Why Most Businesses are Thinking Wrong About Sustainability

Originally published in Food Logistics Magazine on 1/7/22.  

Sustainable ImageAdopting the triple bottom line definition for your sustainability efforts encourages your culture’s ability to select, evaluate and implement better, more sustainable projects for your organization.

Many of today’s business landscapes are shifting to favor more environmentally-friendly processes and systems. Businesses large and small are making significant investments in sustainability projects to the benefit of both planet and people. Unfortunately, however, there seems to be a major flaw in the current approach.

The flaw starts with a false tradeoff — organizations start by assuming they either choose a highly profitable project or an environmentally impactful project. Today, you don’t have to sacrifice one for the other, and in most cases, choosing the less financially viable option is typically an unsustainable long-term choice. It all comes down to the definition of sustainability — is it merely the level of environmental impact created vs. the current status quo, or does it meet the definition of sustainability from Webster, which is “capable of being sustained or maintained?”

The organizations delivering long-term sustainable results evaluate projects through three distinct lenses of planet, people, and profit. Done right, the best projects impact all three areas and help direct decision making:

  • Planet – When considering the planet, set and reach goals that will ultimately lessen environmental impact, reduce carbon emissions, increase reuse or eliminate waste.
  • People – Often missed in the equation, a truly sustainable project will set and reach goals that create a healthier, safer, and improved environment for employees, customers, and other stakeholders.
  • Profit — When considering profit, set and reach goals that deliver financial benefit to the bottom line. Why? Because profitable projects can walk on their own two legs profitably, enabling them to scale, accelerating impact, and potentially building competitive advantage.

Of course, there are some projects you’ll choose to do just because it’s the “right thing to do,” but those should be few and far between. When doing these, take care in how you define them and perhaps rethink using the “sustainable project” label if they require subsidies or ongoing funding to be maintained. Supply chain leaders should help their teams guard against tunnel vision, falling in love with a vendor’s pitch or a shiny object that’ll create publicity.

Instead, push them to develop the right scorecard to evaluate projects against their delivery of planet, people, and profit outcomes. In addition, projects that are innovative are great, but even better are ones that have proven themselves time after time to deliver on all three facets of the triple bottom line. Unfortunately, few companies invest the time, energy and resources in properly vetting their projects in this way. When some time and investment is put in upfront to review and adjust a sustainability strategy against the triple bottom line, results are often dramatic and game-changing.

From delivering a transformational product to building a sustainable reverse logistics business to reduce manufacturing costs to businesses bringing refillable and reusable packaging to blue-chip companies at mass retailers, it’s about changing the way the game is played.

How can organizations begin to make smarter sustainability decisions rooted in environmental stewardship, safer operations, and fiscal responsibility?

1.     Require suppliers to meet some criteria of reuse. Take a close look at the list of suppliers you work with and the sustainability measures they employ. If there are opportunities for improvement on their end, speak up. Some companies are beginning to set pre-requisites for vendor and supplier relationships related to sustainability metrics, such as requiring a percentage of reuse. This could be an opportunity to support sustainability initiatives without spending a dime.

2.     Streamline and reduce the assets used in your facilities. For businesses managing facilities, one of the simplest ways to cut back on both environmental impact and you spend is to cut down on the assets you’re utilizing within those facilities. Conducting an annual review of assets in use and looking for opportunities to cut the fat is just good business. This impacts the environment, bottom line and has an impressive impact on worker safety as well.

3.     Refresh and optimize systems as you use them. It’s far simpler and faster to make small tweaks to systems on an ongoing basis than to conduct massive overhauls periodically. Do your team members see this as a core part of their job? Is it part of your culture to continuously improve and take out wasteful steps or audits?

4.     Give preferential treatment to solutions that are proven, including the ROI. Ask for references, look at the numbers and measure your options in a scorecard format against capital investment, environmental impact as well as safety and wellness impact. Better yet, make a habit of measuring all projects against the triple bottom line methodology. Give extra points for initiatives that are already proven. Solutions being implemented should be able to clearly distinguish in black and white their impact on deliverables like safety, waste, and savings for the long haul.

How is your organization defining sustainability? Are they thinking long-term and using it to build a competitive advantage? By adopting the triple bottom line definition for your sustainability efforts, as well as implementing a consistent scorecard, encourage your culture’s ability to select, evaluate and implement better, more sustainable projects for your organization. Doing the right thing doesn’t have to require government subsidies or red ink; in fact, it should not if you are going to define it as a sustainability initiative.

by Ryan Lynch | Tue, Jan 11, 2022