Sweeping the Warehouse

Cultivating Sustainability Among the Cobwebs

In the natural world, diversity is not about fairness or public relations. Diversity equates to resilience and is necessary for systems to flourish.

In 1845, a form of water mold called “late blight” swept through the potato fields of Ireland. Due to unjust land distribution, one-third of the country’s population was dependent upon the potato — in particular a single variety, the Irish Lumper — for food calories.

The blight wiped out half the crop in 1845 and nearly three-quarters of the crop for seven years after. The starvation that followed left one million Irish men and women dead and forced the same number to abandon their homeland as refugees.

In contrast, the highlands of Peru, the birthplace of the potato, boast over 4,000 unique varieties of the plant. When a pathogen attacks one variety, a veritable sea of genetic diversity offers resistance and protection.

This approach is no accident. It is the result of generations of careful cultivation. For thousands of years, wise stewards have combed through their terraced hills looking for unique specimens whose qualities they might preserve and protect.

Dustin Holland, Vice President of Global Sales and Marketing at Better World Books (BWB), uses a different approach to explain the role of diversity in the BWB’s Sustainability Council. He believes that having people from all parts of the company involved in the work of the Council contributes to a deeper understanding of sustainability issues.

“We embrace individuality across the company, and let our teams shine,” Holland shares. The voices of those from the operations and logistics departments are crucial and have proved to be valuable in supporting the company to analyze their processes to decrease energy and resource use. Holland sums the council’s goal up nicely: “We are committed to ensuring that we collectively work together in a coordinated fashion to make the biggest impact for our stakeholders (including the planet!) with the resources available to us.”

The heterogeneous nature of sustainability leads Sustainability Team members to engage in unexpected areas of the business. Like the wise stewards of those terraced hills, they are the fingers combing through the dirt, or perhaps cobwebs, looking for areas of improvement — a new idea, process, or person who might improve the health of the company.

Of course, this is only successful if Sustainability Team members have a clear understanding of their role. As Michael Lamach, CEO of Ingersoll Rand explains,

“The best opportunities for improving the environmental impact of an organization come from the people who are closest to the day-to-day mechanics, and shortcomings, of existing procedures. They are often the first to recognize and raise up areas of improvement, and it’s important that leadership is ready to listen.
Too often, however, the employees who are best positioned to influence change do not understand how they can contribute or may not view sustainability as a business imperative.”

This type of diversity is the ultimate form of defense against change and uncertainty, but before it can be relied upon, it must be cultivated. In the business world, this means that the work of sustainability must impact all aspects of your business — cobwebby corners included. It also means engaging team members from different ranks, backgrounds, and departments in that work.

Metaphorical monocropping is not just an uninteresting way to do business — it’s dangerous. So gather your team and grab your broomsticks. It’s time to sweep out some security from those forgotten corners.

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