Excited about your company’s new recycling initiative? That’s fine. Just don’t expect to hear rousing chants of “Renew, reuse, recycle!” during departmental meetings. After all, sustainable business efforts, including recycling, rarely generate outbursts of enthusiastic applause. But that doesn’t mean today’s employers aren’t paying attention.
As companies large and small work to promote such efforts, managers often learn that, even if employees find these programs enticing, they sometimes need a spark to get them going.
That spark, said Ellen Shieh, UL’s environmental sustainability manager, often comes from the employees themselves.
“Companies have been working on their sustainable approach for years, but in most cases, things were happening in individual locations and there wasn’t a companywide approach,” Shieh said. “What was being done was the result of employees who cared — grassroots efforts from people who were passionate and willing to do things differently.”
While Shieh said bottom-up efforts still take place, she noted that more and more companies have discovered that they can enjoy the benefits of sustainable practices by creating an atmosphere where upper management sets the pace.
“You’re beginning to see one or two leaders within each organization who are very committed to making a difference,” Shieh said. “They’re trying to change things from the top down.”
Companies have been working toward being socially responsible for years but being a truly sustainable business requires that top-down approach as well as a long-term commitment to changing the company’s culture.
“Sustainability is a wonderful umbrella,” said Barb Guthrie, UL’s vice president for corporate sustainability. “It can include practices that impact all areas of business.”
Shieh agreed, noting that true sustainability goes beyond recycling and training.
“We can show that we are a responsible company through our operations, how we deal with our employees and how we deal with our suppliers,” Shieh said.
As corporate leaders around the world began to realize that business-side benefits can go hand in hand with personal interests, many companies have decided to increase their sustainability efforts and to focus on the broader benefits that can be realized both now and in the future.
One aspect of UL’s long-term approach is to encourage employees to be more mindful of their actions.
“Thinking beyond your day to day, thinking beyond what happens when you throw something away, thinking about the longer-term impact of your actions — those things matter,” Shieh said.
Broadening the sustainable perspective
UL has been working to expand the definition of sustainability itself.
“It has become holistically inclusive,” Guthrie said. “With sustainability, we’ve defined the purpose of what we’re working on, which is to positively impact our planet, its people and prosperity as we work for safer, more secure and sustainable growth. To do this, we optimize our human capital, our financial capital and our brand capital. And we’re taking measures to manage our consumption and to reduce and eliminate waste.”
As UL expands its definition of sustainability, it’s important to consider what that term means.
“It’s a broad term, that’s for sure,” Shieh said. “I think the definition varies because it can affect people differently. In a large company, it can touch everyone — department by department — in different ways.”
Shieh said that while companies such as UL use the term to illustrate a singular mindset, the methods in which companies engage their employees usually cover three areas:
- Operational efficiency: Companies are not only looking to change the way they source and manufacture products to reduce their own carbon footprint, but they’re also engaged in seeking major accommodations from their suppliers. Microsoft and Walmart, for example, are two companies that are working to reduce carbon emissions and are leading the way with initiatives that require their suppliers to do things differently.
“It’s no longer enough to say, ‘We’re doing this to reduce our carbon output,’” Shieh said. “If a company wants to be truly open to creating a sustainable environment, they have to pay attention to all aspects of their manufacturing process and then work with their suppliers to ensure that their methods aren’t harming the environment.”
- Product design: No longer designing products with only form and function in mind, more manufacturers are looking to the supply chain to simplify their production process, tap into local suppliers, and create new opportunities to use and reuse existing materials.
“Ocean plastic is a huge issue for a lot of manufacturers,” Shieh said. “If a provider can find ways to not only reuse a material like plastic but also make sure that the plastic won’t end up in a landfill or in the ocean, that’s a major shift in thinking.”
- Community engagement: Efforts by companies to get directly involved in the lives of their employees and their communities is becoming more commonplace, especially in underdeveloped economies. To illustrate, Shieh cited the P.A.C.E (Personal Advancement and Career Enhancement) program by apparel manufacturer Gap Inc., in which the company takes an active role in enhancing the personal and professional lives of female factory workers in Southeast Asia by providing financial advice, leadership skills and more.
“It’s an effort to help lead women out of poverty,” Shieh said. “Companies offer classes and mentoring to their employees, knowing that a stronger, smarter workforce will benefit them in the present and in the future.”
Still, a focus on the future impact of immediate decisions hasn’t always guided companies to do the right thing. In fact, it can be easy to overlook that extended impact, especially if it helps the bottom line.
“There was a time when manufacturers paid little attention to the production of their materials or the assembly of their products, especially when those actions occurred in countries with little to no political power,” said Jeffrey Zax, a professor of economics at the University of Colorado. “Today, the internet has changed that. A photo of a child working at a textile plant in Bangladesh under terrible conditions can be a real blow to a well-established brand.”
But efforts like Gap’s P.A.C.E. program go a long way, not only to help correct manufacturing issues but, more importantly, to help the people who do the manufacturing.
“There’s a real value when a company decides to take a direct approach in improving the lives of their employees,” Zax said. “It can be transformational for an individual, a family, a town. It can have benefits that extend for generations.”
More companies are expanding their efforts to improve the lives of workers in their supply chain. Microsoft created a supplier code of conduct that requires suppliers to “uphold the human rights, labor, health and safety, environmental and business ethics practices” outlined by the company, according to Joan Krajewski, Microsoft’s general manager of safety, compliance and sustainability.
“We realize our role in improving the lives of our suppliers,” Krajewski said. “We don’t take it lightly or treat it as an afterthought. It’s a fundamental part of our planning and processes.”
High risk, high reward
New initiatives aren’t without risk, especially with a safety science company such as UL, since so much of its business relies on evaluating the safety and effectiveness of various parts and products.
“Looking at ways in which we can manage and mitigate our risk is really important, and we’re looking at it through a lens that is specific to sustainability,” Shieh said. “We’re making sure that we are compliant with regulations in different areas of the world in which we operate; making sure that we can secure and have access to certain supplies so that we can continue to conduct our testing services and certifications.”
UL hopes that its approach will have a long-term impact on both the company’s bottom line and its employees’ professional and personal lives “in and out of the building and in and out of their community,” Guthrie said.
Does this mean that UL is tweaking its work/life approach?
Not really, Guthrie said. “It’s less about balancing your work life and your family life than it is about bringing them all together.”
This article was originally published in On the Mark, a UL magazine. Marco Buscaglia is the author. Read more stories about the growing connection between sustainability and business by either downloading the magazine or subscribing to receive the Sustainability issue by mail.