Saving the World at Work

Fast Interview: Tim Sanders, author of Saving the World at Work: What Companies and Individuals Can Do to Go Beyond Making a Profit to Making a Difference, talks about how employees are greening their companies from within, the death of the casual consumer, why bosses are welcoming their ideas, and how the new exclamation of approval is “That’s off the grid!”


Working for the man is becoming obsolete. Employees and customers want to work for and support companies that share their ethical values, says Sanders. He believes we are in the midst of a “responsibility revolution” in which sustainable business practices and social responsibility will become something no company can afford to ignore. Ultimately, it’s all about doing good at work — why sustainability and corporate responsibility are becoming easier — and necessary for survival.


What do you mean by is saving the world at work?

I mean two things: making a difference to the greater community and the planet while you do your job and helping your company survive the coming responsibility revolution. My research says there are huge changes coming to the business world starting with the dirtiest industries like carpets and cars and spreading to what you would think of as the cleanest industries like high-tech web programming. Historically, when there’s a real business revolution like the quality movement of the ’70s and ’80s, the paradigm shift eventually spreads to every industry. The main point of the book is that anybody can make a real difference in their work career experience because one person at work can unleash the power of many.

Why are we more empowered to do good on our jobs than past generations?

Many CEOs, especially those who are excited about Corporate Social Responsibility and sustainability, are better listeners than they’ve ever been before. The new generation of CEOs, regardless of age, seem to be very happy to adopt front line innovations and scale them. When I did the research for the book, we talked to over 300 CEOs and we ended up talking to executives of over half the Fortune 500. Remarkably, 80 percent of the time you show me a really cool green or community innovation and if I push a little bit, that executive will cough up the name of a non C-level person that actually came up with the idea.

So there’s more openness to ideas from below?


Reverse mentoring during the dot-com revolution really opened the door to the C- suites. Even the kid with the tattoos, spiked hair, and ring in his noise got to show the CEO how the Internet worked. That really changed everything.

How has technology made companies more accountable?

Changes in technology have empowered people to find out more about companies and tell more about companies. This new transparency means that your reputation can no longer be controlled by corporate communications and fixed by advertising. You can’t possibly buy enough greenwash ads to outrun Techcrunch and Facebook on Fire — when a large community of friends get a burr in their bonnet about a company or decide they love a company and all of the sudden you see an explosion in the blogosphere. I mean, even Wal-Mart realized that no amount of advertising would make up for the simple hiring of Adam Werbach of the Sierra Club to teach personal sustainability. By my count, at least 5,000 Wal-Mart employees, friends or family have blogged positively about their personal sustainability programs. When you run the math, that’s a whole lot of media impressions.

More important, at work you have a network that’s very scalable because of e-mail, project tools and employee generated blogs. The thing that used to keep a company from moving forward — its size — can now be its tool. In my book, I tell the story of Joan Krajewski at Microsoft, an attorney who worked in the hardware group and used all the Microsoft tech tools from Live Meeting to SharePoint, to build a network of Micro Greenies — other Microsoft employees who think the company could be greener. By leveraging these tools, this attorney has had a real impact on everything from how hardware products are packaged sustainably to the software products Microsoft develops like carbon footprint analytic programs. She did it all using tools that her parents didn’t have available.

You speak about the responsibility revolution. What’s that?


There is a broad based movement in the market — consumers, talent, even young fund managers who expect companies to stand for more than profit. They expect companies to step up and help governments and NGOs fix broken communities and practice sustainability. They will punish the ones that don’t and reward the ones that do. If your company isn’t making strategic inroads towards being more sustainable, your replacement in the market will.

Is this related to why you see the end of the casual customer?

Certainly, customers are going to ask difficult questions besides the ones about price and quality. They’re starting to ask new questions. Think of all the people who are shopping for cars now. The customer used to ask about price, finance terms. Today MPG and eco effect make a big difference, and that’s why you see the rise of hybrids. If you want to understand what’s going to happen in the U.S. in three-to-five years in the area of ethical consumerism, just take a look at what’s happening in the United Kingdom. Led by an organization called the Carbon Trust, there’s now eco nutrition labeling on products. Once a consumer sees what the carbon footprint is and can compare it to another product, half the time it changes buying behavior.

In contrast to sustainable management is what you call “shareism” or excessive fixation on the stock price. Have you ever worked at a company like that?

Sure, in my days in Southwestern Bell and certainly in the dot-com crash days of Yahoo. The price of the share and what they were saying on CNBC could give the best employees that deer in the headlights look. If you’ve ever worked in a company where almost all your wealth was stock options, you go from a Gucci mama to gurgler — a gurgler is when all your wealth is under water. You can’t workout and watch cable before you go to work and you can’t read the Wall Street Journal before you go to work. It will scare the hell out of you and you can’t focus at work. At the managerial level, when I worked in the phone company world, it totally affects all their planning because it confines them into the quarter so much because their belief is that if we miss it by a penny the stock goes down by 20 percent and all three-year plans get killed. There’s this total focus on the stock price and this idea that all investments have to be accreted by the next quarterly earnings call. That’s going to make it really tough for you to really commit to things like employee development, community development, or alternative energy.


How will Web companies become more green?

The first thing is how the business is run. Both Fast Institute and Google have made investments in solar power and other companies are making investments in wind power. One of funniest new slang terms I’ve heard is, “off the grid.” If you tell a good joke or have a bright idea, at a lot companies they say, “Dude that’s off the grid!” What it really means is you’re an innovative thinker and have very little footprint. For a lot of Web companies going off the grid is not a big deal because power requirements are low compared to, say, a manufacturing company. But what I see as a bridge solution to going off the grid is cloud computing. It’s not just efficient and a money saver; it’s the equivalent to public transportation down the information superhighway. People that buy servers for the sake of having servers are like people who still buy answering machines at home. It’s a Hummer — another slang term that means an idea that’s convenient but bad for the planet and usually driven by ego.

A lot of Web companies are embracing four-day workweeks and telecommuting which dramatically cuts their footprint. How you run your company can be very green and a big part of your story when you’re trying to raise money on Sand Hill Road in the valley. You show me a venture capitalist who’s worth a billion bucks on paper and has two Aston Martins and I’ll show you a guy that’s more likely to fund a company that’s been thoughtful about these issues.

The second way a Web company can green up is conserving energy by reducing the requirements of the end user. There needs to be a paradigm shift in media driven Web companies that depend on advertising to make money. A lot of Web programming is about keeping you on longer. They have to lose time spent as a way of thinking about success.

Is sustainability becoming a form of PR in its own right?


For decades, the number one driver of a brand’s strength is that it’s different. Researchers believe that there’s been a leapfrog in the last five years and all of a sudden social esteem has jumped over relevance and differentiation. One of the new mottos I hear in New York and the ad agency world is “making a difference is the new difference.”