How to Make Your Company More Environmentally Friendly

YVON CHOUINARD, owner and founder of Patagonia, one of Outside's 50 best places to work, knows a thing or two about doing good business. Here, he shares some of what he's learned.

The Sustainability Building at the University of British Columbia

The Sustainability Building at the University of British Columbia     Photo: Hiestun.Photography/Flickr

Where to start?

The answer depends on your role in your company. If you're not the CEO or don't have the power to establish a "corporate sustainability program," you can start anywhere. Check over the lists to see what you, in your particular company role, can do. It is a myth that taking better care of people and nature is at odds with business excellence. But what if your boss believes that? Concentrate on money-saving steps. No boss worth her stock options will stop you from saving the company money.

Or say you are a CEO. You want to go green. At least get greener. But as CEO you don't have the power this book's other readers might think you have. You have a board to answer to, nervous stockholders whose politics and level of environmental knowledge vary, a business climate that befuddles every tealeaf used in forecasting. You may rely on a CFO or COO who is convinced that climate change is a hoax, or damn well should be. How do you get him or her going? How do you bring along your people?

The best answer is to follow Daniel Goleman's creed: Know your impact, favor improvement, share what you learn. As a method, these work in sequence: You have to know impacts before you can favor improvements before you can share what you've learned.

You can undertake your greening in three steps.

First, engage your team, with as broad participation as possible, to find out the worst things your company does, what costs you the most in reputation and profit, and what will be the easiest to correct. The easiest problems for your company to correct may seem complex and difficult to another, depending on the company's values and traits, and whether its cultural bias is for innovation or safety.

Address first what you suspect you know already: tease it out. What nags at you most whenever you hear about it (or see its consequences)? What is it you think you can do something about—that your company will be good at getting done? Ask your team to ask themselves the same questions.

Step two: Get together with your people to name your priorities for improvement, then winnow the list. Decide what you'll do first, how much time and money you'll spend on it, and how many people will be involved. Define what intiial success will look like. Write that down on one page you can circulate among your team. Once you've figured out what improvements you want to make, where you can draw on your company's greatest strengths, take the fewest risks, save the most money, and create the most opportunity, go for it.

As you learn, share what you learn with as many people as possible in your organization, even if you don't think you (or they) have the time. Then share what you learn with stakeholders: suppliers, your trade association, key customers, even the key competitors you call on when you need to form a united front to get something done. Take advantage of the trust you earn, and you will earn more of it, especially if you are credible and tell the truth about your mistakes and failures; get going a little snowball of support.

Finally, using the trust you've deepened, the knowledge you've gained, and the confidence and pride that have built throughout the organization and among stakeholders, ask yourself: What does your company now know that enables you to take a next step that may have been out of reach before but suddenly lies within sight?

Keep going. Here's what will happen.

The company will get smarter, and more people will start to care deeply about creating a better-quality business through improving its social and environmental performance. In so doing, your people will have to pay better attention to all the business fundamentals—and this boost in applied intelligence will result in a more fluid, less wasteful organization. You will spot money leaks you could not see before, and you will gain the confidence to recognize and go after opportunities that a company bound by traditional corporate see-no-evil politesse cannot begin to address. Success motivates people, including your strays.

Doing good creates better business.

We know this from experience, both from our own years in business and from talking to others. Wal-Mart first had to learn how many millions of dollars it could save by eliminating unnecessary packaging for deodorant before it could adopt a long-term goal of zero waste. The company had to see how much environmental harm it could avoid and money it could save in single-stroke decisions before becoming more systematically responsible.

You may expect internal resistance at first, of course, depending on what you try to do, especially early on. The poet William Stafford once wrote that no poem should begin with a first line the reader can argue with. It distracts the person you want to reach. Get your people nodding in full agreement a few times before you say something that challenges the half-sleep of received wisdom.

A social and environmental initiative might start with something that unarguably needs doing. As they gain experience, your colleagues will become more aware of more nuanced, harder-to-spot social and environmental impacts, and of opportunities to reduce them. They will start to share a language and a cultural bias that favors improvement. Once an apparal manager at Wal-Mart hears the buzz on how much money the company has saved by eliminating packaging in one department, and how much more can be saved by similar measures, she will feel implicit permission to devote some time from her busy day to minimize packaging in her own part of the business. Managers often cling to the safety of familiar practices until they see their colleagues (and competitors within the company) dare to imagine, then implement, better practices. Courage can be contagious. So is success.

You'll need the support, early on, of company heroes at various levels in the hierarchy who are held in respect for their wisdom or competence or both. These heroes may not be among the company's most predictable advocates for social and environmental improvement—the 20 percent of us who sing in that choir. Expect and embrace surprising sources of collaboration, especially from thoughtful, often relgiiously motivated or stewardship-inspired conservatives, and for the collaborative process to change the company and everyone involved.

We underscore how critical it is for you to share what you learn as often and with as many as you can. Transparent social and environmental improvements will gradually increase your base of committed support within the company, from the margins (or the heights) to the center; any entrenched traditionalists gradually shuffle to the side, go elsewhere, or retire.

As your company comes to know more, and becomes confident enough to work collaboratively with outside partners to reduce environmental and social impacts, it will adopt that work permanently as a part of doing business. It becomes irresistible.

Excerpted from Yvon Chouinard and Vincent Stanley's The Responsible Company: What We've Learned From Patagonia's First 40 Years (Patagonia Inc).

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