By Martha Young
Education investment: Almost everyone does it through continuing education conferences, online courses or pursuing an advanced degree. Expanding skill sets is instrumental in career advancement and career transitioning. How does skill-building play specific to the sustainability industry? Whether you’re a millennial trying to break into the industry or a seasoned professional seeking a career change, there are clear education choices that are better than others.
Independent analyst firm Verdantix released its Global Sustainability Survey 2014 report in mid-November. The annual report aims to benchmark brand perception, awareness and engagement across sustainability business consulting and service firms. In a nutshell, the report shows the Big Four audit firms as the top resource known and used by companies pursuing a sustainable business strategy.
The education implication of the Verdantix results is finance. Auditing firms provide the financial business case to clients for pursuing or setting aside a given green initiative. Auditing firms possess skills in identifying measurable metrics, establishing baselines and determining returns on investment. A financial background is clearly the way to go if one is seeking to pursue a career in sustainability through an audit company.
By Graham Russell
Often overlooked in all the sustainability literature on risk management, internal cost savings from reduced energy or water usage, improved employee loyalty and productivity due to better working conditions, wellness programs, etc. is the concept of sustainability-focused innovation in products or services as a source of market opportunity and new revenues.
This type of externally-focused approach to sustainability as a driver of improved financial performance is just as much a part of the overall business case for corporate sustainability as these internally-focused initiatives. Few companies illustrate this market-driven sustainability approach as clearly and successfully as Alpine Waste & Recycling.
Founded in 1999 in Denver, Alpine is the largest independent waste collection and recycling company in Colorado with current revenues of $34 million and a staff of over 200. Founder and CEO John Griffith explains that, unlike many other companies with a stellar sustainability track record, Alpine’s own sustainability strategy has been shaped almost entirely by market and revenue expansion opportunities rather than by risk mitigation or internal cost-saving drivers.
Editor’s Note: This is the second post in a two-part series on sustainability initiatives at Longfellow Sports Clubs in Sudbury, Wayland and Natick, Massachusetts. In case you missed it, you can read the first post here.
In Part I of this two-part article, we showed how this Massachusetts-based health club company has made dramatic improvements in waste reduction, water usage efficiency and toxic chemical elimination — significantly enhancing its financial performance and providing a safer and healthier environment for club patrons. Here, we discuss its energy efficiency improvement initiatives as well as its highly successful efforts to encourage sustainable practices in the communities in which it operates.
The Longfellow Clubs (LFC) is a cluster of five multi-purpose health and recreation facilities located in Sudbury, Wayland and Natick, Massachusetts. LFC is the fourth-largest health and recreation club in New England with 125 full-time and 300 part-time employees. This mid-sized, highly successful company has actively implemented sustainability-based business practices across all of its facilities, significantly enhancing its financial performance and developing a reputation as the greenest health club in America.
Laury Hammel, co-founder and CEO, says he has been committed to environmental issues since his childhood. “I participated in the first Earth Day in 1970. I think my childhood really crystallized and catalyzed my sustainability efforts.”
Hammel founded LFC in 1972 as a tennis instruction business. Rapid growth drove him and business partner Myke Farricker to find larger facilities. They purchased an existing facility in 1980. Since that initial acquisition, they have been acquiring, upgrading and enhancing athletic facilities across the greater Boston area to better meet community and customer demands for health and fitness programs. Facilities improvements include water conservation, energy efficiency and earth-friendly facilities that encapsulate a holistic approach to health for people and planet.
One of LFC’s missions as a locally-owned and independent business is a commitment to the health and wellbeing of the communities in which it operations. Other LFC missions are to provide extraordinary fitness, recreational and educational programs for people of all ages, backgrounds and abilities.
The result of implementing environmentally-friendly business practices is that LFC has prospered for over 33 years, successfully established a positive reputation with the communities in which it operates, a strong competitive position and fiscal resiliency in its market.
In Part 1 and Part 2 of this article, we showed how this small professional services company has pursued a sustainability-based strategy to improve resources efficiency in its own operations, and engage its employees and the local business community in its efforts to promote a more sustainable economy. In this final installment, we will show that even small companies can find ways to profit from the world’s increasing sustainability challenges.
Companies of all sizes are developing new products and services designed to address the world’s sustainability challenges and generate new revenue opportunities. TNB is a company that has leveraged changes in technology to drive innovation in its business. The firm has gone from being a hardware company to a professional managed services firm. Some hardware and software management tasks are conducted on-site, others via remote capabilities, all dependent on what the customer desires.
Editor’s Note: This is the second post in a three-part series featuring Tech Networks of Boston. In case you missed it, you can read the first post in the series here.
In part one of this series, we described how this small, Boston-based professional information services company has built sustainability into its strategy from its inception in 1994 with a commitment to making its own operations as resource-efficient as possible.
