Sustainability umbrella encompasses the ‘green mentality’


Everywhere you turn, someone mentions saving the planet, green environment, sustainability or some version of this discussion. When it comes to business, it is clear that including such a reference in the marketing of your products has an advantage, or at least suggests a responsible organization. When it comes to a service organization, being a green organization is a little more difficult to show. However, the issues of sustainability are not so difficult. It is a much broader umbrella, certainly as important, and can encompass the “green” mentality.

The objective of sustainability is the ability to exist for an extended period without having a negative impact on the planet. To make this happen is not a one-time event, but rather a series of practices. It becomes a culture ingrained and automatic in everyday actions, whether it involves large projects or small decisions. From this perspective, it doesn’t matter if you produce a product or a service.

Now that we’ve said all organizations can be involved with sustainability, the next discussion is whether it will work from a financial standpoint. If it costs more than it saves, it is more difficult to implement unless it is a highly supported philosophical position of senior management and ownership. If it is assumed that leadership will buy into a “good” idea, who should implement it and how should it be accomplished? The idea to consider sustainability can come from anywhere in the organization. In reality, there always has to be some sort of champion to lead the charge, or the idea dies.

This is an opportunity for human resources to help shape the organization, rather than just be the strong administrative arm. Although the process of sustainability has to take place throughout the organization, the integration into the culture can be driven from the HR function. The management of culture has long been seen as the domain of HR, but many people only think of culture as how people are treated. It actually flows through multiple practices from quality to innovation to marketing strategy.

So, how does HR start the process? Research and education can begin the process. Once it is determined the practices that others have used can be applied in total or in part to your organization, then analysis can begin to determine if it is a viable financial strategy, a philosophical strategy or a combination that will be the foundation to the cultural development goal. The more numbers you can bring to the presentation, the more successful you are likely to be. You may even have to organize a pilot program to demonstrate plausibility of the ideas.

Once there’s acceptance that the organization wants to move in the direction of sustainability, it is absolutely imperative that a goal be defined with proven measurements and then tracked to show the outcomes. It will be a focal point for the organization and the process that will convert the disbelievers, of which there are likely to be many. They will raise the question of value for cost. They will raise the issue, but the sustainability champion will have to prove the point.

How does this effort get inserted into the organization? The logical point is through the company’s strategic plan. This gives it status, visibility and, hopefully, adequate resources. The defined goals, measurability and accountability should fit with the rest of the strategic plan. If the rest of the plan doesn’t have these aspects of administration, then it may be an opportunity to institute a refinement of the strategic planning process. The only open matter becomes establishment of sustainability’s priority in conjunction with all the other strategic goals.

We’ve talked about how it should be addressed, who should lead the charge and whether it is right for your organization, but what is sustainability? It comes in many forms. The easy forms are the biologically compatible materials, those that don’t cause secondary problems to the earth, its water or atmosphere, and leaves a smaller carbon foot print than when you started.

Now consider sustainability as processes that allow you to accomplish the same or more with recycled materials or with fewer people. When you move into this arena, sustainability can be a strategy that works whether you have products or not. If you develop a strong program, presented as ‘how we do things,’ it begins to attract the type of people who care about such things. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, and the results can often be better than expected.

One of the key elements of developing/changing culture is re-enforcement of the desired practices. This has to come in the forms of recognition, education, support and perhaps even discipline. All of these are tools that HR has used for years, but perhaps not pursuing things outside the employee relations tent.

Finally, human resources should be highly instrumental in supporting sustainability. It is a strategic function. It is expected to lead the charge on succession planning — to have the right people at the right time to support the organization, 20 years from now, with tools and skills that may not be on the horizon at this time but will become the accepted norm.

This is what sustainability is all about. It’s about putting in place practices that will allow the organization to be ready for the future.

Ardon Schambers is president and principal of P3HR Consulting & Services in Grand Rapids.

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