What does it mean when business takes the lead?

What does it mean when business takes the lead?

Last year, at a recycling conference, I heard Nestlé Purina’s Environmental Manager walk through the detailed steps he’s taken to reach ‘zero-waste to landfill’ by 2020.

It. Was. Mind-boggling.

He’s reviewed every single process, step and action in their factories and offices to identify when, where and how waste happens.

Wherever possible, they altered those processes to reduce or eliminate waste.

When that wasn’t possible, they found vendors who knew how to sustainably convert the waste into other materials.

The ultimate goal = nothing ends up in the landfill. NOTHING.

An aspect I found fascinating was that the review process included which restaurants the company uses for catering and where staff get take-out and lunch deliveries from [1].

They met with all the catering and delivery/take-out businesses to negotiate agreements where they would shift to sustainable products (containers, bags, utensils, etc.)

And if they couldn’t do so, then they wouldn’t be getting business from the thousands of Nestlé Purina staff anymore.

This may seem “big brother”-y, but Nestlé Purina couldn’t guarantee zero-waste if staff were regularly bringing in materials that didn’t meet their reduce, reuse, recycle standards.

Approved catering and take-out lists were distributed to staff, reusable and compostable dining items were provided and more specific waste management bins were added.

If a staff member was ever unsure about what goes where, then they could call upon the “zero waste coach” in their department for help. (I love this idea!)

Purina is not the only Nestlé brand doing this. All 23 of Nestlé’s USA-based factories have been zero-waste since 2015. They’re now completing this step for office buildings (80% already zero-waste) and tackling bigger goals of net zero emissions and 100% renewable electricity.

And they are only one example of the growing number of businesses joining the zero-waste/landfill-free movement.

[1] If you haven’t noticed yet, anything involving food will likely be fascinating to me 😉

Why businesses are making these moves

Let’s be clear on WHY corporations are making these bold moves.

Certainly, underlying all this is an increased urgency to protect our natural resources which prompts some CEOs to initiate big changes.

But that’s not the biggest motivator behind the time, effort and hefty investment it takes to make these changes.

Rather, they’re doing it because it’s a business imperative for recruiting and retaining top young talent and to avoid losing customers adopting more conscious consumerism.

In fact, a growing number of people EXPECT their companies and CEOs to take the lead on making these big changes. (Access the full 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer report here.)

From the 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer report, pg. 27

While these are self-serving aims, it doesn’t prevent their efforts from being converted into social proof that catalyzes a movement across sectors to do more than the standard sustainability initiatives.

I also believe it will further enable citizens to demand climate and sustainability solutions among more businesses and governments as well.

Personally, I find this to be an exciting time of change.

I initially left the corporate sector because the work we were doing didn’t align with my personal values and now, finally, the business sector is throwing their weight behind planet Earth.

Are NGOs doing this?

As environmentalists, it can be natural to vilify the corporate sector and consider them the “bad guys”.

Yet, I’ve not encountered a single nonprofit organization or government agency who can say they’ve done what these businesses have (please let me know if you know of any – I’d love to learn about them).

And I want to push us on this. Look around the office. Is it zero-waste? Is it low impact? Is it zero net emissions? Has it moved beyond the basics of separating paper recycling from all other trash?

If not, then why not?

As leaders in environmental, natural resources, sustainability and conservation movements – why do our own footprints not reflect our values?

I know this is an area where our organizations often feel helpless. We’re at the mercy of the building’s manager or landlord. We don’t have the funds. The infrastructure doesn’t exist.

But there are opportunities to do more.

Let’s start with the catering and lunch protocols. Let’s figure out small-scale office composting. These things don’t have to cost much money beyond staff time, which may be worth it to walk more of the walk.

Why NGOs should do more of this

NGOs are not exempt from the same consumer trends putting pressure on businesses. It impacts you, too.

In fact, people globally trust business just as much as they trust NGOs.

NGO and Business sectors have equal trust ratings. 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer report, pg. 9.

That’s right. People do not trust NGOs more than they trust businesses.

And this isn’t new. The trust ratings for business and NGOs have been this close for the last four Edelman reports (since 2017).

So, all the pressure these businesses are feeling from employees and consumers to be better are ones that NGOs are likely feeling, too (or will be very soon).

People looking for jobs, for organizations to support, for missions to get behind will be weighing these things.

They’ll be looking at who is taking a stand, leading the movement and making a difference.

And there’s no free pass for those in the do-good sector.

The conservation and environmental field needs to recruit and retain top talent, engage more conscious and purpose-driven audience members, and secure investments in mission-critical work.

But can we do that if our environmental footprint is actually larger than a corporation’s?