Founder and CEO Susan Labandibar understood that engaging her employees in the company’s sustainability strategy would be critical. From the beginning, she has adopted a hiring process that ensures staff additions share her passion for maximizing human and environmental resources, and maintained a commitment to building a culture that maximizes the value generated by its human assets. “This commitment is a key element of a genuinely sustainable business strategy,” Labandibar stated.
However, the obvious benefits of this type of strategy are frequently overlooked or even ignored. Supported employees who feel that they are fairly treated, enjoy their work environment, and appreciate what the firm stands for in its approach to customers, the community in which it works and the natural environment are more productive in their work and remain with the firm over a longer period.
Employee retention is significant in financial terms. The cost of finding, hiring and training professional staff is estimated by human resource management firms to be 1.5 times the base salary of an employee. This measure does not include the lost productivity or the negative impact on clientele due to staffing shortages.
Tech Networks of Boston (TNB), is a 47-person professional information services company. It delivers help desk, remote monitoring and maintenance, staff augmentation, onsite support, training and project IT services to nonprofits and businesses in the greater Boston area. TNB, founded in 1994, has incorporated the principles of sustainable business from its inception. The company has steadily expanded its sustainability initiatives enabling the firm to broaden the range of services it provides.
Susan Labandibar, founder, president and chief mission officer of Tech Networks Boston, converted her environmental activist career into an earth-steward, job creation role with the launch of TNB. At its inception, TNB saved computers from heading to the landfill by refurbishing them and giving them a second life. The company evolved to bringing energy efficient computers and servers to the market. The company’s Earth-PC and Earth-servers used 25 percent less energy than well-known commercial computing devices. At the time, energy efficient computing devices was a groundbreaking, novel idea that has since taken hold of the entire computer industry.
In Part 1 of this case history, we described how a small Nebraska landscape architecture firm controls its costs and in Part 2, we looked at how it keeps its staff motivated and productive through sustainable business practices.
Frequently overlooked in sustainability literature, amidst all the noise about renewable energy, energy efficiency, water conservation and other resource productivity improvement measures, is the fact that more and more large corporations have adopted business strategies to bring to market new products and services designed to address the world’s sustainability challenges and create new revenue streams. High visibility examples include GE’s Ecomagination and IBM’s Smarter Planet strategies.
Big Muddy Workshop, Inc. (BMW) is an unusual example of a small company that used changing local climate conditions and concerns about the adverse impact of stormwater runoff to expand its expertise and develop new, green infrastructure (GI) services for its clients.
Over the past 30 years the climate of eastern Nebraska, where the landscape architecture and green infrastructure design services firm does most of its business, has shifted into a warmer zone (as defined by the USDA). During this time, more frequent and severe periods of drought have occurred in the region. In recent years particularly, this shift has been accompanied by increasing constraints on local parks and recreation budgets.
Part 1 of this case history showed how this small landscape architecture firm in Nebraska employs sustainable business principles to reduce operating costs in its business.
From the beginning BMW adopted a highly disciplined approach to the financial management of its projects. The project manager for each project is involved in the process of establishing a project budget and all staff understand that they will be held accountable for performing to the standards, goals and objectives established for them. CEO John Royster is firmly convinced that a firm, but fair, system for measuring employee productivity is consistent with the firm’s philosophy to make the most efficient use of the professionals it employs, which are after all the firm’s primary assets.
To this end, Royster and his partner Katie Blesener have established an unusual system for evaluating the productivity of each individual staff member. The project budgeting and management system allows each person’s hours to be tracked to either individual projects (billable) or to marketing or administrative duties (unbillable). BMW understands very clearly the ratio of billable to unbillable hours it must achieve to maintain a satisfactory level of profitability. A well-tested formula, completely transparent to all staff, allows the firm to establish base salaries and raises on how well individuals perform to the budgeted billable hour percentages.
Big Muddy Workshop, Inc. is a landscape architecture and green infrastructure design services firm in Omaha, NE. This small but highly successful company has embraced the principles of sustainable business, not only in the way it uses resources, both natural and human, but also to shape the range of services it provides.
John Royster, CEO and majority owner, says he was “born into sustainability.” Educated in natural resource management, early in his career he worked in both a large international architecture firm and a smaller regional landscape architecture firm. He enjoyed the work but felt that neither had the systems in place to encourage staff to be fully engaged in sustainability. Accordingly he founded BMW in 1990.
BMW’s mission was established to protect our remaining significant natural areas, restore disturbed lands, and preserve historic and cultural resources, encouraging public awareness of and access to these special spaces. Royster recognized that this values-driven mission would require the firm to be very environmentally and socially responsible. But he also understood that this would be possible only if he established and maintained a financially sustainable business model for his young company. He has been zealous in eliminating every nickel of unproductive cost and makes no apology for squeezing every drop of benefit out of its assets, human resources included.
