5 steps to creating a sustainable workplace

Filed under Columns

By Peter Soyka

Consultant Peter Soyka discusses policies and procedures for creating a sustainable company.

For many companies, environmentally sound operations are an important organizational value to embrace, both from a customer perspective and to attract and retain employees.

Of the various types of corporate culture initiatives a company can undertake, “green” solutions are among the most popular with employees. A “sustainable” company is one that uses resources wisely and conserves nonrenewable resources in a manner that ensures its long-term ability to endure. Sustainability initiatives can reduce costs, improve efficiencies and create other net business benefits.

Regardless of whether a company, even a small company, has major and obvious environmental issues, a firm can take steps to put it on a more sustainable path:

1. Create a companywide policy and communicate it. Direct the development of a companywide environmental, sustainability or social responsibility policy. A policy establishes the position, aspirations and commitments of the organization and its members. Include a clear statement of principles and commitments regarding the environment and broader issues of social equity and economic development. Review it every few years and make refinements to reflect lessons learned, accommodate new goals and priorities, and address emerging issues and concerns.

2. Offer sustainable investing choices through a retirement plan. Most employee retirement plans do not offer the option of directing invested funds to investment vehicles that give weight to environmental, social and/or governance characteristics, and relatively few such choices have been available from the largest investment managers. That, however, is changing, as more mutual fund companies and other institutional investors recognize that socially responsible companies may offer superior investment returns and lower risk.

3. Consider changes in business travel to reduce cost and environmental impact. Business travel can include significant environmental factors, such as energy used and pollutant emissions. Establish policies or guidelines on business travel and methods of transportation. By using communication tools such as video- and web-conferencing, a firm can reduce its environmental footprint and save money as well. When out-of-town travel is necessary, consider train or automobile travel as an alternative to flying.

Ask about a hotel or facility’s environmental stance when considering options. And consider establishing or modifying a meetings policy to incorporate green meeting criteria.

4. Develop employee safety and disaster preparedness procedures. Sustainability starts with ensuring that the company’s workers are adequately protected from harm while on the job. Regulations and established health and safety programs can address this need. But companies also should establish policies and procedures for what to do when confronted with challenging situations, ranging from personal and family emergencies to large-scale natural or manmade disasters. For example, policies can stipulate that employees are free to avoid travel to work or work-related activities if they believe that their safety is in jeopardy. Such policies will promote clear thinking and appropriate decision-making on the part of employees.

5. Measure the company’s carbon footprint (total greenhouse gases emitted). Given the prominence of the global climate change issue, know what your company’s carbon footprint is and work to control it. Using emission factors and methods obtained from the U.S. Department of Energy, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the nonprofit Climate Registry, your company can construct a simple yet reasonably accurate model (in spreadsheet form) that calculates its carbon footprint. Another tool is the GHG emissions calculators developed by EPA and several other entities (for example, see www.co2science.org/about/ghgreport/calculators.php).

Moving toward a more sustainable business posture does require some thought and work. But by focusing on the steps outlined above, companies of all sizes can get started and create the conditions for meaningful performance improvement over time, without investing significant human or financial capital.

Environmental management consultant Peter A. Soyka’s most recent book elaborates on these and many other ideas. The book, “Creating a Sustainable Organization: Approaches for Enhancing Corporate Value Through Sustainability,” is available from the publisher, FT Press, and major booksellers nationwide.

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