A career in sustainability doesn’t always have to start with sustainability.
By Derek Eisel, Director of Sales, Scope5
I meet a lot of people who are trying to create sustainability jobs for themselves in their organizations. Often their questions relate to overcoming tough bosses, dotted lines and lack of context - all conflicts and roadblocks that I encountered in my career as well.
Hopeful that these will offer aspirants some concrete tips, here’s how I created the sustainability job of my dreams at a Fortune 500 company.
1. Speak Your Truth
Six years ago I was an IT Manager with an existential crisis, making decent money at a global logistics company, but burning fossil fuels to ship plastic crap all over the world. At least that’s what I thought the company did.
We also helped companies ship relief supplies to areas in crisis, provided good jobs in local communities all over the world, and had a shockingly low footprint compared to our competitors. What I was missing was the complete context, because my company wasn’t talking about, or tracking their environmental footprint.
Luckily for me, I was the one asking the questions. I was the one that the VP called into his office when a prominent customer asked him what we were doing to reduce our environmental footprint. He didn’t have an answer.
2. Find An Executive Champion
I was passionate, but unknown.
The VP had been at the company for over 20 years, had the eyes and ears of a global organization and the trust of the board. He had the voice that would be heard. More importantly, he was also in a position to create a formal role for me a few years later after I’d proven myself and made a clear case for investing in a formal position
3. Leverage Existing Skills As a Bridge To New Ones
The VP had never met me, but he’d heard two things: I’d expressed interest in the environment and I had a track record as a team manager.
This was enough for him to seek my help. He overlooked my lack of experience in logistics – knowing perhaps that these could be learned on the job – and let me run the environmental program on the side in addition to my IT job. Coincidentally, I’ve talked to many sustainability people who find themselves in this side-gig role, until they create the results that help them justify a formal role.
4. Understand the Business Drivers
Until that prominent customer asked what we were doing though, there hadn’t been a compelling enough reason to have a formal environmental management program. Here's what followed: we put together a cross functional team to brainstorm other business drivers such as controlling costs. We found out that while we were spending money on energy and fuel, we were not tracking our environmental footprint and managing that spend accordingly.
That was our raison d'etre. For other companies, there are as many reasons to formalize sustainability programs, but typically a select few, which fit the company’s culture and business model, will provide the motivation to keep that program going.
5. Tell The Story With Data
We were in the business of helping customers move freight more efficiently. So we decided our environmental story would be about efficiency: doing more with less fuel.
We already consolidated freight into fewer containers to save customers money, but we weren’t talking about the corresponding fuel savings and reduced environmental impact. Before we started patting ourselves on the back, however, we needed to track sustainability data to support the story we wanted to tell.
Tracking sustainability data has the added benefit of quantifying your performance as a sustainability person. Data allows you to sidestep potential political quagmires and instead speak in business terms with measurable results. Suddenly, I was managing a portfolio of environmental assets, with carbon and cost numbers instead of hosting tedious meetings to debate biodegradable pen alternatives.
Data allowed me to demonstrate business reasons for a formal sustainability role. It’s hard to argue with sustainability data that validates how many customers were requesting environmental information on sales bids and cost figures showing savings that exceeded my salary.
6. Share The Love
The best advice my boss gave me was that I should aim to work myself out of a job. I was encouraged to empower coworkers around the globe to track sustainability data and launch initiatives in support of our corporate goals, without dictating how the work would be done. Through a series of conference calls we found employees in over 200 locations willing to volunteer their time to be on green teams.
Initially, I used free online surveys to collect energy and fuel data from them and spreadsheets to crunch cost and carbon figures. This allowed us to report to the Carbon Disclosure Project, demonstrating the company’s commitment to transparency and helping us understand our footprint relative to competitors. By the third year of reporting, our CDP score improved by 11 points because we were backing up our story with sustainability data.
7. Heap Praise
After the heady excitement of the first greenhouse gas inventory, I was concerned that I would lose the people who weren’t die-hard green data nerds. So we worked together to write articles, newsletters, and host staff meetings where we celebrated the people who were making a measurable difference. We worked to celebrate the people and share the specific projects that could be replicated in other locations. Soon we went viral internally.
Over time, as the spreadsheets got gnarly and time consuming I was able to justify purchasing Scope5 sustainability software because the software cost less than the time I spent on spreadsheets.
More importantly, the software allowed green teams to see their data immediately instead of waiting months for me to crunch numbers and send them charts, empowering them to make local decisions based on their sustainability data. These initiatives ranged from modest paper metrics to $50,000 in cost savings in one branch from energy reductions.
Within a few years, the VP realized that my side gig needed to become a formal role, and he finally made things official, just in time for me to realize that I wanted to start the whole process over in another company.
That's my transition. What I realized was that doing sustainability work in your current organization is a great way to see if that kind of work really is the stuff your dreams are made of. And a great way to leverage your existing skills and credibility as you build a bridge to a new career.
It doesn’t always have to start with sustainability.
About the Author:
Derek’s Eisel co-founded and led the environment program at Expeditors, a Fortune 500 global logistics company headquartered in Seattle, for five years. He recently left Expeditors to join Scope5, where he is now selling the software he used at Expeditors. Follow him on Twitter @DerekEisel or contact him at derek@Scope5.com.