The result is a company which has successfully integrated the financial, environmental and social elements of sustainable practices into a resilient business model that has prospered for 23 years, establishing a strong competitive position in its regional market.
The United Nations Global Compact (UNGC) recently released its 2013 Global Corporate Sustainability Report on the state of corporate sustainability.
The UN Compact’s pool of respondents have committed to pursuing the UN’s defined goals associated with Human Rights, Labor, Environment and Anti-corruption. The study, using a Six Sigma-like continuous process improvement model, measures where companies are in their sustainability programs along the wheel of: commit, assess, define, implement, measure and communicate.
UNGC partnered with The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania to conduct the study. There were a total of 1712 responses to the survey, of which 753 (44 percent) were classified as SMEs, those firms with 249 employees or less. The remaining 56-percent of the responses were large enterprise sized firms. As an aside, the U.S. Small Business Administration defines SMEs as 499 employees or less.
The 2013 report identifies four key findings:
What drives small and mid-sized companies (SMEs) to incorporate sustainable practices into their business? Knowing the answers to this question will aid trade associations and other trusted advisors in developing their outreach and support programs aimed at the SME market. Sustainability4SMEs identified in a previous post that trade associations and a variety of other advisory organizations (e.g. chambers of commerce, economic development agencies) are the primary go-to sources of sustainable business information.
In the largest U.S.-based study to date on sustainability adoption and hurdles to implementation for SMEs, Sustainability4SMEs asked survey respondents to identify the drivers to implementing sustainability. Recognizing that there are myriad reasons influencing company decisions, the participants were allowed to check multiple responses.
The results of the question, shown in the figure below, were startling; inverse to what was expected.
Implementing sustainability practices in a smaller company is simple, right? No! According to the current findings of Sustainability4SMEs’ research – the largest SME-focused sustainability research effort to date in the United States – SMEs confront numerous barriers when it comes to sustainability.
A firm, or a group of people within it, may have heard about sustainable business as a way to drive cost reductions, innovation and improved financial performance. But once they start looking into it they often run into what seem to be insurmountable difficulties. Our survey queries respondents who have not embarked on a sustainability initiative in order to identify the hurdles and barriers that stymied their initial efforts.
Sustainability4SMEs asked about barriers for several reasons. First, there is an opportunity for sustainability information sources (like those discussed in a previous post) to do a better job of helping local businesses overcome these barriers if they understand precisely what barriers the SMEs are facing.
Second, the question permits these obstacles to be divided into internal and external barriers. Business leaders typically learn best from the experiences of peers and competitors. Industry-specific sustainability case studies and success stories are therefore a powerful way to show how other SMEs have overcome barriers and challenges inside their organization, and to demonstrate and quantify the economic value that makes the business case for adopting sustainable practices. Where the barriers are external, a collaborative effort from the SME community, the local chamber of commerce, a specific trade association or some other trusted advisor will generally be the best way to overcome them.
In the largest U.S.-based research study on SME attitudes towards business sustainability practices conducted to date, Sustainability4SMEs asked the question: where do small and mid-sized enterprises (SMEs) obtain sustainability information, methods for implementation, and measurable success metrics for their specific industry?
Our research shows that many SMEs are interested in developing sustainability-based initiatives but aren’t sure where to turn to find the information and resources they need to get started. The question was therefore aimed at identifying those trusted advisors, organizations and knowledge bases that businesses have found most useful as sources of sustainable business practices information. Our findings should encourage these trusted advisors, agencies and knowledge bases to be highly proactive, reaching out to their local business community and/or constituents with actionable sustainability information aimed at strengthening the economics of the businesses and contributing to overall economic growth. Our hope is that this will accelerate the process through which SMEs grasp the benefits of sustainable business practices and embark on industry-specific sustainability initiatives.
Part 1 and Part 2 of this case history have shown how a 70-person metal fabricator in Colorado began to realize significant financial benefits from applying the principles of sustainable business to improving the efficiency with which it used resource inputs in its manufacturing operations.
These types of energy and resource conservation efforts are often seen as the low hanging fruit that gets sustainability off the ground. That’s true in Qualtek’s case too, but CEO Tony Fagnant and his son Chris are both quite clear that the sustainability initiative’s biggest benefit to the company is the positive impact it has had on employee engagement and productivity. Can they measure this? No, not precisely. Do they see it? Absolutely. Says Tony, ”You KNOW there’s a response when employees step up without prompting, telling us we should do this or that, and telling us they’re taking some of these ideas home for personal implementation.” THAT means the company is well on its way to its making sustainability part of “the fabric of its business process.”