This blog is cross-posted on GreenBiz.com.
As a summer MBA intern in the Walmart Sustainability Department, I had an amazing and rare opportunity. I was able to put into practice the sustainability rhetoric that’s repeated every day in my classes and green news sources but rarely really applied in practice.
I spent the summer working on Walmart’s renewable energy strategy, and yes, I picked up a lot of details about solar and wind technology, about power purchase agreements and about efficient energy use. But in the end, the most valuable lessons I learned were the ones I already knew. Like a greeting card saying that suddenly becomes more profound when you really do “dance like no one is watching,” the sayings I’d begun to skim over in my own sustainability reading became fresh and powerful again as I put them into action.
So here I am, repeating four sustainability lessons you may have heard before, with the hope that I can inspire you to make them your own through action.
First, making the business case for sustainability IS important. It’s been written about countless times — on this website among many other places. This summer, I had the chance to actually make it by talking about the business reasons for renewable energy every single day. I learned that there isn’t “a” magical business case. Every conversation and interaction has to be built not only around the person you are speaking with, but also around what you know is foremost on their mind. “You know, it’s just like what you were saying at that meeting yesterday…”
[MBA Takeaway: Communicate. Communicate. Communicate. Forget explaining why sustainability is necessary, and explain why it is necessary for them. PowerPoint is the shorthand of corporate America — so take that Management Presentations class.]
Second, integrating sustainability into business practice IS the way of the future. But what does this mean? Unfortunately, it depends. For example, incorporating sustainability achievement into employee performance metrics may be especially important for functions in which the environmental impact doesn’t necessarily show up on the bottom line. Think of a buyer who sources the same product, produced in a more sustainable way, with no extra cost. On the other hand, for sustainability projects with a quick payoff like energy efficiency, integration may take the form of finding the appropriate home for the capital expenditure.
[MBA Takeaway: Noble ideas (e.g. “accountability,” “double-bottom line”) manifest in seemingly small, concrete process changes. Imagine the day-to-day architecture for implementing concepts. Consider adding Positive Organizational Scholarship and Change Management to your class list, and experiment by enhancing structures of school clubs.]
Third, there is only one sustainability maxim that might rival the need for the “business case”: Set clear goals. The biggest reason sustainability is not integrated into business is because it’s new and unfamiliar. It demands flexibility and hinges on creativity.
Opportunities are passed over not because they don’t make sense, but rather because they are not recognized. The simple act of attention has ripple affects across the organization. A couple of examples: Someone in maintenance discovered a cheaper wire that is also chlorine free, saving both money and thousands of pounds of toxic chemicals. Someone in logistics figured out how to repack pork in a manner that saved significantly more gasoline than the usual method. These initiatives didn’t come from the Sustainability office, but I bet they would have been less likely had Walmart not modeled this focus at a corporate level and therefore channeled attention throughout the organization.
[MBA Takeaway: Sustainability comes from any role. Finding an HR sustainability advantage comes from conscious attention. Work cross-functionally to identify opportunities. No matter what function you want to go into, the communication skills and flexible, creative thinking garnered from addressing sustainability challenges will help you. Sustainability achievement = overcoming unique business challenges, and exhibiting the leadership to help others do the same. That doesn’t hurt in any career.]
Fourth, finally, and most importantly, I learned through action because Walmart learns through action. And this, it turns out, is surprisingly rare. Many talk about sustainability. Few avoid being bogged down by the inherent complexity and uncertainty of the issues to start experimenting with solutions. I’m not saying Walmart doesn’t think through its sustainability strategy. On the contrary, it spends significant time and resources developing its plans. However, it also moves forward by doing what it knows how to do well, leveraging core competencies like operational efficiency and logistics expertise to respond quickly to new situations and then alter course as it goes along.
In sum, act. Try something that isn’t PR, that impacts the business and see if it works. If it doesn’t work, try something else. If you’re studying sustainability, find opportunities to practice what you learn in the classroom. This fourth lesson is the one that makes the first three worth repeating.
The power of learning by doing is something I’ve been lucky enough to experience many times during my time in the Erb Institute at the University of Michigan. Each time, I am no less thrilled when theories, challenged or confirmed, take on weight and become manifest in my own life. Without action, this article is reduced to a rehash of what has been said by many more knowledgeable than I. What I can add is my own assurance, my personal testimony of action transforming learning to understanding.
[MBA Takeaway: Make “the case,” but make it uniquely. Integrate with fundamental structures and processes. Build on core strengths, and most importantly: Act. After all, you probably already knew everything I just told you. Make my words your own by experiencing them yourselves.]
Photo of book and nature provided by Lukiyanova Natalia / frenta via Shutterstock.