our scale over 25, we send them a letter asking them to consider environmentally friendly ideas. If we have two vendors with similar products, we gravitate toward the one with the lower rating.”

The company sends annual re-evaluation forms to vendors that score below 25 to ensure they’re still on track with sustainability. Rainier’s questions to vendors include:

  • Where is your primary shipping hub? What is your most common method of delivery of goods?
  • Describe your packaging and packaging materials used. Please note recycled content, reusable and/or renewable materials.
  • Are the contents of your product made from renewable resources? Are the contents of your product made from recycled content? Are the contents of your product recyclable?
  • Do you have an environmental management system? Are you ISO certified?
  • List at least two initiatives you have implemented or are considering.

Rainier’s reviews also ask if the company’s environmental program remains effective, if there are upcoming changes, or new equipment or services with a potential environmental impact, whether there are changes in legal requirements that may affect its program, and if there are other concerns.

For Designtex, the second step was reaching out to the Association for Contract Textiles to get involved in establishing a sustainability standard. The company had launched Climatex® to be an exclusive product.

“What became important was to practice what MBDC coined ‘coopetition’: bringing sustainability to an industry. It wouldn’t be sustainable unless it had a lot of users, unless it could become widely used across the industry,” Derby says. Being a part of the development of a standard, she adds, “kept us growing in our knowledge of what products could aspire to in terms of sustainability and what our vendors could bring to the equation—things outside our expertise.”

Achieving endorsement

As much as consumers want green products, they’re still confused about what qualifies as such. Third-party certification provides proof that a company can be trusted in its sustainability claims. (See “Third-party certifications for sustainability“).

“It’s important to be able to tell a story to show you really were on the journey and that you participated,” Derby says. “If the story can be certified by a third party so the results of that journey are verified, that’s a very valuable step to take.”

The Sustainable Green Printing certification held by Portland Color of Portland, Maine, played a critical role in the imaging company’s acquisition by Designtex last November. “It creates a really great symbiotic relationship,” says Derby of the surface imaging company.

Designtex is in its second year of operating carbon neutral. “We saw our major impact was in the distribution phase of our business, so we looked at opportunities to reduce our footprint,” says Derby, noting a dramatic difference when the company upgraded electronic equipment and switched from fluorescent to LED lighting.

Derby acknowledges that a company need not go “all the way to carbon neutral” to make real progress in sustainability. “The exercise of measuring your carbon footprint to know your impact is valuable; and if that awareness then drives reductions, those are win-win situations,” she says.

Designtex also extended its social responsibility arm of sustainability in collaboration with Arzu Studio Hope, Chicago, Ill., a fair-trade nonprofit that helps Afghan women weavers and their families break the cycle of poverty. The company commissioned rugs from Afghan women—made with locally harvested, naturally dyed wool—and introduced the Common Threads Collection in 2009.

“You want your company’s environmental practices to be improving across a triple bottom line of people, planet and profit,” Derby says. “The people part of that is reaching out to communities or causes that bring home the social responsibility aspect of sustainability.”

Janice Kleinschmidt is a freelance writer and editor in Palm Springs, Calif.

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