Walking The Sustainable Walk With Kevin Wilhelm (Sustainable Business Consulting)

Kevin Wilhelm spends his days being incredibly convincing on all things sustainable and profitable—whether he’s consulting companies on their journey towards a greener corporate existence or speaking with us. Kevin kindly offered us a peek into his world of building profitable and socially/environmentally responsible businesses, reminding us that people are as important part of the process as clean energy and a low carbon footprint.

GG: What are some of the ways to save costs, create profits and green your business at the same time?
A big thing is waste and reducing your carbon footprint. Obviously one way of doing that is through reducing air travel and a lot of firms, because of the economic climate, ended up not traveling at all this year or traveling significantly less. Instead they’re doing things like using video conferencing. But those are both more cost saving methods—which we see more often than looking for profit centers at this time.

GG: Would you consider cost the biggest stumbling block to adopting sustainable practices or are there other challenges companies face.
It’s certainly one of them. There are two to three more that also present big challenges. One, they don’t necessarily see how sustainability ties into their company in general. And they first need to have that general understanding and then they’re open to more of the business case stuff. But the two other key factors are management support—knowing that you have support from your leadership to pursue sustainable options and investments to save them money is important—and then the second thing is employee engagement and understanding. Within most firms all their people are goodnatured, but they may not know what the impact of their day-to-day decisions is. So even if the business case is successfully made to management, people involved in daily operations need to know about all the opportunities that are out there in order to make a more sustainable, greener purchase or decision.

GG: How do you navigate around those challenges?
The most important thing is to show examples of how initiatives have worked internally within a company already. If, for example, you’re a utility and you’ve decided to start buying recycled utility parts instead of going out and purchasing new ones. And you find out that they’re more sustainable, they have a lower carbon footprint and they save you a half a million dollars, but you then you have to start communicating with people and getting them to think about what they could do in their own jobs and where the business case is.

Most companies have examples of where they’ve used waste reduction, reuse of product, or where energy efficiency has saved them money, but the message hasn’t been communicated broadly enough within the company— as well as to the upper management. The leadership isn’t hearing that these things have been done, that they save money and they’re green—they just get lost in the day-to-day. The best way to navigate that is to share the success stories you already have and then go after the potential ones that are low-hanging. If you can do that, generally you have some room to gain momentum.

GG: You wrote on your blog that Copenhagen shouldn’t be considered the “end all, be all.” Can you elaborate on what you meant by that statement?
Copenhagen certainly didn’t turn out to be what a lot of us in the sustainability community hoped it would be. And there was a lot of frustration and disappointment around that. However, this is an ongoing process. There are those feeling totally disappointed and bummed out by what happened and then there are some who are celebrating the fact that we at least got some commitments from the United States and others to get going on this stuff. And even though much of it’s not binding, we’ve at least got a framework to discuss it. There are going to be follow up meetings in Bonn, Germany and Mexico City, Mexico—there’s still time and opportunity to create a bigger agreement. So what I was trying to say is to not go jump off a cliff because Copenhagen wasn’t signed. Yes, it was a big disappointment, but there’s still time to make things happen and hopefully the political world will be there to do that.

GG: What was the most exciting thing that came out of the Copenhagen summit?
The thing that I’m most excited about, and most hopeful about, is that the United States and the EPA are saying they’re going to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. It was also exciting how many companies and corporations were directly involved in lobbying on behalf of climate legislation. In a lot of ways businesses have already started moving—they’re not waiting for the public policy people to take the steps. You have organizations like the Carbon Disclosure Project, which is pushing a lot of companies that wouldn’t be moving otherwise, and may push them faster and harder than if there was legislation and if Copenhagen had been a success.

GG: Do you think the private sector can rally hard enough to create government action?
I think they can, but I don’t think they’ll be able to do it alone. In a lot of ways the markets have been moving for years towards sustainability even with the absence of a global treaty. But there ultimately has to be public policy, even if the push is led by the private sector, in order for the U.S. to send a signal. And putting a price on carbon would certainly accelerate things three to five times faster than they’re moving right now.

