Building CSR-momentum at a startup

Mid-2018, I started my journey at COMATCH, a leading online marketplace for independent strategy consultants and industry experts. After the onboarding phase, I soon recognized that there was room for improvement with regards to the company’s environmental responsibility. This post is about the steps that I took to make my colleagues environmentally conscious. It gives an impression on how ideas materialized, the kind of projects we worked on, and finally, some personal takeouts.

What you often hear in a business environment are terms like sustainability, corporate social sustainability (CSR), triple bottom line (TBL) and corporate sustainability. If you aren’t familiar with the different terms and their meanings, you can find at the end of this post a brief explanation about these commonly used concepts.

After a few weeks on the job shaping my sustainable ideas, I took the opportunity to pitch this to the management. Luckily it got accepted, and a few weeks later, at the annual summer party, I had a chat with my colleague Julia. Soon we discovered that we both share a common interest in doing something good for society. We decided to work together, and that was the actual start of the Green Initiative.

“So what does the Green Initiative stands and aims for?”

Our approach was based on the principle of implementing small changes with significant impact. The topics we work on are diverse, like for example office guidelines, Google+ communication, waste separation, organizing “Green talks”, energy supplier and so forth. Also, strategic projects such as reducing and offsetting CO2 emissions as well as corporate volunteering days were part of the mix.

Some of these projects I’d like to share.

Office waste separation (phase one)

The first Kickstarter was to tackle the separation of our office waste. By the way, do not underestimate the amount of rubbish a startup produces. My experience is that it could be similar to an established organization :/ 

Efficiency gains are almost always possible, but it depends on priorities. So to minimize costs and to implement the idea of office waste separation swiftly, we decided to work with existing inventory like the bins itself combined with some creativity. The result was that four old 60 litre-bins were ‘upgraded’ with colourful labels so that every colleague was able to see what type of packaging and garbage goes where. Circulating a newsletter to announce our first (and small) step completed phase one.

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In November 2018, colleague Roberta joined forces and our three-person team was now able to divide the workload even better (keep in mind that the initiative was and is a side-project) and to tackle several projects simultaneously.  

Office waste separation (phase two)

Back at the time, a major topic was to move the company to a bigger office in Berlin. Our team took this opportunity to tackle the waste and recycling project more thoroughly, and we decided to present a proper recycling management strategy for the new workspace. Based on office floor plans, we were able to make a classification of the different workstations, public spaces and meeting rooms to calculate how many and what kinds of bins were needed. For example; in the two kitchen- and community areas, we planned bins for paper, packaging and general waste plus a collection point for glass. We used different bins for various workstations and meeting rooms (paper, packaging and general waste). 

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To conclude the project, we asked the graphic designer to create different labels for the bins, and the result was very nice—four colourful label-designs that displayed what goes where. Symbolic communication is handy when you have a company with 20+ nationalities, and where various languages are spoken. The final step was communication with colleagues via the newsletter and PR announcements.

Going paperless

Since my start at the company until Q3 2019 spendings on paper hand towels for both ladies and men’s toilets were (with 130+ people) several hundred Euros per month, resulting in substantial annual costs and not to speak of the unnecessary use of resources. For the team, the solution was relatively straightforward; switch to automatic hand dryers to reduce costs and paper consumption.

With this efficiency boost, we reduced CO2 emissions by as much as 2⁄3. But yes, there are certain disadvantages when it comes to using automatic hand dryers, but that is true in many environmental decision-making circumstances.

To kickstart the project, we provided insight into the monthly and total expenses on paper towels. The investment for buying automatic hand dryers was based on information that we received from the supplier.
As a next step, we presented the business case to our management and the outcome was that we decided to go for a pilot with one hand dryer to determine the opinion of our coworkers with regards to this solution. By the way, experience shows that it’s considered a plus to involve/inform colleagues of the course of events continuously as it ensures you build capacity and understanding.

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After two months of intensive ‘testing’, we distributed a survey to all colleagues, asking how they feel about replacing paper hand towels with hand dryers, and the result was overwhelming; >80% of the respondents (with >60% participation) supported the idea. Momentum and proof of concept were in our favour to move on to the next phase; the order confirmation for three additional devices!

