Going Green - New bottom line about people, profits, planet
Gresham Smith starts to "walk the talk" with its sustainability initiatives
By Jenny Burns, Staff Writer, Nashville Business Journal
Employees at Gresham Smith & Partners started drinking from reusable plastic bottles after a client snubbed their use of styrofoam cups a couple years ago.
CEO James Bearden says the incident helped the large architecture firm "walk the talk" about sustainability.
Being sustainable and green is no longer just en vogue. It's business, and customers, investors and employees are driving the effort toward making company executives pay attention.
Gresham Smith now looks at the "triple bottom line," a buzz word among businesses these days that means they go beyond the balance sheet and consider their people, profits and planet when making business decisions. Companies like Gresham Smith say being green can mean saving money, having less impact on the planet and keeping good people — all good for the bottom line.
Experts say many factors are driving the shift: a growing segment of the investment community that only invests in socially responsible companies, employees who want to work at company that matches their sustainable values and consumers who demand that the companies they do business with be in line with their environmental values.
Companies are taking their business model of maximizing profits beyond financials and looking at environmental and social impacts too.
"Before it was just 'do you recycle?' It was very minimal," says Jeff Gowdy, a sustainability consultant in Nashville who has worked with Bridgestone and other companies to implement the triple bottom line. "Now it's a whole new ball game. Once companies start talking the talk of sustainability, people have higher expectations of you. So, if you have a bunch of throw away waste at an event, it doesn't reflect on your message."
While the recession that has left some companies just clawing to survive will put green initiatives on the back burner for some, others like Wal-Mart say that going green means saving money.
Nationally, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. has led the way with its suppliers, requiring reduced packaging and new standards for shipping goods, while hiring a sustainability director to oversee it all.
Back at Gresham Smith, the 709-employee firm — which employs about 367 at its Nashville headquarters — hired a sustainability director in February and started greening its processes.
The award-winning design firm has long been helping clients design green buildings and develop sustainable places, but has only recently taken a look inward to make green a day-to-day routine.
Gresham's Bearden says when he draws out a diagram to illustrate the triple bottom line, he thinks of the "sweet spot" as the place where the people, profits and planet intersect. What's in the overlap is worth doing, he says, and what's not is dropped.
Jane Ahrens, Gresham's new sustainability director, has worked at the firm for more than two years, previously as a project architect in the aviation division. The hope at the firm is that her position won't be needed one day because being sustainable will become part of the corporate culture.
But for now, Ahrens is focusing on three areas. The first is "greening" the practice, which means making sure architects always use green materials in designs unless clients dictate otherwise.
The second is greening the pursuits, which means truly understanding clients' needs to help them be green. And third, greening Gresham Smith, which includes everything from reducing the firm's contributions to landfills, to cutting travel and drinking out of those reusable water bottles.
The obvious sustainability steps had already been taken: They've changed the light bulbs to CFLs, they're recycling and the computers are being turned off at the end of the day. For the not-so-obvious, the firm has purchased a video conferencing system for all its offices so employees and clients can meet without the cost and environmental impact of travel.
"If you show up to a job site in an SUV and you say you know about sustainability, that's a little bit of a contradiction, "Ahrens says.
So far this year, Bearden has had 16 days that he would have been in an airplane or car that he's now sitting in front of the video camera. He estimates the travel costs alone — not including the cost of employees' time — will pay for the more than $250,000 cost of the video conferencing system in nine months.
The company also considers sustainability when deciding where to locate its 17 offices throughout the country. Downtown environments are preferred. They allow staffers to walk to lunch and don't typically involve parking lots or green areas that are wasting water with sprinklers, Ahrens says.
The green connotation has a political side to many, but Ahren says, at Gresham, politics are removed from the discussion. As an architecture firm, land must be available for people to build something on — it's a vital natural resource, she says.
"We have got what we've got, and we've got to do our best with it," she says.
The company has set up three-month, six-month and annual goals to meet to measure its sustainability initiatives.
"I get about 30 e-mails a day (from employees) who have an idea (about how to be more green)," Ahrens says.
Since she can't act on all the suggestions, she says she has to carefully balance enthusiasm for the goal with what's profitable and practical. To guide those decisions, Gresham Smith is creating its own environmental management system, identical to what cities are writing for their own green guidelines. In fact, Gresham Smith played a part in helping Nashville Metro Government conduct its greenhouse gas inventory this year.
At a recent seminar in Nashville, Jay Steere, The Timberland Co.'s global senior director of outdoor specialty, told companies that sustainability is linked to profitability. Steere cited an 11-year Harvard University study that found "stakeholder-balanced" companies showed four times the growth rate and eight times the employment growth when compared to companies that are shareholder focused.
A sustainable-focused company helps keep employees, he says. Annual employee surveys at Timberland consistently show that its sustainable platform is one of the top reasons employees choose to work at the company.
Timberland's goal is to be carbon neutral by 2010. He says Timberland has saved thousands of dollars by light retrofits and building green stores as well as reducing waste.
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