GG: So how does your work at Sustainable Business Consulting influence the push towards a sustainable tipping point by the private and public sectors?
Most of our work is done in the private sector. We’re helping companies find ways to increase profitability and enhance their brand value through sustainable business practices. On a day-to-day level that’s rethinking how they do work around their own office, but also what they put into their products and services—and how they’re delivered.

In terms of affecting public policy, most of this is happening through organizations and trade industry groups that we’re a part of—such as the Seattle Chamber of Commerce, which has done a lot of work on climate change and clean energy. We’re also signed on to the Business Leadership Climate Solution, which is a group of 350+ business leaders that are not only advocating for stronger climate legislation, but also trying to create political cover for those elected officials that put their necks out on behalf of sustainability and carbon legislation.

GG: Are there any projects you’re particularly excited about?
Definitely. One project I’m excited about is with a very large foundation based here on the West Coast. We’re helping them doing a carbon footprint and a CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) report and we’re also helping them do something called a Triple Bottom Line report on their lone product. A lot of institutions have been putting out mortgages and car loans and student loans for a long time. That provides an exciting and cutting-edge opportunity for us to help them discover and track the impact of these loans, as well as then helping them develop products around them, such as lower rate loans for hybrid vehicles and clean cars, or home audits towards mortgages, so that people can get a better interest rate for choosing a greener product or investment for their home/life.

GG: How do you “walk the walk” at Sustainable Business Consulting? What are some things that other businesses can use as example for getting serious about being green?
One of the main things about sustainability is the people part. Everybody’s talking about the environmental part and printing double-sided and using VOC-free paints and non-toxic cleaners, but one of the things we value the most here is life-work balance—which is different than work-life balance. We really work hard with our employees to find that balance. We encourage them to take vacations, we have a shorter or more condensed work week, we offer them generous health and wellness packages so they can bring their best to the position and make sure that their lives are sustainable—which is very different than most companies.

The second thing is that believe strongly in transparency. I think this is one of the biggest and most exciting differentiators about us. When the financial crisis hit, the tendency of many CEOs or CFOs was to grab the books and hold them tight, and the make the decisions as they made them, but not involve the employees so much. We went the completely opposite direction and opened our books entirely to our employees. We created 100 percent financial transparency so that they could see how the money was being spent as well as define and help the organization find innovative and cost saving ways that we can continue to do business. That’s did help us find cost saving and also improved employee morale, especially at a time when you’re reading and hearing everyday about job losses and people not hiring and cutting back.

GG: Is there anything else you’d like to leave our readers with?
The one thing I always like to leave people with is that it’s a journey. People who haven’t gotten started, need to get started. It’s easier than you think. And if you have gotten started, there is always more you can do. There are always new innovative and cost-saving ways you can do that. I think it’s important the people not rest on their laurels right now. It’s time to lead and show employees and customers that sustainability does make sense from a bottom line perspective.

Kevin Wilhelm is the CEO of Sustainable Business Consulting, a Seattle based consulting firm focused on practical solutions that deliver profit improvement through the use of sustainable business and climate reduction practices. Kevin is also a speaker at the GoGreen Conference 2010 in Seattle, Washington.

GoGreen 2010 Seattle is a full-day sustainability conference geared towards businesses seeking actionable steps to greening their operations. The conference takes place April 21, 2010 at the Olive8 at the Hyatt (LEED certified Silver). Early Bird tickets are on-sale now through April 1, 2010. Tickets are $175 each for single Early Bird Full Day Admission and $150 Early Bird Full Day Admission for Groups of 2 or more. More information can be found at: http://www.seattle.gogreenconference.net/registration/

For more information about Kevin Maas and Sustainable Business Consulting, please visit: http://www.sustainablebizconsulting.com

Join the GoGreen Conference on Twitter:@gogreenconf. We’re also on Facebook!

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