CO2 emissions (currently in process)

id 2019, the management indicated that, in addition to resource reduction within the office space, the company should also reduce its CO2-footprint being released by indirect emissions. As a services company, COMATCH uses few resources compared to manufacturing companies. But as it operates on an international scale, people regularly travel by plane both inside and outside of Germany. 

The following stages are considered to start this project;

  • Get a good understanding of the complexity of CO2 emissions, the possibilities for reducing the footprint and compensating surplus emissions

Carbon offsetting is a way to reduce the emissions that you can’t. It both helps to combat global climate change, like environmental restoration projects (for example planting trees) as well as caring for let’s say local communities. In another post, I will discuss carbon offsetting in more detail.

  • Draw up a project plan with various options to reduce as well as compensate emissions. Include expected costs and the long term added value for the company and its stakeholders. Present your findings in a full-fledged business case.

By the way, CSR shouldn’t be considered a costly activity. While implementing CSR policies may have cost implications, to be sustainable, there should be a clear return on investment (ROI) identified before the policies are put in place. Returns can be defined as, e.g. promoting your business to existing and new audiences, clients and so forth. Establish your company’s point of view and values, which is interesting in terms of employer branding activities. I also wrote an article with an overview of the ROI of CSR.

  • Internal communication and guidelines for colleagues.
  • External communication, stakeholder engagement as well as the business proposition we offer.

We are currently at stage one—getting a good understanding of the implications of carbon dioxide, speaking to CO2 service providers and so forth. And as you’ve been able to read in the introduction, there are several other topics on the to-do list. Some are complex or take a long time to materialize, whereas other challenges are easy to implement and focus more on communication/awareness aspects. 

Triple bottom line

Shifting my focus on the TBL as part of environmental decision making and practical implementation is a crucial step. The work our team did was all about efficiency, for example; how to deal with our (natural) resources in a well-balanced way as well as taking (full) responsibility for what we do both professionally and personally. 

Based on my experience this aspiring scaleup and my previous project work in the field of sustainability, I created a list of takeouts in case you pursue a similar initiative for your organization.

  1. Get your ideas on paper (think big, start small) 
  2. Pitch your idea to the decision-maker(s) 
  3. Find an internal project sponsor and begin with “low-hanging fruit”
  4. Communicate (and celebrate) your WINS 
  5. Involve colleagues by organizing round table discussion, short surveys, events etc. 
  6. Grow your team with committed colleagues 
  7. Let CSR resonate on every level of the company and ideally get it embedded in the company values 

Please note that this list is created for a mid-sized service provider. Manufacturing companies might have more complex processes with regards to product development, materials, procurement and so forth, which adds additional complexity in case of CSR policy development.

What could be next (for you)?

There’s a big chance that your sustainable initiative starts as a nonstrategic side-project, which is fine. Try to get to a point where there’s enough momentum, which helps you to develop the initiative. Think big and set up a dedicated team that creates long-term value for the company and its stakeholders. Oh yeah—and it’s worth the experience!


Sustainability / CSR / triple bottom line / corporate sustainability

In general, the idea of ​​sustainability is to balance goals and needs of the current generation with potential goals and needs of all future generations. It‘s applicable on both a personal as well as professional level.

Just like ‘sustainability’, CSR is a broad concept that companies describe themselves, so that it means what they want it to mean—it’s largely about the responsibility it takes for the consequences of its activities with regard to society and the environment (by acting ethically and transparently). In practice it overlaps with corporate sustainability. However, corporate sustainability can also be interpreted that a company is capable of maintaining itself in a financial way without being directly responsible for the other elements. So, whenever you hear that a business is committed to one of the three terms (or any other synonym) try to figure out to what extent and it’ll help you manage expectations.

Regardless of the term that is given to it, I believe it is important to mention that every organization bears responsibility with regard to the so-called three P’s of sustainability: People – Planet – Prosperity or the triple bottom line. These three elements (people ≈ social, planet ≈ environmental, prosperity ≈ financial), should be harmoniously combined.

The idea is that if the combination is not harmonious, the other elements will suffer. For example, if profit is given too much priority, people and the environment will suffer, for example due to poor working conditions or the destruction of nature. Conversely, this idea also sees the financial characteristic as an essential part of development that should not be neglected. Because of the importance of a well-balanced (holistic) approach, our initiative focuses on CSR.

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