The top 3 myths about going sustainable …

If you read last month’s post about why sustainability is smart business, you’re probably saying to yourself, “Yeah, I get it, sustainability is smart. I should be more ‘green,’ and I’d love to do it, except I’d also love to scale my operation up regionally, develop that big partnership I’ve been angling for, all while saving enough of the ‘other’ green to throw the big holiday party this year.”

That is, you’re probably saying what just about everybody says: “We’re busy, we’re strapped, we’re buried.”

And it’s true! Having worked with nearly 50 Madison businesses and municipalities through Sustain Dane’s MPower Business ChaMpions program, we’ve heard plenty of (perfectly valid) reasons why making sustainable adjustments to business can be a challenge.

So below we present the top 3 reasons why focusing on sustainability can seem implausible, and then a few observations that might help you shift your perception of the challenge.

The problem: Going sustainable is too expensive

“Okay, so changing a few light bulbs isn’t terribly threatening. We’ve programmed our thermostats, gotten rid of space heaters. And now … we’re out of ideas, and if you think we’re going to install a new HVAC system or pull out all of our plumbing or rip up our pavement or re-roof or put solar panels up there, you’ve got another thing coming.”

Rethink it: Unsustainable business is, by definition, more expensive

A bedrock principle of budgeting is that every dollar you spend in investment ought to have a better than one-to-one return. Businesses considering capital improvements calculate a rate of return on investment (ROI) to help model financial decisions.

Michael Campos, CEO of Campos Comprehensive Engineering and a consultant to local businesses considering sustainable business improvements, thinks traditional “ROI” doesn’t tell the right story when it comes to “green” infrastructure investments.

“ROI is a ratio,” Campos says. “You have to compare the total project cost to all the benefits and returns from the project over the lifetime of a particular infrastructure system.”

“Implementing sustainability upgrades can help offset future energy cost increases, increase revenue generation by improving operational and process efficiencies, and reduce the possibility of business interruption due to system failure.”

In addition to more efficient buildings, intangibles like improvements in employee health, reductions in waste, greater transparency, and community trust are naturally occurring outcomes for companies that underscore their commitment to cleaner, greener, more efficient workplaces.

Often, shifting gears toward a more sustainable business is as much about taking something old away as it is about investing in something new. (One remarkable way of creating a more efficient, sustainable operation without spending a dime is focusing on the complexities of energy billing and “peak usage” within your organization, which we’ll focus on extensively in a future post.)

The problem: My organization doesn’t have the capacity

“There are only so many hours in the day, and they’re already stretched way too thin. We aren’t the Coca-Cola Co., which just hired a chief sustainability officer; we can’t invent – or fund! – new positions or make additional demands of our employees at this time.”

Rethink it: Your employees want a sustainable workplace, and they’ll help get you there

Sustainability is an opportunity for unleashing innovation in your employees so that they take ownership of their workplace and buy, personally, into your business goals as an extension of sustainable values.

One of the core tools of the MPower program is the Green Team – employees at each business who are excited to help their organization achieve custom-tailored sustainability goals, with C-suite support. Check out these tips on creating an organizational Green Team, culled from our experience working with these groups.

This recent article makes the case that sustainable values in the workplace typically evolve through several stages. Sustainability is often imported to a company by one or two committed individuals: the “centralized” stage. When co-workers begin to buy into the logic that a sustainable workplace has both tangible and intangible benefits, a team mentality forms – the “integrated” stage of sustainable operations. Finally, sustainability is so highly valued that it becomes “embedded” in all aspects of corporate culture, even so far as having pay structures tied to sustainability competencies and performance.

In my last post, I presented an argument that sustainability = happier employees and more money. Harnessing the excitement of current employees around a few simple “green” goals is a vital first step in igniting the above evolution from “centralized” mandate to embedded sustainable mindset.

Click here to read about how Madison Concourse Hotel has initiated and carried out this process.

The problem: We just don’t know where to start

Typically the businesses we work with are in one of three positions:

“We don’t know where to start.”

“We’ve done the easy stuff, now what?”

“We had a consultant issue us a report and we don’t know where to start.”

Rethink it: Start right now. Just do something.

As we explored above, sustainability requires buy-in from a coalition of interested individuals at your business. So the simplest route to success is locating where the personal passion is.

Build momentum toward an “integrated” (and, eventually, an “embedded”) culture of action around sustainable initiatives.

As Union Cab’s Green Team member Kate Schachter found out, this momentum can be shaky at first, but will coalesce as each success is documented and given visibility.

Schachter says, “In 2008 we formally adopted a [new] core value: ‘We are dedicated to operating our business in an environmentally responsible way.’ In July of 2009, we formed a Green Team to put solid meaning into that value. We floundered for a while, trying to decide what model to use, and how to prioritize and identify our goals.”

By tapping member interest, passion, and drive (and by joining the collaborative community of MPower businesses), Union Cab was able to identify discrete projects that they could convert from a “should do” to a “did,” which they were able to take back to their board and membership to validate the results.

Union Cab now boasts a fleet of Prius hybrid vehicles, solar panels, a member-tended herb garden, and technological innovation that is all the result of those first seedling impulses to operate in an environmentally responsible way.

So: Your business can’t afford not to be sustainable. Your employees are your greatest resource – tap their excitement. And they’ll show you where to start.

This column is meant to be a space for a conversation about sustainability. Please submit your questions or comments to about your own efforts, setbacks, ideas, and success stories in creating a sustainable Madison-area business.

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