Why you should think about Sustainability like an engineer



If you know anything about engineers, you know we measure everything. Engineers are meticulous, calculated and apply logical thinking to most tasks. Most things we come in contact with and use each day had some kind of engineering behind it. That\’s the mentality I bring to my role as UPS\’s first chief sustainability officer and I believe an engineer\’s approach can be effective in creating a credible sustainability program.

Building a strong sustainability program is akin to constructing a building. The same techniques apply:

1) Determine the primary purpose. In the case of your sustainability program, is it for brand protection? Competitive differentiation? Saving costs? Once you understand your company\’s vision for sustainability, document that vision and get support from the organization.

2) Next, create a blueprint. A blueprint lays out the inner workings of the building -– the electrical, plumbing, structural systems, and all those essential measurements required to construct it. For a sustainability program, this means mapping out a plan to go from vision to action — goals, budgets, governance and necessary staffing details as well as plans for your stakeholders — company partners, third-parties, NGOs, assessors. Remember, this plan could go out for the next five to 10 years to illustrate your company\’s long-term view.

3) Know your data. All construction projects are dependent on certain data. For example, site data, energy data, mechanical data, etc. must be collected first. In a design of a building, data is used to define how the site soil may impact the foundation, how wind loads may impact the steel structure. Similarly, energy data is used to define how a company impacts the environment and is a key ingredient to building a sustainability program.

You cannot begin to manage or mitigate your company\’s climate impact without having a good account of the energy and carbon data that defines and shows how a company impacts the environment.

4) Build it. To build a sustainability program, you need a core team of people that understand your purpose and are willing to use their expertise to help your organize achieve its sustainability goals. From the most senior executives to employees on the front line, you need to embed sustainability into your business — make it relevant to employees.

This could mean conservation programs for those employees closest to a particular resource (think fuel and those folks in brown uniforms) or it could mean educating an entire sales and marketing team about how understanding sustainability translates into more sales. To get the work done, you\’ll need to define a process that establishes structure and accountability across the organization. Steering committees made up of executives and senior management can help map out the sustainability strategy and make decisions on critical issues. Convening working committees can allow for idea sharing between different functions and ensure ongoing collaboration.

Once you\’ve got the building constructed, it\’s time to…

5) Prepare for the inspector. With all the work to implement your program and get the data, it will do no good if no one sees it. The report is where it all comes together — your goals, Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) and performance record. People expect your report to be public — not only easily accessible, but easy to understand.

Translate the data — use charts, graphs, infographics — whatever it takes to put it into context so that your stakeholders reading your report understand its significance. Whether it\’s a customer asking about your carbon footprint or a supplier inquiring about your human rights position, do not underestimate the value in the analysis of your report. From the casual reader stumbling across your report to the 3rd party assessor completing a ranking of companies in your industry, your report must serve many audiences.

Although there are no requirements to do so, I recommend following the GRI (Global Reporting Initiative) format because it is universally accepted. So even if your \”building\” is only half done, stakeholders want to know your progress. We probably go overboard on the footnotes in our sustainability report on statistics, measurements and numbers but they add credibility and diffuse those looking for examples of \”greenwashing\”. Finally…

6) See a return on your investment. At UPS, we found that our numbers, the raw data in our sustainability report, show how our sustainability efforts save us money in time, fuel, and energy. It also shows potential customers how we are helping to improve the planet while increasing efficiency, and as a result, many of our customers want to invest in our products and services to improve their own sustainability profiles. Our sustainability efforts and data transparency also help mitigate risks and even engage and retain our employees.

So in closing, a strong sustainability program requires the building blocks of purpose, design, planning and structural integrity — all the things that engineers get excited about.