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Sustainability & Social Responsibility

The Journey Toward Sustainability Awareness


Edwin Piñero and Kari Koch

September/October 2012, eSide Supply Management Vol. 5, No. 5

Incorporating sustainability into the organizational mind-set — from the corner offices through all levels of the supply chain — is a priority for an international provider of water and wastewater services. Here's how they're making it happen.

Fundamentally, sustainability is the practice of balancing environmental, economic and social issues such that society progresses while conserving resources, protecting the environment and ensuring an acceptable quality of life — all in a manner that makes economic sense. Sustainability is an approach that works not only for now, but also for the future.

The important takeaway from this definition of sustainability is that it's a balancing effort. And, the most sustainable option isn't always the greenest, cheapest or most comfortable.

This balancing characteristic is why sustainability has such promise for the future. It incorporates and integrates these pillars in a way that's practical, yet valid for all.

A Core Value

At our organization, Veolia Water North America (VWNA), sustainability is a core value. We're committed not only to being as sustainable as possible ourselves, but also to helping our customers be sustainable.

For that to work, we've learned that everyone at VWNA must be engaged and participatory. Rather than sustainability being a program or the sole responsibility of a single department, sustainability's officers and directors must act more like shepherds, champions and facilitators. In a way, the entire company here is the sustainability department.

This journey began almost three years ago when the organization started raising awareness and practice of sustainability. As an international water and wastewater services provider, it makes sense that our very nature must be to manage and be good stewards of a precious natural resource.

Our first step in raising awareness included adding sustainability-related questions in our companywide employee engagement survey to see where we were. Two of these questions we asked were key:

  1. Is working for a company committed to sustainability important to you?
  2. Do you witness sustainability in your day-to-day activities?

The answer to the first question garnered a resounding yes with more than 95 percent of respondents. So, we ascertained that we were on the right path to ensuring our place as an employer of choice, and that our core values aligned with our workforce's.

The answer to the second question also garnered a positive response, but at a lower percentage than the first, with nearly 80 percent of respondents. We determined that much of our workforce recognized sustainability at work in the company. And, because we were in the process of trying to raise awareness of what sustainability is, and how much of what we were used to doing was indeed sustainability-based, the results were very encouraging.

Yet, the difference in "yes" responses between the two questions also told us that there were still a percentage of employees who prioritized sustainability, but didn't see it in action on a daily basis at work. This told us that they were either a) unclear as to what sustainability was or b) aware of the sustainability concept, but didn't feel what we did day-to-day as a company reflected the ideology.

Fortunately, our sustainability-awareness strategy included elements to address both scenarios.

Green Business: Illustration of four hands holding a green leaved plant.
A Deceptively Simple Strategy

As an organization, we wanted to raise awareness about what sustainability means — and then relate those practices and characteristics that are already part of our organizational culture and are indeed sustainable.

We were also intent on building awareness regarding sustainability in an effort to find ways to apply the concept to other practices and activities that may not yet be as sustainable as we'd like. We wanted to be a place of business where all employees think, If that's what sustainability means, then I should do [X] differently.

The elements of the awareness campaign include:

  • Regular communications with the workforce about sustainability concepts. This includes an intranet site, weekly messages from our CEO and a standing column in the monthly company newsletter.

  • Incentives and rewards. This includes recognition and prizes for conformance at a location with a specific practice.

  • Tracking and sharing sustainable performance through key and relevant metrics. This includes internal reporting.

  • Benchmarking with peer companies. This includes participating in multisector sustainability-focused groups.

  • Formal training. This includes sustainability modules in new employee and manager training.

  • Close collaboration with all departments. This includes regular engagement with the senior management team.

  • Providing tools and resources to facilitate implementation of best practices. This includes sustainable practices checklists and educational materials.

No one was left out of the evolution; we worked with every department, location, process and function.

Clearly, this isn't an overnight process, and definitely not something you can do all at once. So, we started where we can get early wins and the biggest bang for the buck, and we work to spread the culture. Championing and shining a bright light on successes is critical for uptake — and that's a big part of our effort.

Bringing It Back Home

So, how is VWNA's story of interest to supply chain professionals? Because the natural progression for companies committed to promoting companywide awareness of sustainability is that as they get their own houses in order first, they can then begin working throughout their supply chains to make their overall operations as sustainable as possible.

An evolved awareness of sustainability requires the realization that our own organizations' footprints aren't comprised solely by what happens at our own sites, among our own workforces; it also factors in the collective footprint of all the players in our supply chains. To this end, we must lead by example. We must also be able to verbalize our exact expectations of suppliers — so, it's only appropriate that we practice what we preach.

At our own organization, we've found it necessary to commit ourselves to acting as partners for our supply chain on this journey toward total-company prioritization of sustainability. We help out where we can by sharing information about our sustainability expectations, and by commissioning sustainability assessments of interested suppliers. But, we are as realistic as possible in our expectations are trying to raise the bar for expectations accordingly at a logical, practical pace.

Additionally, many supply chain professionals — if they work for organizations committed to ramping up sustainability efforts — will no doubt be called upon more and more to work with their own supply chains to make it happen. In this respect, the more they know about sustainability, the more valuable they'll be to their companies down the road.

Where Are We Now?

So, where are we now at VWNA? We're well on our way to working sustainability into every aspect of what we — and our supply chains — do every day. We're making the connection between the sustainable practices already in place, and our future commitment to the endeavor. From there, we're extending to make more of what we do sustainable by identifying new opportunities for ourselves and for our customers and supply chains.

It's exciting to see how our company has embraced sustainability with passion and enthusiasm. And, we look forward to helping our supply chains, customers and stakeholders along their own sustainability journeys.

Photo of Edwin Piñero Photo of Kari Koch
Edwin Piñero is Veolia Water North America's (VWNA) executive vice president and chief sustainability officer. Kari Koch is an administrative assistant and a member of VWNA Chicago office's Green Team. VWNA is part of Veolia Environnement (NYSE: VE).

To contact these authors, please send an email to

For more sustainability resources, visit the ISM database.

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