Good Advice on Embedding Sustainability

My recent ramblings on good branding, featuring our client Interface, got me thinking about a topic there's no escaping. The environment. How, as businesses, can we do our bit? How can we embed sustainable practices and behaviours in our organisations?

There's plenty of good examples out there to learn from, but some are hard acts to follow.

Let's take an old favourite of mine. Patagonia. Its founder Yvon Chouinard is an environmentalist at heart, spending his formative years living as close to nature as he could. Travelling only to climb, surf, fish and to stick two fingers up at the establishment. Activism and purpose, with nature and the planet at its heart, are by definition part of his brand's DNA. His vision, personality, passions and drive have shaped not only a company but a movement.

Patagonia is staffed by like-minded individuals who embody their founder's spirit for adventure, but not at any cost. They collectively strive for quality products that have no impact on the planet, while using significant profits to campaign vociferously for causes they believe in. I haven't managed to dig up any data, but I suspect the more they've campaigned, the more profits have grown — a real virtuous circle and genuinely inspirational.

However, we aren't all outdoor brands led by a natural activist!

At the other end of the scale, we might be a heavy manufacturing giant with a global footprint. What then? Well, then you might look at Interface. I've written about Ray Anderson before, but for the sake of repetition, in 1994 he had an epiphany and set about overhauling his company's products and processes to have no impact on the planet by 2020. He died in in 2011, but his company hit its 'Mission Zero' target early and have now committed to Climate Take back, giving back to the planet, under current CEO Jay Gould.

You can read more about the work Interface do here.

The path to sustainability has been a monumental journey for Interface. One of innovation, guts, determination and financial commitment to a vision. Turning a heavy polluter into a shining example of zero impact – a carbon-neutral leader in floor coverings. Innovation, design, product quality and sustainability are pillars of an organisation whose purpose is clear and motivating to staff and customers alike.

So it can be done, even by the most significant and worst offenders. However, there are so many challenges facing the planet that it can seem daunting at times. Where do we start? Sometimes it pays to focus on a specific issue to make things more achievable. Take Bureo, for example. A small company based in California set up by a group of friends. They decided to take on fishing nets, specifically off the coast of Chile, the most harmful form of plastic in our oceans. A narrow focus to help to solve one of the most significant issues facing our planet. They now make skateboards and sunglasses from recycled nets, as well as supporting the likes of Humanscale and Trek with innovating new products and processes.

All well and good but we can't all suddenly start our own Bureos. However, we can have an impact. The individual, with a purpose and the will, is still a pretty powerful catalyst for change. If we all made small changes collectively, the impact could be enormous. Have a meat-free dinner once or twice a week. Turn your thermostat down by one degree. Do you need to wash your jeans after every wear? Hiut denim advocate every six months at the most!

Think different; look at changing little things with a potentially big impact. Look at Patagonia's 'Worn Wear' repurpose rather than buy new. Or Interface's ReEntry – cleaning used carpet tiles, so they have a life outside of a landfill. Alternatively, be inspired by Norway's plastic bottle deposit return scheme – 97% of all bottles in the country are recycled.

There's no end to the great thinking going on out there. Here at Good, we try to do our part, but being honest, we're also guilty of brushing it under the carpet when things get busy or tough. It's easy to transfer the onus to others, isn't it? But we are trying.

Currently in our sights is travel – with multiple offices and global clients, we need to make an effort to reduce our footprint. We've been using the train for a while rather than flying domestically but can we make it mandatory for commuting between our offices in Glasgow and London? Face-to-face meetings with our clients in the USA and further afield is necessary and valuable, but flying from London Heathrow to Minneapolis St. Paul and back generate about 948 kg CO2 per passenger. With this in mind, increased use of Skype for meetings has vastly reduced the need to be on the ground.

Lots to do, but baby steps are better, rather than no forward motion at all.

So what can we learn from our experiences and those of people we admire.

Lead the Way.

Nothing new here. Strong, integrity-based leadership with a vision for genuine change is key to success. Without it, as we all know, things can go awry. This is never truer than in the case of sustainability initiatives which may adversely affect the bottom line. Equally, if they're seen as not 'mission-critical' to the business, with a KPI at board level, they're the first thing in the middle management firing line.

Empower Advocates.

"Purpose" has unfortunately become a marketing buzzword, but we'd all prefer to be working for genuine organisations that have a positive impact beyond what they make or sell. It motivates teams as much as any incentive and done right permeates to the very core of an organisation. Nurturing internal leaders with the responsibility to own and embed initiatives that will be supported and monitored, breeds advocates. This, in turn, ensures genuine ownership and engagement with the best chance of sustainable success.

Little and Often.

How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. Don't try to do too much too soon. Do something everyone can be a part of. Something that's simple and doable on a day-to-day basis. Recycling. Switching lights and computers off when not in use or needed. Cycle to work or car share when you can. Get these initiatives up and running, show progress and build steadily from there.

Think Laterally.

Everyone likes to think creatively, and with the environment, there's plenty of challenges that need left-field thinking. It can invigorate a team that's used to dealing with routine or mundane everyday tasks. What's the carbon footprint of the internet? Would using less internal e-mail have any measurable effect? Can we stop getting physical industry publications/reports and only use online versions? Could the entire workforce stop eating fast food? I suspect the list is endless and there will be environmental nuggets in amongst the inevitable unworkable dreams. But if you don't try...

Measure and Celebrate.

If you're taking it seriously, you need to measure impact. If you're investing people's time and potentially capital expenditure into a project, you'll all want to know it's working. It's motivating, and if proving successful, will drive commitment to greater success. Help this along by building in a suitable mechanism to celebrate achieving, or surpassing, agreed targets.

I'm well aware this is the tip of the iceberg - to coin a relevant phrase. This is a microcosm of some of the amazing work being done to combat climate change. You only have to follow The World Economic Forum to be equally inspired and horrified. We all have to do something, and the good news is, we can all do something. So let's get on with it. No excuses.