Mid 2018 I started my journey at COMATCH, a leading online marketplace for independent strategy consultants and industry experts in Europe, which is headquartered in Berlin. After the onboarding phase I soon recognized that there was room for improvement with regards to environmental responsibilities and this post, which covers only a small part of my experience at this ambitious scaleup, is about the steps that have been taken to make the company more environmentally conscious. It gives you an impression how ideas materialized, what projects were and will be implemented, and finally some personal takeouts.
What you often hear in a business environment are terms like sustainability, corporate social sustainability (CSR), triple bottom line (TBL) or corporate sustainability. If you aren’t familiar with the different terms, you can find at the end of this post a brief explanation about these commonly used concepts.
After a few weeks on the job and shaping my ideas to gather a small team that advances sustainability efforts, I took the opportunity to pitch this to the management. Luckily it got accepted and a few weeks later, at the annual summer party, I had a chat with my colleague Julia about her international work experience at the Asian Development Bank, and we soon discovered that we both share a common interest in doing something good for society. We decided to work together on this new project and that was the actual start of the Green Initiative.
“So what does the Green Initiative actually stands and aims for?”
Our approach was (and still is) based on the principle of implementing small changes with big impact. The topics we work on are diverse, like for example office guidelines, Google+ communication, waste separation, organizing “Green talks”, changing energy supplier and so forth. Also strategic projects such as reducing and offsetting CO2 emissions as well as corporate volunteering days are part of the mix.
Some project examples I’d like to share.
Office waste separation (part one)
The first kickstarter was to tackle the separation of our office waste. By the way, do not underestimate the amount of rubbish a startup produces (it is similar to an established organization : /) Efficiency gains can always be made in startups as well as (young) SMEs, it’s just about getting the priorities right. So to minimize costs and to implement the idea of office waste separation swiftly, we decided to work with existing inventory like the bins itself combined with some creativity. The result was that four old 60L-bins were ‘upgraded’ with colorful manually drawn labels, so that every colleague was able to see what type of packaging and garbage goes where. Circulating a newsletters to announce our first and tiny step completed phase one.
In November 2018, our committed colleague Roberta joined forces because of her interest and previous project experience at Berliner Obdachlosenhilfe e.V. (Berlin homeless support) Having a committed three-man team allowed us to divide the workload (keep in mind that the initiative was and is a side-project) and to tackle other challenges simultaneously.
Office waste separation (part two)
Back at the time, the next major thing was the move of our company to a bigger office in Berlin Moabit (north of Tiergarten park) so our team took this opportunity to tackle the waste and recycling project more thoroughly and came up with a proper recycling management strategy for the new workspace. Based on office floor plans, we were able to make a classification of the different workstations, public spaces and meeting rooms in order to calculate how many and what kinds of bins were needed. For example; in the two kitchen- and community areas, we planned bins for paper, packaging and general waste plus a collection point for glass. We used different bins for various workstations and meeting rooms (paper, packaging and general waste).
To conclude the project, we asked the graphic designer to create different (biodegradable) labels for the bins and the result was very nice—four colorful designs that displayed what goes where. This is especially useful when you have a company with
20+ nationalities. The final step was communication with colleagues via the newsletter and PR announcements. Looking back, the overall waste separation process was a good experience in which planning, teamwork, and communication all came together.
Since my start at the company until Q3 2019 spendings on paper hand towels for both ladies and men’s toilets were (with 100+ people) several hundred Euros per month, resulting in substantial annual costs and not to speak of the unnecessary use of resources. For the team the solution was quite straightforward; switching to automatic hand dryers to reduce costs and paper consumption.
With this efficiency boost, we also significantly reduced CO2 emissions by as much as 2⁄3. But yes, there are certain disadvantages when it comes to using automatic hand dryers, but that is true in many cases in the context of environmental decision making.
To kickstart the project, we provided insight into the monthly and total expenses on paper towels. The investment for buying automatic hand dryers have been drawn up on the basis of proposals received from suppliers.
As a next step, we presented the business case to our management and the outcome was that we decided to go for a pilot with one hand dryer in order to determine the viewpoint of coworkers with regards to the solution. By the way, experience shows that it’s considered a plus to involve / inform colleagues of the course of events continuously as it ensures you build capacity and understanding.
After two months of intensive ‘testing’, we distributed a survey to all colleagues, asking how they feel about replacing paper hand towels with hand dryers, and the result was overwhelming; >80% of the respondents (with >60% participation) supported the idea.
