2020, the year of Zoom classes, was my second year at the Fuqua School of Business and the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke. I sat at my desk in my tiny dorm room or occasionally took a class outside in my hammock to break the monotony. Like many, I had been catapulted into the world of virtual learning and was easily distracted. I often found myself wanting to turn off my camera, pretend my microphone wasn’t working, and start baking sourdough again, or on some mornings, go back to bed.
Among the drudgery of it all was one class that really caught my eye. This class was Operations Strategy with Robert Sweeney. Even from his virtual teaching suite based in Fuqua, he was able to cut through the virtual haze of online Zoom classes and make what could have been a downright boring topic – how companies decide where to put factories – quite. engaging. At times, he struggled to keep up with all the virtual hand raises, quickly calling on students to hear their views. He asked how we would weigh all the pros and cons of potential influences on location: access to highways and airports for easy navigation, the country’s tax breaks, the local talent pool. As I think back to this exercise now after graduating in a sustainability profession, a whole different set of pros and cons come to mind, ones that take into account the environment. Operations is an extremely relevant mindset for sustainability, a mindset that I use every day to make changes in my business that protect the climate.
I often wonder why I felt like one of the few students with a passion for operations. Perhaps thinking of a career in operations conjures up images of stomping around in a fabrication shop with clunky safety shoes or safety glasses that always fog up. This can seem daunting to anyone without a technical or engineering background. Or maybe it’s the foreign terminology like kaizen and muda and the complicated calculations for throughput, machine utilization, or optimal safety stock levels.
If that last sentence was confusing or caused an inner fear, don’t worry, it was for me too. But I sincerely believe that careers in operations are much more than machines and warehouses. Anyone looking to break into a career in sustainability should also consider working in operations.
Basically, business operations focus on what it takes to deliver the product or service that the business offers. This is the engine of the company; how things go from ideas to reality. And if corporate social responsibility professionals want to champion change, whether it’s energy efficiency, circular design or supply chain best practices, we need to engage with the people who manage these aspects of daily work. Operations and sustainability go hand in hand. Here’s why:
Everything can be distilled down to a process
While this seems logical in a manufacturing company, it may be less intuitive in service organizations or technology companies. However, the truth is that everything we do to run a business – from product development to marketing to setting sustainability goals – can be mapped into a process flow. Defining precisely the steps needed to achieve an outcome can help us better understand inputs and outputs.
For example, if we are mapping the creation of a product, understanding these inputs and outputs can inform sustainability initiatives such as life cycle assessments. If this process is linked to other aspects of the organization, describing the process will uncover each stakeholder’s needs, where limitations exist, and how we can modify the process to fit our sustainability initiatives.
Operations and sustainability professionals consider a wide range of stakeholders
A key part of working in operations is executing process improvement projects. In my experience, this involves working with engineering, quality, environment, health and safety (EHS) and many other internal departments to align with changes.
Making sustainability changes works the same way, engaging stakeholders to take cross-functional work to the next level. We are making changes that not only consider internal parties, but also customers, governments and the environment. And we don’t do it just once, but repeatedly.
I believe our ever-increasing demand for sustainable alternatives will drive competition, leading to lower costs for consumers and rapid cycles of product innovation.
That’s what I’ve always liked about operations: the principle of continuous improvement. We can always work to improve it. There’s no line where you call it “good enough” and walk away. Likewise, sustainability is iterative. It is not enough to simply reduce our waste or our carbon emissions by 25% once and stop there. On the contrary, we are constantly thinking about how we can improve our improvements and progress towards the ultimate goal of a stabilized climate.
Sustainability leverages profitability achieved through operational improvements
One of the main obstacles to sustainable improvements is that they are expensive. On the materials side, the historical heavy reliance on cheap alternatives has shaped our world so that some of the most damaging items make the most sense to use (think plastic).
Today, as innovative recycling and reprocessing solutions begin to emerge, thoughtfully designing our business processes with the circular economy in mind can help reduce production costs. As these solutions evolve, we can continually improve them to bring the cost closer to that of existing alternatives.
On the energy side, improving the efficiency of your operations often includes initiatives to reduce total energy consumption. By employing process improvement strategies, we can improve our operational efficiency while reducing the energy required to produce our offering. This helps reduce the overall energy consumption and carbon footprint of our organizations, leading to long-term cost and carbon savings.
Additionally, as we build and renovate factories and facilities, renewable energy is becoming more prominent in the conversation. Renewable energy, when carefully considered and integrated into facilities from the start, avoids producing Scope 2 emissions in the first place, resulting in lower emissions and lower costs as our businesses grow .
While some might think this simply leads to more money in the pockets of big business, I think our ever-increasing demand for sustainable alternatives will drive competition, leading to lower costs for consumers and rapid product cycles. product innovation that we’ve all enjoyed, but which have lead to a society that consumes too much (think versions of the iPhone).
By encouraging people who care about sustainability to pursue careers in operations (which may not seem like an obvious place to start a sustainability career), we are bringing even more talent to fight climate change at the ground level.
I live at the intersection of operations and sustainability day in and day out with my colleagues at Circ. Even as an evolving startup, we are constantly looking for ways to improve our operations as we go. For example, just recently, a member of the operations team proactively replaced the super bags (think huge gear bags) that we used to move gear between our sites with a reusable alternative. The decision made good business and sustainability sense, there was no downside. And it wasn’t a top-down, corporate sustainability initiative. It came from an operations employee who doesn’t even have sustainability in his title.