The challenge and reward of workplace sustainability

workplace sustainability: factory

Tesla Model S assembly

We’re all responsible for taking care of the environment. You can find information about going green at home all over the Internet. But we work, too. It’s time to take a look at workplace sustainability.

I’m a lifelong academic. I got my first exposure to the concept of sustainability on a university sustainability committee.

Most Americans, though, work for some kind of business.

The larger the business, the more impact it has on the environment. And therefore the more impact its employees have as they go about their jobs.

Large corporations have environmental records ranging from excellent to deplorable. We hear about them more for spectacular failures than for the much less spectacular successes.

For example, what do you think of when you think BP? Isn’t it the Deepwater Horizon blowout? What do you think of when you think of Unilever? Or Walmart? Does anything environmental come to mind?

Environmentalists tend to view big corporations with suspicion. But what is a corporation? What does it have to do with workplace sustainability?

What is a corporation?

office -- workplace responsibility

Typical busy office

Mitt Romney met with ridicule when he observed that corporations are people. But he’s correct in at least two senses.

First, American law recognizes corporate personhood. So a corporation is legally a person. It doesn’t have all the rights of a real human, but it has many of them. And it has many of the same liabilities, too.

Second and more important for this post, a corporation consists of people. The finger pointing always demonizes upper management, but upper management are people, too.

The bigwigs

The CEO and other top officers of a large corporation have a family to care for, bills to pay, and a varied web of personal relationships. And they each have a mix of strengths, weaknesses, and insecurities like anyone else.

Stockholders come in for a great deal of mindless criticism. But stockholders are people, too. And they’re not just the 1% who clip coupons and get richer from their holdings. They’re anyone with an IRA or pension plan.

Everyone else

So upper management and stockholders are, in fact, people. Let’s not forget that a corporation has employees. The people who do the actual work the corporation exists to do, and the people who support that work.

If a company manufactures a product, people acquire the raw materials. Other people assemble and ship the product. It’s all pointless without someone market and sell it. And someone else has to fix the machinery, keep the IT network running, send out and pay bills, and much more.

Mistakes and failures can affect the lives of people outside the corporation.

As I write this post, the Southeast is reeling from a leak in a gasoline pipeline. And so southeastern states are dealing with high prices, longer than usual lines at the pump, and having to drive to more than one station to find one with gas.

There are bound to be environmental consequences at the site of the leak. In most such cases, hindsight shows that someone should have paid more careful attention. And likely as not, that means both someone working for the pipeline company and someone with regulatory oversight.

By the way, if corporations are people, so are governments and government bureaucracies.

What is workplace sustainability?

construction site workplace sustainability

Construction site

Sustainability in general means practices we continue indefinitely without causing environmental, economic, or social harm. Workplace sustainability simply limits the concept to what happens where we work.

It can include all kinds of conservation efforts, from recycling to encouraging virtual meetings instead of travel.

Not much has been written about it. Most of the available literature is very generic and can apply to almost any workplace. Most of it also assumes that management will take the lead in developing it.

So companies that want to call themselves sustainable need to measure their environmental impact to get a baseline. Then they need to develop efficiencies that will reduce it. That includes getting employees to turn off unneeded lights and otherwise change wasteful habits. It means more than that, too.

Employee involvement and responsibility

According to a report by Bain & Company, it’s important for companies to engage their employees if they want to develop successful sustainability programs. They need to challenge them to consider sustainability at every stage of the business. They need to hold them accountable for sustainable practices.

But the report also notes that many employees don’t think their companies take sustainability seriously enough. These employees want to challenge management and hold them accountable.

I wonder how many leaks, spills, fires, or other environmental catastrophes have been averted because employees pushed management to conduct inspections or tests. Or how many more could have been averted if management had followed employees’ suggestions?

But the power of workplace sustainability isn’t limited to staving off disaster any more than it’s limited to turning off lights and conserving paper. Read, for example, four examples of how companies reduced their water consumption, and in the process saved a lot of money.

Photo credits:
Tesla assembly. Photo by Steve Jurvetson. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons
Office. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons.
Construction site. Pixabay

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