As consumers and new legislation alike support sustainable practices in greater numbers, now is the time for union leaders to think critically about the sustainability impact on business. Companies are going green by reducing energy and water consumption, lowering emissions and reusing waste, and they're weaving those sustainable behaviors into company operations.
For unions, it's an important development to watch. Understanding the sustainability impact on business prepares members — and the union as a whole — to succeed in a more sustainable world.
The Advantages of a More Sustainable Workplace
Sustainability supports a healthy environment, but it also has very specific, direct effects on unions. Union leaders can look forward to these benefits of supporting sustainable business practices.
- Saving money. A report on the 100 most sustainable companies in the United States published earlier this year found that companies on the list showed impressive share growth, a strong indicator that sustainability is good for the bottom line. A more sustainable work environment can improve operational efficiency and resource management, ultimately reducing costs and boosting productivity. Walmart, for example, improved fuel efficiency for its fleet by 87% over a nine-year period and saved nearly $11 million. Apple has committed to using green energy to run its manufacturing plants, and Ikea uses ocean-bound plastics to create products. For smaller operations, energy conservation strategies can be as simple as turning off lights when they're not needed, insulating walls and trading incandescent bulbs for LED lights.
- Building loyalty. Union members and customers who see that their board is committed to sustainable practices may be more likely to feel goodwill toward the union. A recent sustainable workplace survey showed that employees were happier, healthier and more productive while working in a LEED-certified building. Happy members and customers become brand ambassadors, spreading the word about your efforts to reduce and reuse and generally respect the environment.
- Driving innovation. The need for sustainability can also spark innovation. Companies may find that redesigning products or processes to make them more sustainable opens up new opportunities. Nike's Flyknit line, for example, reduces waste by 60% compared to its regular cut and sews footwear using a specialized yarn system. Flyknit has reduced nearly 3.5 million pounds of waste and helped divert 182 million bottles from landfills since it launched in 2012.
Sustainability in Textiles, Manufacturing and Transportation
For unions, textiles, manufacturing and transportation are three of the areas most affected by sustainability, since they offer the most opportunities for enhancing sustainable practices.
Textiles. In the textiles industry, there's a movement toward natural, more sustainable materials with a lower environmental impact. These fabrics favor hemp, bamboo and soy over synthetic, petroleum-based fibers like spandex and polyester. Crafting these natural textiles is also more sustainable. Dyes can create a large amount of waste during textile production, but embracing alternatives such as pigments or low-impact dyes made from natural ingredients reduces the environmental impact.
Manufacturing. Manufacturing companies across industries are increasing operational efficiencies by reducing waste and conserving natural resources. This sustainability toolkit explains how organizations can enhance production processes and products in a way that contributes to green efforts.
- Transportation. Sustainable solutions in the transportation industry typically focus on lowering a company's carbon footprint using strategies such as improving logistics through consolidation and making the distribution of products more efficient. Many are also lowering emissions by reducing miles driven or using more sustainable options like electric vehicles. Also key is reducing waste. For example, driving an empty truck from a destination to a distribution center puts unnecessary wear and tear on both a vehicle and the road.
The Shift Toward Sustainability
A broader cultural shift toward sustainability means that change is inevitable. For those working in textiles, manufacturing and transportation, their industries will continue to evolve, especially as additional legislation and state and federal regulation demand it.
To keep up, union leaders and members might consider joining or forming a task force that looks at green initiatives. These groups can partner with cities to enhance sustainability. Boeing and the city of Seattle have collaborated to use waste heat from a new sewer trunk line to provide heat for Boeing's major assembly facilities, for instance.
Many communities have already established task forces to help business leaders increase sustainability in energy, water, green infrastructure, transportation and waste through collaboration. If no task force exists in your community, consider starting one yourself. Union members want to play a part in directing the future of sustainability; bringing more awareness and understanding to these issues can involve them in efforts to create a greener, more sustainable environment.
With 15 years' experience writing for publications including The Wall Street Journal, Barron's, The Christian Science Monitor and Newsday—Deborah Blumberg specializes in business and finance and health and wellness. She writes about topics including corporate communications, financial markets, real estate, renewable energy, cancer, health education, nutrition, supplements, the microbiome and functional medicine. She was a Knight Center fellow and a Donald W. Reynolds National Center for Business Journalism fellow. Her time working in marketing and communications at JPMorgan Chase taught her how to best tell a company's story. She's adept at turning complex ideas into compelling copy. She's also an officer of the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA) and a Women in the Visual and Literary Arts board member, and she is fluent in Spanish.