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10 Things I’ve Learned on the Road to Sustainability

July 20, 2010

Over the past 10 years, I have seen companies become increasingly focused on strategic sustainable issues in their business practices. How they do it, however, continues to be a challenge.

I believe a business cannot go wrong if it pursues a common mission and focuses on material issues with a strategy that is closely aligned to its business imperatives. It must innovate and persist, even in tough economic circumstances, and collaborate beyond the company while applying each team’s expertise to achieve common goals.

Here are 10 lessons I’ve learned about green business, with links to the full discussions, appropriately online.

1. Sustainability Requires Everyone to Work Together: Businesses, Government and NGOs

To transform society, it’s larger than business — it is about governments, businesses and citizens working collaboratively to become more efficient, to develop new “greener” technologies that are economically viable, and to use these new innovations across our society. We must all work together.

2. Sustainability is a
Team Sport in Business

Within businesses themselves, sustainability as a practice can be challenging. For this reason, it requires the expertise and hard work of many people in multiple departments in a company. It is the concerted efforts following an agreed-upon mission that allows a company to progress and succeed in sustainability. This involves many different departments bringing different knowledge and values to the table. Each needs to be working in concert with others. This, then, is individually powerful, but also collectively effective.

3. Sustainability has to
Be Green to Stay Green

Some judge businesses’ environmental initiatives only through the lens of environment. But should we exclude economic decisions in the name of environmental sustainability? Before answering, let me ask it another way — should we ignore environmental considerations simply because the economic situation remains weak? Frankly, I think the answer to both questions is no since environmental initiatives need to be economically viable if they are going to be sustainable into the future. Otherwise, a business can’t be sustainable over the long-term. Translation: The business or the environmental initiatives won’t be around.

4. Apply Environmentalism in the Organization in a Way that Adds Value

There is a concept called “Practical Environmentalism” that I define as strategic and transformational environmental stewardship that adds tangible value in the effort to be more responsible.

Think of it symbolically as a house. Environmental performance can be viewed as the house’s foundation. Anything you wish to build must have that solid foundation to last. Then, focusing upon leadership and transparency actually helps frame out the real, three-dimensional walls, including the windows. Simply undertaking environmental initiatives that are excessively expensive and sound good in a press release, but are not strategically relevant and do not add value is simply like a two-dimensional façade rather than a real structure. There is nothing behind it, and it’s likely to fall in high, turbulent winds.

What about Innovation? It’s like the roof. It allows the house to weather the changing climate over the years, and keeps the residents dry during inclement weather.

5. Lead on the Material Issues for the Organization

Leading an effective environmental sustainability program should be like leading other strategic initiatives. You have to rally the team to clear and stated objectives. You have to use judgment in what is attainable, to know what’s necessary, and sustain your team’s focus, or you will not be successful. You also have to rely upon others to help you carry out the objectives.

6. Performance is Important, but
Underperforms on its Own

Humphrey Bogart once said, “The only thing that you owe the public is a good performance.” From a broader business perspective, performance is naturally important, but performance in environmental sustainability is not all that matters. Leadership, innovation and transparency matter, as well.

7. What You See is Important in Transparency, Not What You Look At

For Practical Environmentalism, I used a house as a symbolic example, with this building block of transparency representing the windows. Transparency allows external stakeholders to look in and to see what’s inside. However, windows allow viewing in both directions and also allow the residents to look out.

For me, transparency is about seeing what stakeholders want and need to know, but it’s also about helping to decide on the metrics that aid decision-making and strategic planning, In essence, it’s about viewing the landscape in order to be sustainable into the future.

8. Apply Inspiration in Sustainability and Innovate

Innovation is a powerful ingredient for sustainability in business, including environmental stewardship. It is powerful in general since everyone can innovate. But, it’s most effective when team members in an organization look for opportunities to innovate and improve the areas they oversee and know best.

9. Managing for Rankings is a
Management Risk, and is Ultimately a Dead-end

There are advantages in corporate responsibility rankings, such as providing external stakeholders with information, context and the rationale (hopefully) for how they rank companies. They encourage companies to do better in managing their issues and disclosing information, and they provide validation and pride for the companies that make these lists.

