For Earth Day, Build a Culture of Sustainability Leadership and Innovation

written by IFCO SYSTEMS, 20th April 2017, in Stories

Every year, April 22 is celebrated as International Earth Day. It was first celebrated in 1970 in more than 193 countries worldwide. The goal of celebrating the Earth Day is to create public awareness about pollution and effects of various human actions that hurt the natural environment. The day is commonly celebrated with rallies, conferences and outdoor activities. Gaylord Nelson, a U.S. Senator from Wisconsin at that time, is regarded as the founder of the Earth Day.

With Earth Day coming up, it is also an appropriate time to consider the importance of sustainability innovation and sustainability champions in your company, as well as the best way to support and harness that collective energy.

Innovation with Intention

It is important that front line sustainability champions, as well as innovation ideas, more generally, be guided by corporate vision. "Perhaps the worst thing a company can do is give "innovation marching orders" without any guideposts," writes Soren Kaplan in 6 Ways to Create a Culture of Innovation. "That’s when the focus gets lost and teams spin their wheels."

Equally important, Kaplan notes, is to be clear about what metrics we are looking to achieve, invoking the words of management guru Peter Drucker, who said, "What’s measured improves." In the case of sustainability, that could equate to improvements in recycling rates, reduction in solid waste, reduced energy or fuel consumption, or other appropriate measures. Having clear guidelines is also useful in talking about the value of new ideas proposed by employees. Do they move the needle for any of the listed metrics? For example, will purchasing more bins or repositioning them make it easier to improve the recycling rate, or will more regular maintenance to those sticky overhead doors make it easier for employees to comply in keeping doors closed and help lower the energy bill?

How Do We Generate More Ideas from Frontline Employees?

When looking for ideas from the shop floor, the key to active participation is for employees to feel that their ideas are being seriously considered through receiving timely and consistent feedback. Such a dialogue is best achieved if empowerment is pushed down the chain of command, so that front line supervisors actively consider ideas and respond to them, or escalate them if executive support is needed to implement them. One study suggests that employees only become disengaged after 20 failed innovation ideas, as long as they are receiving active feedback on ideas that were not accepted. To quote Maya Angelou, "People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel."

Another best practice is to ensure full visibility of the process to those on the shop floor. One such approach is to record and post innovative ideas on an innovation board. Make it about innovation ideas, but be sure to include ample space for sustainability-related improvement ideas. Responses to the idea and decisions about whether are not to implement are also displayed, so all employees can see the progress of ideas and when they have been put into practice, and if not, the reasons why they were not adopted.

Mentoring Sustainability Champions

While progressive companies encourage sustainability innovations from all employees, there are those folks who are brimming with passion, and who emerge as informal or formal sustainability champions within their businesses. Such champions can make an indelible impact in shaping the culture of a workplace, leading by example, encouraging appropriate behavior, and suggesting best practices. They can share stories with others that help build engagement towards the pursuit of sustainability goals.

Champions, however, need to mindful of overall organizational and departmental goals, Sometimes, sustainability leaders can seem more of a distraction than an advantage, and mentorship may be required. Dr. Jason Jay of MIT and Gabriel Grant, a doctoral candidate at Yale, have listed five pitfalls of sustainability leadership that can derail sustainability champions at work. Faulty leadership assumptions include:

  • That they are more sustainable than others
  • That by simply leading by example, others will follow
  • That their sustainability efforts are more important than others
  • That others do not do enough
  • That it is not possible to be truly sustainable and profitable at the same time.

As in the case of generating innovative sustainability ideas, frequent, ongoing feedback, and mindfulness of larger corporate sustainability aspirations can be useful in keeping good ideas coming, and in enabling the sustainability champions in your organization to be a positive force for change.

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