Sustainability: It’s About Values

I explain sustainability in simple terms to begin my conversations with corporate executives. How do you treat your people (Social sustainability)? How do you treat the environment (Environmental sustainability)? And how are you making your business profitable for you and your employees (Financial sustainability)? These questions are often categorized as “the triple bottom line,” meaning a company’s social, environmental and financial bottom line.

It may be a surprise to many that a focus on these core sustainability concepts can actually enhance profits during the down economy. There are numerous examples. Take InPro Corporation, a Wisconsin-based manufacturing company. A recent article in crw.com pointed out that the company “invested $43,800 in green operations in early 2010 and saved $190,284 by year’s end.” Focusing on products with improved environmental characteristics and reducing its environmental footprint, among other green alternatives, the company predicts savings will reach more than $216 by the end of this year. What’s more, employees within the company were asked to look at sustainability from each of their business units.

What does this say? To me it speaks of values and an “expanded” or “sustainability” focused set of values. When I talk about values, most people refer to values such as, honesty, integrity, compassion, etc. But let’s take another step with those values. Let’s say the corporate value is honesty. As well as being and acting personally honest, what about the “voice” of the corporation, as it relates to honesty? Honesty may mean that when there has been a problem, the corporation honestly reports this information to their stakeholders. What about responsibility? We can be personally responsible, but as a corporation, are we responsible for our impacts on pollution, waste management and product safety issues. I’m suggesting that all companies today expand their traditional look at their mission, values and vision. We are not simply working on our own set of values, even our values with the departments and teams within our companies. We are working on living values beyond the walls of the corporation—and applying them worldwide to the people and markets we touch every day. And to me, we need to first identify and then apply these “expanded” values sets to reduce our environmental impacts, retain employees that are motivated and excited and partner with communities and customers that “get” these values.

The mission, vision and values exercise is an exciting place for companies to begin their sustainability journey because once these values are selected and embraced; the next step is how to measure what we do. In one word: Metrics. It is important that we all measure our own progress. For example, are we saving enough for retirement? How much is enough? How much should we save per month; per year? If a company chooses a “sustainable” value of stewardship, for example, what does this mean in terms of a metric? For example, how much water, energy has been saved last year? What is the goal for next year? How can we refine processes and practices to conserve even more this year?

Think about sustainability as moving away from a single bottom line and in that process—and as a company, how you care for people and the environment. Begin to live this in your values within the company and measure where you’re going. Sustainability is actually just expanding solid business practices—practices designed to enhance employees, customers, communities and the environment. But all companies can begin this process by examining their values, setting a course for the future, measuring their impacts and reporting how their doing. In the end, it’s really about what values you and your company is known for….and the legacy your company will leave. What are your sustainable values?

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