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Making the Case for Sustainability in Tough Times: The Magic of Pilot Programs

| Monday April 13th, 2009 | 1 Comment


In a down economy, everyone has to be ready to prove the value of their contribution. Heck, even in a good economy, it’s essential to demonstrate the return on our work. But for those of us working in sustainability, the challenge is doubly important: not only do we have to create sustainable change, we often have to show our clients (or supervisors, or colleagues, etc.) the financial return each step of the way. It’s hard work, but there’s a solid strategy that can help tip the scales in your favor: pilot programs.

The Advantages
Why are pilot programs so great? Because they’re cheap, easy to run, and scalable. So if your budget came in a lot lower than expected – or was cut – you could still find the cash to run one. If a particular pilot program fails, that’s not a problem – they’re cheap to launch and run, so the occasional wipeout won’t be devastating. If your business has a high enough profile, you probably can persuade vendors to participate for free. If you do have to pay out of your budget, even a miniscule one (say, $1000) is still enough to implement, test, and measure at least a few sustainability pilot projects.

The key is to carefully and scientifically measure the ecological, social, and financial impacts of your trial. Assuming your pilot is successful, just multiply out the sustainability and financial benefits by the total number of units to be produced in normal operation. Then… presto! Your demonstrated value isn’t just the return of your pilot project, but the return of the overall project, as if it were implemented throughout your facility. The makes the return of your pilot cost practically exponential.
Does the math sound too creative? Think again! If not for your pilot, the systemic changes never would have been considered, and the benefits never would have accrued. In other words, without your pilot, nothing happens. As any good businessperson knows, nothing ventured, nothing gained – and you were the person to start the first venture.
How the Math Works
Some might ask: when calculating the return on my pilot, shouldn’t I also consider the cost of full, facility-wide implementation? This is a good point, but remember: rolling out a sustainable solution facility-wide isn’t the job of the Sustainability Department alone. By the time you’re into full rollout, you’ve got buy-in all along the line. The successful sustainability pilot is a way of showing other departments why the proposed solution makes sense – for them. If the pilot project works out, then implementing it across the board will be in the best interest of other departments, and they’ll bear their shares of the costs and responsibilities.
A Real-Life Example
Here’s an example of how things might work: you run a small fleet telematics pilot, where you outfit 5 vehicles with GPS and data logging software, at a cost of $50 per vehicle per month. You use the telematics data to cut down on idle time, optimize route planning, reduce speeding, and eliminate fuel card fraud. You carefully measure these benefits, and they turn out to be worth $100 per vehicle per month. This means that the net return of your pilot is $50 per vehicle, or $250 per month for all 5 vehicles. But what if there are another 25 vehicles in your fleet? Your pilot made an effective argument to the fleet manager that telematics are a good idea, so he/she should find that it is in their best interest to go ahead and roll out telematics to the rest of the fleet. At a savings of $50 per vehicle per month, that makes for an overall monthly return of $1500, at an initial pilot cost of only $250. Pretty nice cost/return ratio, eh? That’s the magic of pilot programs!

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  • Mary Winby

    Hi Daniel,
    This is my first time on triplepundit.com, thanks to you, and voila, I see an article by you. You wrote a succinct essay urging corporate employees to try a new idea as a pilot. Your article also helped me get a sense of the conversational tone with questions posed, answers provided w/ data. I will be starting on my 500 words today. Are you willing to critique the first draft for content, tone, and style once I have it ready for review. I hope that is ok with you.
    I also enjoyed our last meeting very much and felt I learned a lot about Sustainability and social networking through your experience and participation.
    Mary Winby