Momentum and proof of concept were in our favor to take on the next phase; the order confirmation for three additional devices plus the associated savings on resource consumption and CO2 emissions.
CO2 emissions (currently in process)
Mid 2019 the management indicated that, in addition to resource reduction within the office space, the company must also reduce its CO2-footprint being released by indirect emissions. As a services company, COMATCH uses few resources compared to manufacturing companies but because it operates on an international scale, people regularly travel by plane both inside and outside of Germany.
The following stages are considered to start this project;
- Understanding the complexity of CO2 emissions, the possibilities for reducing our footprint and compensating surplus emissions. This also includes carbon offsetting.
Carbon offsetting is a way to reduce the emissions that you can’t. It both helps to combat global climate change, like environmental restoration projects (for example planting trees) as well as caring for let’s say local communities. In my next post I will discuss carbon offsetting in more detail.
- Draw up a project plan with various options to reduce as well as compensate emissions, expected costs, and the expected long term added value for the company and its stakeholders (CO-emission reduction and offsetting as part of overall CSR policies), presented in a full-fledged business case.
CSR shouldn’t be considered a costly activity. While implementing CSR policies may have cost implications, in order to be sustainable there should be a clear return on investment (ROI) identified before the policies are put in place. Returns can be defined as e.g. promoting your business to existing and new audiences, clients and so forth. Establishing your company’s point of view and values, which is interesting in terms of employer branding activities. I also wrote an article with an overview of the ROI of CSR.
- Internal communication and guidelines for colleagues.
- External communication, stakeholder engagement as well as the business proposition we offer.
We are currently at stage one—getting a good understanding of the implications of carbon dioxide, speaking to CO2 service providers and so forth. And as you’ve been able to read in the introduction, there are several other topics on the to do list. some are complex or take a long time to materialize, whereas other challenges are easy to implement and focus more on communication / awareness aspects.
Triple bottom line (TBL)
Shifting my focus on the TBL is so far a fascinating journey in terms of my development of understanding as part of environmental decision making and practical implementation. The work our team is doing is all about efficiency—how to deal with our (natural) resources in a well-balanced way as well as taking (full) responsibility for what we do both professionally and personally.
Based on my experience this aspiring scaleup and my previous project work in the field of sustainability, I created a list of take outs in case you pursue a similar initiative for your own organization.
- Get your ideas on paper (think big, start small)
- Pitch your idea to the decision maker(s)
- Find an internal project sponsor and start with “low-hanging fruit“
- Communicate (and celebrate) your WINS
- Involve colleagues by organizing round table discussion, short surveys, events etc.
- Grow your team with committed colleagues
- Let CSR resonate on every level of the company and ideally get it imbedded in the company values
Please note that this list is created for a medium sized service provider. Manufacturing companies might have complexer processes with regards to product development, materials, procurement and so forth, which adds additional complexity in case of CSR policy development.
What’s next (for you)
Your initiative probably starts as a nonstrategic side-project, which is fine. Get to a point where there’s enough momentum (some ROI, capacity and understanding among colleagues), which helps you to evolve the initiative. Think big and aim to setup a dedicated team / department that creates long-term value for the company and its stakeholders—it’s worth the experience.
Feel free to drop me a line in case of any questions, ideas and comments.
Sustainability / CSR / triple bottom line / corporate sustainability
In general, the idea of sustainability is to balance goals and needs of the current generation with potential goals and needs of all future generations. It‘s applicable on both a personal as well as professional level.
Just like ‘sustainability’, CSR is a broad concept that companies describe themselves, so that it means what they want it to mean—it’s largely about the responsibility it takes for the consequences of its activities with regard to society and the environment (by acting ethically and transparently). In practice it overlaps with corporate sustainability. However, corporate sustainability can also be interpreted that a company is capable of maintaining itself in a financial way without being directly responsible for the other elements. So, whenever you hear that a business is committed to one of the three terms (or any other synonym) try to figure out to what extent and it’ll help you manage expectations.
Regardless of the term that is given to it, I believe it is important to mention that every organization bears responsibility with regard to the so-called three P’s of sustainability: People – Planet – Prosperity or the triple bottom line (TBL). These three elements (people ≈ social, planet ≈ environmental, prosperity ≈ financial), should be harmoniously combined.
The idea is that if the combination is not harmonious, the other elements will suffer. For example, if profit is given too much priority, people and the environment will suffer, for example due to poor working conditions or the destruction of nature. Conversely, this idea also sees the financial characteristic as an essential part of development that should not be neglected. Because of the importance of a well-balanced (holistic) approach, our initiative focuses on CSR.