Companies Save Millions By Hiring For Corporate Sustainability

I recently moved into a new house and for the first time in my life, I have a cleaning lady.  Like most people I know, on the day before she’s scheduled to arrive, I clean up a little. Because just having someone whose job it is, and knowing that she’ll be focused on that job, changes my behavior.

This behavior also happens on an institutional scale. While not every company needs a dedicated chief sustainability officer—or energy manager or corporate responsibility officer—having one can focus attention and change behavior from the C-suite to the factory floor. A recent Weinreb Group report documents the rise of chief sustainability officers and describes them as “business veterans who are good at leading new initiatives and cross-functional teams and who understand how to translate external factors into internal opportunities.”

While titles may vary, a new survey by Corporate Responsibility Magazine and others reveals that in 2011, 62 percent of participating organizations had a lead corporate responsibility role—a big jump up from 42 percent in 2010. We’ve seen this same trend in our own work at Environmental Defense Fund, especially when companies get a taste of what they have to gain from a dedicated resource. 

For example, EDF Climate Corps places specially trained MBA students in companies for a summer to build the business case for energy efficiency. These gung-ho students have found over $1 billion in potential energy savings for their host companies, which are now creating new positions to keep the ball rolling year round. For example, Adidas created a new position of senior manager for environmental affairs for its Climate Corps fellow, Elizabeth Turnbull, after she graduated from Yale. Real estate firm The JBG Companies and manufacturer Cummins were similarly motivated by EDF Climate Corps savings to create new roles.

The survey also cites improvements to customer relations and employee attraction and retention as the top benefits companies report from their sustainability programs. Conversations with our partner companies confirm these benefits and suggest one more: bottom line results. Private equity giant Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co. recently announced that its environmental program had saved participating companies $365 million in operating costs since 2008. The firm created a new position to manage the program in 2009, and has added more staff as the savings continue to accumulate. Other private equity firms like Blackstone, Doughty Hanson, 3i, and Actis have also brought in experts to focus on environmental management.

Having a dedicated sustainability position is helping these companies bridge the gap between environmental and business management, and to reap the rewards from doing so. I look to see this trend continue in 2012.

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[Image: Flickr user Sebastiano Pitruzzello (aka gorillaradio)]

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