American Family Insurance makes a big collective impact with one small change

You’ve heard this before: “If everyone did just this one little thing, then collectively we would achieve some astronomical results of mind-numbing proportions that would save the world.”

Whether it’s shortening showers to save a Great Lakes-sized supply of water or riding your bicycle to save millions in health care-related costs, these data are examples of “running the numbers” on our potential collective impact — of imagining what could happen if we all made one small change. These data are meant to inspire shock and awe — and in that regard, they can be highly effective.

Take, for instance, artist Chris Jordan’s “Running the Numbers: An American Self-Portrait” in which he zooms in on famous images to show some staggering number of bottle caps, cigarette butts, or light bulbs that represent our collective waste. Mind blown?

While impressive, this numbers game often falls short of moving us to take real action toward lasting change. It’s because these data are big — really big, abstract, and difficult to wrap our heads around. Also, they’re often hypothetical and don’t offer real results. I mean, you can’t go door to door with a stopwatch to see if your 10,000 closest neighbors are also taking shorter showers (please don’t try this).

In short, large-scale sustainability “wins” that are made up of thousands or millions of individual actions are really difficult to measure, and thus not terribly convincing in getting us to make a change.

This is why I cherish the opportunity to work with large companies (5,000+ employees) on sustainability initiatives. Organizations of this size can produce real, proven examples of the power of collective impact, complete with quantifiable data. While sustainability initiatives within these companies do often require more effort and logistics to get started compared to those undertaken by a nimble firm of 10 employees, the snowball that does end up rolling down the hill can pick up more speed, growing faster and bigger.

Let me give you an example.

Last week, I spoke with Maggie Layden at American Family Insurance — a Madison-based Fortune 500 insurance provider with more than 7,000 employees nationwide. AmFam has a long and proven commitment to sustainability, environmental stewardship, and social responsibility.

In 2012, American Family was one of the first sophomore MPower Business Champions. Under the leadership of AmFam’s sustainability sponsors, LeeAnn Glover and Dan Rosetta, AmFam has taken significant steps to reduce its water usage by 25% and has implemented more than 50 energy-saving solutions to lower its carbon footprint.

Maggie serves as the project leader for AmFam’s “Our Dream of a Zero Waste Future” — an ambitious effort to divert more than 90% of the company’s waste from landfills. Maggie, a metrics geek, always has ready a great case study of AmFam’s work and the numbers to prove it.

In our conversation, Maggie told me about an early sustainability project at AmFam to reduce waste and save money by swapping out single-use plastic cups with reusable water bottles for employees. Seems small and simple enough. So what’s so impressive?

“We realized that we were spending about $26,400 every year on single-use plastic cups,” she says. After running the numbers, AmFam decided to stop purchasing these cups and instead give every employee a free 24-ounce reusable water bottle. The company purchased 10,000 water bottles at a total cost of $32,000.

“This means that the payback for this initiative was just 15 months,” Layden points out. What’s more, she says, “this keeps nearly half a million plastic cups out of the landfill each year.” (Stack them, and you could build more than 80 Eiffel Towers of plastic cups!*)

To encourage use of the spiffy new water bottles, AmFam is installing water refill stations with sensors and counters as part of its headquarters remodel.

“This project is a simple, cost-effective change that will help us to achieve our zero-waste goals,” says Layden.



AmFam made a big collective impact with one small change, and any large corporation can do the same. Complex sustainability efforts at large companies can be daunting. Instead, start with one small change. Measure the results. Tout your success and use the momentum to push forward with incrementally bigger efforts. And be sure to let me know how it goes.

Alternatively, if you pine for a big collective impact but work at a small to mid-size organization, consider a partnership or friendly competition within your industry to aggregate results. At Sustain Dane, we sum up the results of 70 MPower Business Champions ranging from four to 4,000 employees — in the past three years, these companies have saved $916,000 in costs and 21,500 tons of CO2 annually. What collective impact will you make with your sustainability efforts?

*Assumes a 2.2-inch height of a 6-ounce plastic cup. The Eiffel Tower stands 1,063 feet tall. We like to play with numbers and simple math to give an imaginable point of reference to sustainability results, and we highly suggest others do so, too.

Click here to sign up for the free IB ezine – your twice-weekly resource for local business news, analysis, voices, and the names you need to know. If you are not already a subscriber to In Business magazine, be sure to sign up for our monthly print edition here.