Make Sustainability viral

Feb. 1, 2011
Sustainability must jump your four walls and become part of your supply chain—and your community—for any lasting effect.

Many business executives acknowledge that “sustainability” is key to creating business value. But as a concept, it is easily sentimentalized. It can become too broad or disconnected from the operational fabric of the organization to move from theory to practice. As we looked at ways to imbed a sustainability imperative at Group O, we challenged ourselves to devise a strategy that would incorporate our cultural DNA and be prescriptive and relevant across the entire enterprise. In short, sustainability had to be sustainable.

At the outset, we looked for ways to add purpose and meaning to the program that would ensure its adoption and longevity. Recognizing that it should have a broad and wide impact, we strove to ensure it had touch-points, not just within the company, but also outside—with our suppliers, customers and partners and in our local communities.

Group O’s sustainability imperative—launched in 2008—is called “purpose|tomorrow,” reflecting our vision to make tomorrow better than today by continually improving our greatest resources: our Earth and our people. As we refined a mission statement, we decided it should compel us to enrich our environment by investing in the world we live in.

We agreed on the following top-line goals:

• Educate and encourage our employees and partner organizations to embrace sustainable values and encourage a zero waste ideology;

• Comply with all legal and regulatory requirements;

• Communicate our progress to our stakeholders; and

• Require ourselves to hold our business accountable on its sustainability efforts.

Make it relevant and align it with your business

For us, this meant zeroing in on five key pillars of sustainability that could yield measurable results:

• Foster a safe and healthy work environment (employee inclusion);

• Provide opportunities for community service (local community enrichment);

• Reduce our carbon footprint (environmental preservation);

• Retain talent (human capital investment); and

• Be transparent (measure and communicate).

These pillars helped us establish a quantifiable and measurable business case that is geared for the long run.

Add Operational and Cultural Dimensions

Make your sustainability program strategic to the front-line operations of your business, while time enabling it to be driven by the actions of individuals. To ensure that purpose|tomorrow is part of the way we think, we defined key “operational discipline” attributes such as reducing cost, encouraging reuse, and ensuring continual employee engagement through inclusive training and employee development, along with weekly emails that reconnect our workforce with purpose|tomorrow.

Enlist ambassadors: your employees

We want purpose|tomorrow to have long-term and meaningful impact within our local community. To invite employee leadership, input and consensus, we instituted programs ranging from healthy eating and living, to sponsorship of the local Boys & Girls Club, to support of a local community health center that provides accessible and affordable care. If you’re successful here, your employees will be proud to spread the word about your sustainability imperative.

Make it a conversation with suppliers and stakeholders

You cannot overestimate the viral or ripple effect of a good strategy. Group O employees are often embedded into the operational fabric of our customers. We’ve also seen that it’s a two-way street. Some of the best thinking in zero-waste methodologies came back to us after a project leader participated in a mentoring program with a Group O client—which, in turn, led to refinements in our own strategy.

On that note, we recently became a participant in the United Nations Global Compact, an initiative to promote responsible corporate citizenship and sustainability. It aligns with our purpose|tomorrow strategy. Together, we can leverage this global initiative to further align our shared corporate philosophies and generate more conversations with other stakeholders. Viral indeed!

Murad S. Velani is president and chief operating officer of Group O, a diversified business services provider specializing in marketing service execution, supply chain operations and strategic packaging procurement. Visit