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Sustainability-Focused Innovation Underpins Financial Success at Alpine Waste


Editor’s Note: This is the third post in a three-part series on sustainably-focused innovation at Alpine Waste & Recycling. In case you missed it, you can read the first part here and the second part here

By Graham Russell

Part 1 and Part 2 of this series on Alpine Waste & Recycling described how the company has used sustainability thinking to carve out a unique position as a sustainability leader in its regional market. Here we describe how this strategy has been the key factor in its rapid growth and financial success.

Although the company has not made a particular effort to actively engage its entire workforce in its sustainability initiatives outside of recycling in the workplace, it was critical for the sales group to change the way it represented the company’s services, pitching its sustainability offerings as a key selling point. According to founder and CEO John Griffith, this required a lot of work and something of a culture change. These days, sustainability is at the heart of the company’s selling proposition to potential new customers: Its Automated Sustainability Reporting or ASR system enables Alpine to quantify very precisely what it can help a new customer accomplish in environmental terms through recycling and composting.

While Alpine’s sustainability strategy does not directly involve the efforts of the majority of its staff, everyone clearly understands that sustainability is indeed the key element in the company’s marketing strategy and a source of competitive advantage. Griffith maintains this awareness across the company by disseminating information about the company’s sustainability initiatives at monthly staff meetings.

Branding itself as the “industry sustainability leader” and supporting this claim with innovative services that are demonstrably valuable to customers wishing to enhance their own sustainability programs is fundamental to Alpine’s corporate strategy. This has unquestionably enhanced its market reputation and expanded its customer base. In many ways, the company’s strategy may be compared to GE’s EcoMagination strategy or IBM’s Smarter Planet initiative, both of which seek to provide products and/or services that enable customers to resolve their own sustainability challenges (e.g. GE’s energy efficient locomotives and IBM’s use of big data to solve traffic congestion problems).

A major challenge with this type of strategy is that it is difficult to parse out the contribution to increased revenues made by market-focused sustainability initiatives such as those implemented by Alpine. It’s relatively easy to determine the electricity savings from replacing incandescent light bulbs with LEDs and to calculate a payback or internal rate of return on the upfront capital investment. Griffith acknowledges this challenge but is convinced that his market-focused sustainability strategy has been largely responsible for the impressive rebound in the company’s revenues following the introduction of ASR in 2012. He points to new customers that have specifically mentioned ASR as a major reason for switching to Alpine from other waste haulers: Regis University, Cherry Creek School District, Kroger and Charles Schwab.

Griffith has relied heavily on CFO Alek Orloff to make sure that, in meeting customer demands and opening up new market opportunities, the company’s sustainability projects have remained fiscally sound in terms of the anticipated return on investment. Orloff comments: “If a project stands on its own feet financially and stands to make a contribution to the company’s sustainability goals, we’ll do it.” He has been pleasantly surprised at how often a sustainability-focused initiative has delivered unforeseen or unquantifiable financial benefits that have enhanced its ROI.

Alpine now serves over 10,000 commercial customers including the Denver metro locations of some of the country’s largest organizations. Having built a remarkably successful company in large part through an ongoing series of customer-focused sustainability initiatives, Griffith offers the following advice to company leaders contemplating a similar strategy:

  1. The leadership team must drive the sustainability message at the highest level and provide strong support for implementation of programs that are agreed upon.

  2. Sustainability initiatives MUST be viable financially. Those that reduce efficiencies or increase costs will not survive for long.

  3. Don’t bite off more than the business can chew. For example, a “zero waste” strategy is probably not achievable for most companies and will probably bring discredit to the concept of waste diversion. A carefully thought out approach to recycling and composting, on the other hand, can achieve a 60-80 percent diversion rate and make a significant contribution to a company’s environmental sustainability goals.
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Sustainability4SMEs: Graham Russell & Martha Young

Graham Russell brings 25 years of CEO experience in the environmental services industry to his current role as a sustainability professional. He currently teaches sustainable business in the University of Colorado, Denver MBA program and chair’s the School’s Managing for Sustainability Advisory Council. He provides sustainability and cleantech consulting services to SMEs through TrupointAdvisors and is on the board of the International Society of Sustainability Professionals.

Martha Young has been an industry analyst and writer for 20 years. Her expertise is in small and mid-sized businesses, information technology and energy. Young co-authored four books on virtual business processes (cloud computing), and project management for IT. She is on the board of two small Texas-based businesses, and acts in a technical advisory and business strategy capacity for an east coast venture capitalist.

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