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3 Ways Companies Can Take On Climate Change Starting Today

Whatever the outcome of the U.N.’s COP21 climate talks this week, businesses can start making a difference right now.

3 Ways Companies Can Take On Climate Change Starting Today
[Photo: Flickr user Mikael Miettinen]

With the COP21 climate talks under way in Paris this week, it isn’t just world governments that are rethinking how to safeguard the health of the planet. Businesses now have a greater opportunity–and obligation–to get greener. Those efforts have to come from the very top, but they also need to involve everyone.

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That’s an immense organizational challenge, especially if companies see sustainability efforts as distractions from their business missions. But action can’t wait. Here are three corporate sustainability strategies to start deploying right now.

1. Lay Out The Business Case

Even for companies committed to sustainability, it takes a deep bench of strong leaders to articulate that vision and bring together everyone who’s needed to realize it. And that starts with bridging the ethical case for environmental action with the economic one.

Siemens recently announced that it plans to slash its global carbon footprint in half by 2020 and make its global operations carbon-neutral by 2030. Laying out his vision in the New York Times, Siemens CEO Joe Kaeserlaid wrote that he expects the company’s $110 million investment in sustainability to not only pay for itself in five years but also generate $20 million in annual savings afterward. “In other words,” he says, “cutting your carbon footprint is not only good corporate citizenship–it’s also good business.”

It’s this kind of quantitative advocacy that’s changing the conversation about sustainability across industries. In 2013, Ryan McMullan, manager of sustainability at Toyota Motor Sales, outlined how Toyota’s push toward zero waste had improved business:

When Toyota first started as a car company, they didn’t have advanced technology, sophisticated facilities, or anything else a new company might want for a competitive advantage. But they realized that if you can eliminate waste and become more efficient, you can create your own advantage. And when you eliminate waste, you get environmental and financial benefits together.

It’s time to stop thinking about sustainability as an add-on to business. Sustainability is the right way to do business, and companies that recognize that the fastest will gain a leg up on those that are slower to come around.

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2. Build Coalitions

Leaders across a range of backgrounds and institutions are now taking a stand on climate change like never before. Who would’ve thought just a few years ago that there’d be a pope framing the problem as a human-rights issue? In order to advance sustainability–both within organizations and across industries–broad coalitions are essential.

To take just one example, the Prince of Wales’s Corporate Leaders Group on climate change brings together a far-reaching cohort of business, policy, and finance leaders to address solutions to the crisis that involves as diverse a range of stakeholders as possible. Across the globe, local and municipal leaders are building their own coalitions–bridging public and private sectors–in order to improve sustainability at the community level as well.

George Ferguson, an architect (like me) and mayor of Bristol in the U.K.–which was named the European Green Capital this year–believes that city leaders play a crucial role in fighting global warming. While national governments can get bogged down in red tape, local municipalities can team with local businesses to take meaningful steps to map out a more sustainable path ahead.

There are two lessons in that vision. First, companies shouldn’t wait for sweeping regulatory mandates or global accords, important though those are. They should seek out partnerships with local leaders in their own communities.

Second, the coalitions businesses assemble within their own ranks don’t all need to be top-down, even if the motivating vision is. Working within and across individual teams–involving a few dozen people on one project or a couple hundred on another–when multiplied, is still a great way to make an impact across a sprawling company.

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One way to build productive coalitions is to think more broadly than carbon-footprint reduction. Prioritize other so-called “social responsibility” issues that aren’t directly environmental–from safety to diversity–that impact your employees’, customers’, and community’s well-being. Why? Because real corporate sustainability requires an ethical buy-in among everyone involved, even after you’ve made the business case. If all the people your business touches understand your company’s big-picture vision, then smaller, issue-based initiatives will gain wider support.

3. Don’t Tolerate Complacency

One of corporate sustainability’s biggest obstacles comes in the form of honestly held but uninformed beliefs. It would hardly be a shame if we managed to save billions of dollars in energy and health care costs and enhanced productivity, only to discover that human activity had less to do with climate change than we’d thought.

Of course, the science says otherwise, but the point is that improving resource efficiency, human wellness, and productivity are all important goals even if you don’t care about the environment. Faced with political resistance, business leaders need to do a better job of explaining that.

That can be a daunting and exhausting thing to do, but it’s now a part of any great business leader’s job description. Meaningful efforts on climate change take personal courage, corporate bravery, and a tremendous amount of energy to implement. But if that’s a testament to the scale of the issue, it’s also a reflection of enormous benefits of resolving it.

Leaders who can bridge the ethical and economic cases for sustainability, forge productive coalitions, and inspire others to make a commitment will be more profitable and resilient in the future–no matter what changes it holds. I can’t think of a more worthy corporate goal than that.

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Beth Heider, FAIA, LEED AP BD+C, is chief sustainability officer at Skanska USA, one of the largest construction and development companies in the U.S.

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