Welcome to our series of interviews with leading female CSR practitioners where we are learning about what inspires these women and how they found their way to careers in sustainability. Read the rest of the series here.
TriplePundit: Briefly describe your role and responsibilities, and how many years you have been in the business.
Sue Briggum: I am Vice President for Federal Public Affairs for Waste Management, the leading provider of comprehensive waste management and environmental services in North America. I oversee the company’s sustainability reporting and help maintain its relationships with key regulators and stakeholders. This September will mark my 26th anniversary with Waste Management.
3p: How has the sustainability program evolved at your company?
SB: When I joined in the late 1980s, we were thinking about how to distinguish ourselves in environmental stewardship. At that point, recycling was a loss leader and customers didn’t see the value of it.
We quickly found ways to leapfrog ahead of the industry and inform our customers about the tremendous impact of recycling. We pushed our customers and ourselves to do more. Waste Management started to invest in leading technologies that convert waste into something of value that can be sent back to our customers and our communities – whether it is crude oil or power for homes. In recent years, we’ve built a thriving practice advising our clients on ways to reduce their waste and increase their diversion rates.
The biggest challenge today is to identify how we can continue to develop these promising technologies and increase recycling rates at a cost that is reasonable for our customers. We are working hard to ensure that recycling is efficient and economically viable for our customers and our business.
3p: Tell us about someone (mentor, sponsor, friend, hero) who affected your sustainability journey, and how.
SB: My great friend and colleague, Lynn Brown, VP of Corporate Communications, pushed us to look in the mirror to get a better sense of what we were all about and how to tell that story to the world. She helped us see the big picture of where we sit in the sustainability debate – right in the center of it – and that we had an incredible opportunity to make this the centerpiece of our business. It was Lynn’s vision that encouraged us to set ambitious sustainability goals, beginning in 2007, and we’ve established a system to keep us accountable for reaching them. Recently, WM was ranked No. 2 in the S&P 500 for Integrating Financial and Sustainability Reporting, and we continue to make it our mission to be transparent with the marketplace and our stakeholders on our progress.
3p: What is the best advice you have ever received?
SB: My boss at Waste Management told me, “Don’t wait until someone gives you an assignment. If you think something needs to be done, just do it.” If you are the one who doesn’t wait to be told what to do, you have endless possibilities ahead of you.
3p: Can you share a recent accomplishment you are especially proud of?
SB: I am proud of our recent work with the Sustainable Materials Management Coalition – a multi-stakeholder group of regulators, community advocates, environmentalists, academics and the private sector – to develop a series of recommendations on how to treat and regulate materials that can be used and reused throughout the lifecycle. Together, we looked broadly at how discarded materials are managed to appreciate the importance of conserving resources and the real value of “waste.” U.S. EPA was a partner in our discussions, helping us create a public/private partnership to push for the next steps on a more sustainable national materials management policy. Our report was released in June 2012, and we’re following up with a second project this year on lifecycle thinking about sustainable materials management.
3p: If you had the power to make one major change at your company or in your industry, what would it be?
SB: I wish the investment community would pay more attention to socially responsible investing (SRI) principles to determine the companies that are best positioned for long-term, sustainable growth.
Companies that take sustainability seriously manage risks and opportunities in a smart way that should be rewarded in the market.
3p: Describe your perfect day.
SB: At work, it’s a good day whenever a colleague calls me up and asks for help solving a problem or challenge. An example would be an open-ended question about how to refine an approach or target a new customer for sustainability services. I used to be an academic, so I enjoy putting my research hat on and digging through data to come up with the answer. And if they say, “Just what I needed,” then I’m in heaven.
Outside of work, I love to sit by the beach with a good book. There’s a natural alignment between waste management and literature – remember Charles Dickens’ “Golden Dustman”? And if I get to finish the day by cooking up a storm for my family, it’s really perfect.