Business Brains

Corporate sustainability: why settle for compliance? Create competitive differentiation

Posting in Design

The smartest companies will look at green certifications and energy efficiency initiatives as a way to get ahead of their rivals.

Late last year, the U.S. Green Building Council reported that more than 1 billion square feet of commercial building space had been certified under the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (aka LEED) green rating program.

I think that is admirable but just as the energy envelope of any building changes with the weather, we have to remember that the LEED program needs to continue evolving. So, given the flood of email public relations pitches that I receive daily on things like this, it takes something extra to catch my attention. I want to hear more about businesses that are going for or earning the Gold or Platinum level ratings, like FedEx world headquarters in Memphis, which just was rated Gold.

To earn that label, FedEx took measures to install water management and fixtures that reduce indoor water use by 49 percent. Using skylights and evaporative cooling, it saves 42 percent in energy, compared with other buildings of a similar footprint. Since I'm a big believer in natural lighting, I was intrigued to hear that 75 percent of the building's regularly occupied space (whatever THAT means) is sunlight. Even more intriguing: the building supports lots of different uses, including office space, vehicle maintenance facilities and a package-sorting warehouse. So, the LEED considerations had to be flexible.

As I was reading the FedEx materials, though, what stays with me most is the fact that FedEx isn't just going for the lowest common denominator with sustainability efforts such as these. It doesn't look at them as mere compliance efforts, it looks at them as a way to innovate or go beyond its competitive set with a program called EarthSmart Solutions (developed in conjunction with Esty Environmental Partners, which is run by the author of Green to Gold, Dan Esty). Here's what EarthSmart strives for: "The solutions go beyond industry standards while demonstrating tangible benefits to the business." As it specifically pertains to LEED, the company has committed to constructing any new facility to those standards.

Enterprise Rent-A-Car has taken a similar stand when it comes to the construction and retrofitting of rental car locations. The company announced this week that it will spend more than $150 million over the next five years on sustainable construction, according to something it has called the Enterprise Sustainable Construction Protocol. More than 1,000 locations are on the list for this year alone. The protocol was developed in conjunction with companies including Haworth (furniture), Hirshfield's/Omnova (wall coverings), Shaw Industries (floors), Pattison Sign Group and Sign Resource (signage), The Sherwin-Williams Co. (paint), and Osram Sylvania (lighting).

The effort is focused on techniques and the use of materials that will generate up to 35 percent in water and utility savings per location, and it was inspired by the company's milestone achievement: earning the first LEED Silver certification for its rental car facility at the Chicago O'Hare airport. That facility uses about 22 percent less water and 15 percent less energy than comparable sites.

Says Lee Broughton, head of corporate sustainability for Enterprise Holdings:

"While we may sometimes pay a small premium on materials to build and retrofit in this fashion -- up to 2 percent -- we expect significant cost savings in the long run. These guidelines will ensure that sustainability is at the core of our facilities."

In Chicago, for example, the company sourced many of the construction materials locally and regionally in order to reduce the carbon emissions associated with transportation. Other features that make the facility more sustainable than its kin:

  • A green roof that insulates the building and that is covered with native plants
  • Energy-efficient lighting, including all the signage, which contains LEDs
  • A recycling systems for car wash waste water
  • Storm water detention/retention systems

Probably the most important thing that FedEx and Enterprise are doing with these programs is setting in place specific guidelines and procedures for delivering on corporate sustainability expectations -- rather than providing some sort of vague guidance. Any good manager knows that will make a world of difference when it comes to a project's success or failure.

Heather Clancy

Section Editor

Heather Clancy has written for United Press International, ZDNet, Entrepreneur, Fortune Small Business, the International Herald Tribune and the New York Times. She holds a degree from McGill University. She is based in New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure