By Nikki Pava
“How do you work in the field of sustainability or environmental issues without getting depressed?”
Maybe you’ve been asked some form of this question. In my line of work, it is one I field often. My answer has always taken on a holistic outlook. In the natural world, everything is connected. There are millions of relationships, many that we don’t understand or even acknowledge. That means that every negative action is multiplied through the effects it has on these relationships, but it also means that even the smallest positive change can create a huge impact for good. (I also try to remember that even though “I” think an action is positive, that same move can be felt as negative to someone else, depending on the circumstances.)
When an ecosystem leader creates positive change, the ripple effects of that change can have unintended consequences that lead to increased health for the whole system. In an essay published in 1945, Aldo Leopold found that wolves, seen as an ecosystem threat because they prey upon deer (wanted by human hunters), actually maintain balance within the forest, helping the entire system to thrive. When the deer population increased as a result of exterminating wolves in a certain area, plant life dwindled rapidly, which meant that many animals did not have food or places to nest. Leopold found that the wolves are ecosystem leaders who greatly contribute to more positive aspects of the forest than originally thought.
It is easy to think that companies merely respond to consumer demands, but just as wolves shape their surroundings, business choices shape consumer culture. When a business “does the right thing” and acts in a just, environmentally responsible manner by setting aggressive sustainability goals or mandating company initiatives, those actions affect not only company employees, but the entire business ecosystem--customers, suppliers, and community members.
A few months ago, Larry Fink, the CEO of investment company BlackRock, penned an open letter to CEOs that states: “To prosper over time, every company must not only deliver financial performance, but also show how it makes a positive contribution to society. Companies must benefit all of their stakeholders, including shareholders, employees, customers, and the communities in which they operate.” This is a bold, important declaration. Corporate leaders are waking up to the fact that their actions dramatically influence the earth’s future.
In 2016, the United Nations Global Compact and Accenture Strategy conducted the largest ever CEO sustainability study, gathering information from over 1,000 CEOs from more than 100 countries. They found that 97% of the chief executive officers “believe that sustainability is important to the future success of their business.” This understanding is crucial, because even when sustainability initiatives and projects are mandated from the top down, these initiatives give employees who have a sustainable vision for the company’s future a chance to band together and spark action. A simple idea from an employee can change the entire trajectory of a company for the better
It’s 2018, and while the teams that focus on environmental and social issues in companies are rapidly evolving, the principles that guide healthy systems remain the same. Known by many names – Environmental Stewardship Committees, Sustainability Councils, or the standard Green Team – CEOs at companies such as Dr. Bronner’s, Alaska Airlines, and Genentech are understanding the contribution and impact that these teams have on both the short and long-term success of the companies and are leveraging the interests of their employees to make a sustainable difference.
For example, at Dr. Bronner’s (a family owned-and-operated activist and social enterprise company that produces soap), the vision and mission of company leadership creates an environment in which grassroots, bottom-up development can thrive. “When I look back at the success that our Green Team-like initiatives have had in the last four years, it's been the ideas that have come from the specific departments where those ideas have actually been implemented that have been the most successful,” said Darcy Shiber-Knowles, Quality, Sustainability, and Innovation Manager at Dr. Bronner’s.
When someone asks me, “are you feeling depressed about the current state of our environmental situation?” I share about how wolves are an integral part of nature and trust that their contributions will continue to serve the planet. I share about the many businesses that are developing thriving initiatives that will help to decrease their resource use. I share that these initiatives are not only stemming from grassroots groups of employees, but also from high-level managers who understand that the bottom-line is about more than just profit and are making decisions as ecosystem leaders that benefit all members of their community.
While there are still many obstacles facing the convergence of business and the environment, knowing that there are many smart, motivated people who are in action and striving toward positive change - helps me to stay optimistic about our future.
Nikki Pava is the founder of Alegria Partners, which works with entrepreneurs and business leaders to design, implement and measure profitable sustainability strategies for their companies. She holds an MBA in sustainable management from Presidio Graduate School in San Francisco. She lives in an eco-community in Costa Rica and is currently writing a book about teams in businesses that focus on reaching their company’s climate change goals.