Sustainability: A Self Examination

Maybe it’s the yawning days of a fading summer, but for someone who leads a nonprofit in the sustainability business, I recently experienced the question that all executives ask themselves with a slight touch of anxiety: Do we practice what we preach?

The definition of sustainability (largely rooted in the Bruntland Commission’s 1987 report) has been grossly overused, even to the point of greenwashing.  I’m sensitive to overusing it.  But as you will see, there is a balance between sustainable practices and economic growth potential for the business to continue in its sustainability intentions.  If the cost to implement a sustainable business practices outweighs the benefit, executives are unlikely to implement.But TRC happens to already be in the sustainability business. Our mission isn’t complex or even high-tech. We try to find and then recycle mercury-containing thermostats in the contiguous United States. Mercury is a recognized health hazard when it enters the environmental stream. When we discover that last, elusive mercury-containing thermostat, we’re done. And then it’s a case for hearing (or reading) the hurrahs from environmentalists, businesses and, most importantly, for consumers, whom we’ve always wanted to protect.

But we still have a road to go, and unsurprisingly, a strong component of what we do is marketing and communicating. Our message, at least our dab of paint on the environmental landscape, is our contribution on this sustainability issue. Yet, what are we like when we’re not spouting the mercury-thermostat mantra?

The school year will start shortly, and that prompted me to administer to myself a sustainability report card and let you be the judge of the grade we deserve.

First, do you know what you’re doing or supposed to do? Does your market audience know what you do?  The reply, of course, is whether you have a mission statement or in our world a Corporate Vision Statement. I had an advantage in this area. I wrote about this topic as a paper during my MBA days working for a HVAC wholesaler, and it led me to review TRC’s Corporate Vision Statement and translate the concept into a Sustainability Policy.  You can find it here.

Second, I try to set an example of sustainability by bicycling to work. OK, it’s a small thing, but it’s worth the effort, I don’t contribute to carbon emissions and I get to brag about my environmentally friendly approach as I rush to my desk each morning while adding to my fitness index.

Third, Danielle Myers, operations and compliance manager, has a degree in sustainability. Danielle is not only a stellar employee, when I mention that she “gets it,” that translates into not treating her as though she’s in sustainability kindergarten. She’s a professional in the sense that she understands the larger picture related to sustainability and how our day-to-day duties fit into the TRC puzzle. Hiring her wasn’t an accident. It was, frankly, one of the qualities (or background) that inspired me to bring her aboard.  Lest I forgot, Danielle was the lead author of TRC’s Sustainability policy which I mentioned prior.

Fourth, even our business practices are sustainable. I confess that my MBA training (again) comes in handy. We have a lean staff, razor-thin expenses and never accept a vendor without negotiating for a better (lower) price. But what do these business practices really mean? It means that by staying afloat economically, we can continue to pursue our goal of recovering more mercury containing thermostats. If we went belly up and someone didn’t replace us, some of those remaining nasty thermostats could enter the environmental stream.

Fifth, we are told endlessly that many millennials look to the greater good when looking for a job. It’s an idealistic view and, indeed, an admirable sentiment. TRC gives money locally with our higher-ideal efforts that includes the Inter Faith Housing Alliance and the Ft. Washington (where we are located) Business Alliance.  We’ve also partnered with local collection days and paid for carbon off-set credits for the vehicles dropping off their mercury thermostats, a double environmental whammy.  We try to do good by virtue of our existence but also try to contribute to the common good.

Sixth, our day-to-day is all about sustainability. Our 30 partner manufacturers pay for cradle-to-the-grave management of the end-of-life products. This places us squarely in front of the altar of the extended producer responsibility movement. This dovetails nicely with our sustainability mandate. There is always a degree of tension between those involved in the sustainability process. I hope that TRC and our successes help to ease some of that tension.

Seventh, we (almost) never let you forget what we do with an obvious “ploy” that many ignore. We include the catchphrase TRC is committed to sustainability on every single email that we send, every time. It’s succinctly captures and describes our signature. You should consider doing the same and add it to your report card.

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