Sustainability’ is a buzz word that has spawned industry-wide interest and led to the emergence of several corporate sustainability initiatives in the recent times. However, many enterprises struggle to achieve significant tangible outcomes from sustainability based initiatives. Sustainability is perceived to be more of a branding strategy and many skeptics look at sustainability as just a green wash.
While some say that sustainability pays, it is hard to find clear evidence that reports material or economic gains or advantages. Most ask – we understand importance of sustainability but how do we put sustainability into practice? And what is the advantage?
This question was asked to me by Chairman of one of the group of industries near Mumbai. He put this question more as a challenge. We met over a dinner then and went through a long conversation on how to make sustainability happen! This dinner conversation led to a road map. We were not fully clear whether we were on the right track but we decided to make a beginning and remain open for any changes.
The first thing we did was to develop a policy statement that enshrined sustainability. We did this by inviting a small group of top management, worker union representative, company lawyer and principal company investors. The policy statement was simple, not ambitious and it drew upon guiding principles such as do no harm, conservation of natural resources etc.
These guiding principles were then discussed with company’s operational teams to develop projects that best reflected the policy commitment. Conservation of natural resources principle for instance led to identification of projects on rainwater harvesting and vermi-composting. The do not harm principle led to a mission on replacement of Ozone Depleting Substances (ODS) and promotion of renewable resources as a principle led to a project on solar water heating at canteen.
All these projects were designed and evaluated for cost-benefits where benefit calculation included both tangible and non-tangible returns; and on scales both local as well as global such as reduction of GHGs. Some projects on a standalone basis had a relatively long payback period but some projects did have high economic returns. On a “basket” basis, the projects were financially sustainable.
A project implementation plan was then prepared with financing arrangements. There was also a need to update company operating procedures, especially in the ISO 9000 documentation and impart associated training. This required a communiqué on the basket of projects to the third tier of the company team – giving them the genesis or the project finding process – and importantly its sustainability based policy root. The teams were accordingly sensitized and involved in implementation on a departmental basis. An element of competition was brought in.
The projects were implemented gradually with evaluations done to report project effectiveness and innovation e.g. water and energy saved, wastes avoided, wastes recycled, hazard reduced etc. The overall environmental performance of the company improved and moved closer to the industry benchmarks with economic gains. A catalogue of project sheets was developed, and shared through company newsletters and notice boards. This led to a comprehensive communiqué to the staff and the shop floor workers
I suggested the Chairman to take the sustainability story further ahead to the families of the employees and the neighbourhood. We organized an outreach programme on a Sunday where children of company employees and neighbourhood visited the factory to see the projects implemented. Some children were excited to do a school project on vermi-composting using the data on vermi-pits and some college youth wanted to look at options for use of treated wastewater for gardening. All these engagements and interactions led to generation of more field data and better understanding of the technologies.
Some people in the neighbourhood decided to replicate solar water heaters. So the message on sustainability spread! A feedback session indicated that the stakeholders were convinced that sustainability is not just to be believed but to be put in practice with results and experience shared. I asked the Chairman to put aside funds that could help the entrepreneurs in the neighbourhood to set up businesses on solar water heaters. This fund was linked to Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and routed through a local commercial bank. There was an excellent response. The company put its seal/logo on the solar heaters that were supported and this led to co branding.
This is a story – some 15 years ago. Today, we use sophisticated management systems, reporting guidelines and mechanisms to express and demonstrate our commitment towards sustainability. In this maze however, simple approaches often get lost. The internal and external communications are poor or neglected. A kind of green-washing happens – though not intended!
Let us focus therefore on demonstration and practicing – and less on preaching on sustainability. Let us be smart and simple!