But managing your corporate responsibility program primarily for inclusion on these rankings, rather than managing the issues which are material to your company, is a risk. It can lead to an imbalance in what you are focusing on and take away from material issues.

10. Transformation Requires Persistence

No company can create transformation alone. It’s something that requires coordination, collaboration and momentum with others, both in and out of their industry. You have to be persistent. General George C. Marshall really summed it well: “The one great element in continuing the success of an offensive is maintaining the momentum.”

Here’s a bonus lesson: Keep pushing, with the finish line simply being the road ahead.

Note: This post first appeared on


    Ken Rosenzweig says:

    Government should work with business to make “green” technology economically viable. This could include tax incentives to businesses that choose to deploy “green” technology.

    Unfortunately, many people both inside and outside of governments want to make “green” technology seem economically viable by raising taxes on traditional sources of energy, making them artificially more expensive. This is a bad strategy that will stifle economic growth.

    Adam D. West says:

    How could FedEx use existing “green” technology to address current operational issues?

    Mitch Jackson says:

    Ken, incentives are clearly a good way to bring new, innovative technologies to market. Another method we support is to expense capital equipment when it’s put into service, as opposed to having it depreciated over a period of time. It’s clear that capital investment is a driver of the U.S. economy. And, this can be used to bring effective environmental technologies to market sooner. So, making that capital investment easier in these greener technologies is a good thing – for the economy and the environment.

    Mitch Jackson says:

    Thanks for the question, Adam. In fact, we do use quite a few of these technologies. The FedEx 2009 Global Citizenship Report details environmental technologies that we currently use, including hybrid electric and electric vehicles, solar energy, sustainably certified paper, etc. And, in fact, we have established the EarthSmart Solutions program, wherein services or assets can be scored and possibly certified to our standards for innovation and environmental sustainability.

    Carl Wayne Hardeman says:

    I would add:

    A bias for action. You cannot wait until everyone understands and or agrees.

    Lead by exmaple. I am talking about your workspace and work practices.

    Must have highly visible showcase projects such as turning the WTC campus into a giant, well tended, minimum maintenance, naturalized meadow!!!! Mow once or twice a year. Use mulch instead of asphalt for walking paths. Use permeable parking areas.

    Need to leverage the collective wisdom of the entire employee base. Lead by vision and planning and not simply by directives.

    I could go on.

    Carl Wayne Hardeman says:

    We will do “green” because it is economically beneficial not because of government mandate, else we would fill in our swimming pools, sell our cars, and quit mowing our lawns.

    Mark Morin says:

    How about Natural Gas Diesel engines/ conversions? I read FedEx’s citizenship report you mentioned below to Adam
    See 2011 Manning award winner Dr. Hill for his High-Pressure Direct Injection (HPDI) of Natural Gas into Diesel Engines. I met Dr. Hill as I was a co-winner of the innovations awards for the world’s first purpose built aerodynamic mudflap.

    On Pg 37 “Experimenting With Everything That Moves” the article reads .. Innovation sometimes means “unlearning.” For years we assumed hybrids would outperform all diesels. But some newer diesels, like our
    5,500 (soon to be 9,500) Mercedes Sprinters, are outperforming gasoline hybrids—and they’re less expensive.

    Regarding Ken R’s comment, I also agree subsidies and Tax incentives are good, the only caveat I have with such, and its an important one, is the role “greed” play’s out in decision making. Savings and Loans, Wall Street, demonstrate how tempting “green $” is. Lets not kid ourselves, it exists. Even in the worst of times, (without stimulus ),revolutionary idea’s can easily be stifled at virtualy every level in the hopper until those in the process, who are so inclined to sucomb to the temptation, gettheir hands greesed before taking action-because thats the way they’re wired. Now add stimulus … takes it up to a whole new level. Without proper accountablility presents a potentialy volitile stubling block to the “spirit” of innovation.

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