SSC President, Jennifer Woofter, was recently interviewed by Ysmay Walsh of Joycott Blog. We'd like to share some excerpts from the interview in which Jennifer talks about the importance of sustainability initiatives for business:
Why do you focus on sustainability initiatives?
Strategic sustainability asks the big questions like :
- What are the big social and environmental trends that are likely to affect my organization, both now and into the future?
- Who are our stakeholders, what do they care about, and what is the best way to engage and delight them?
- What kind of negative environmental and social impacts do our operations (and supply chain) create, and what can we do to mitigate and minimize them?
How do we integrate sustainability into the business planning process so that sustainability is good for business, and vice versa?
I love sustainability strategy because it touches everything. For an organization, sustainability is about good decision-making, risk management, employee engagement, capital investments, and marketing and communications. By using a lens of sustainability, I get to dive into every aspect of an organization. In some senses, I am a business management consultant, an efficiency expert, an organizational learning coach, and a communications strategist – with sustainability being the thread that ties all of these components together.
Do you find Washington D.C. is more or less eco-minded than similar markets of that size?
Obviously, the DC area has one major difference from other markets—we’ve got the federal government overshadowing everything. But people are often surprised to get here and discover that the US government is only one of many voices in the sustainability space.
We have an incredibly exciting group of start-ups and social enterprises that are using business tools to solve social problems. One of my proudest contributions to the sustainability field is my annual participation as a judge of the William James Foundation’s Socially Responsible Business Plan Competition. And we have a growing number of B Corps as well, companies that have committed to looking at the larger social and environmental impact of their businesses, in addition to seeking healthy profits.
And of course, we have an extraordinary DC chapter of Net Impact, a non-profit organization that works with businesses to tackle the world’s largest problems. They have multiple events each month that mix the best of professional networking with exploring different angles of sustainability in the business and non-profit arenas.
Back when I started Strategic Sustainability Consulting in 2005, I would have said that DC was behind the curve. Today, I think that DC is a major player in the east-coast sustainability scene.
Why is green business so important?
There are hundreds—perhaps thousands—of examples of how “going green” can save you money at home and at work. But I think the major reason that sustainability is so critical to business success is because it helps us identify risks and opportunities that would otherwise go unnoticed. It helps us look beyond this month’s sales, or next quarters earnings. It helps us focus our decision-making on what’s really important.
What are some of the challenges clients face when they come to you?
One of the major surprises for me was discovering that most of our clients didn’t come to us looking to save money (although that was certainly the icing on the cake). It was to answer questions like:
- How should we respond to customer’s changing expectations around sustainability?
- How can we best address our employees’ desire to be a more environmentally-conscious business?
- How can we minimize risk throughout our supply chain?
- How do we communicate about our social and environmental impacts in a way that will resonate with our key stakeholders?
Probably the most frequent request we get goes something like this: “We know we need to do something about sustainability, but we don’t know how to get our arms around what sustainability means—and what it means for us. Can you help us think through what sustainability means to our business, where we should focus our efforts, and how to allocate resources effectively?”
Often sustainability initiatives are perceived as being more costly than the alternatives. Is there some truth to that? If so, what is a bootstrapping business to do?
The key to finding a good return on investment (ROI) is to bundle your activities. Rather than looking at each initiative by itself, see if you can compile the costs/benefits of several initiatives together. For example:
- Reducing your office paper use is a no-brainer. If you can reduce your paper use by 50% (by going from single-sided to double-sided printing), you can reduce your paper costs by 50%. Hurray!
- Purchasing a “greener” kind of paper is going to be more expensive. You could quickly write this initiative off as not cost-effective.
- However, if you bundle the paper initiatives (reducing paper use and purchasing a “greener” paper), you can find a nice ROI that’s in the middle. For example, if you can reduce your paper use by 30%, spending 20% more on paper still leaves you with cost savings.
The lesson here is to find an acceptable ROI and play with your options until you can find activities (or mixes of activities) to get you there.
What’s one piece of advice you have for a business that is trying to go green?
Before you devote any serious time, attention, or money to a “green” initiative, take a big step back and ask yourself: do we have a compelling sustainability strategy that guides our decisions? Are we sure that we’re getting the most bang for our buck with our limited resources? If you are simply chasing the latest green fad, you’re missing a much bigger opportunity to leverage sustainability as a key business driver of success.