New unsung climate heroes: the critical role of procurement, real estate, and supply chain leaders in reaching net zero

During the past two years, we have seen many people step up to serve our society in the midst of the pandemic. From medical professionals working tirelessly in overrun units to the National Guard setting up vaccination centers to get the vaccine out to the population as quickly as possible, we’ve seen heroes in action up and down the chain, from both sides of the political aisle.

Of course, we’ve also recognized non-traditional heroes as well. While grocery store workers, mailmen, and delivery drivers may have been unsung before, they were soon labeled part of critical infrastructure when the pandemic hit. Even when the rest of the world shut down — and at a time when we had very little knowledge of what we were battling — we needed these people to perform their jobs, and they did so magnificently.

The pandemic has highlighted unsung heroes in the business world as well. CIOs are one example — they were unsung before (at least, as unsung as someone in C-suite could be), but they had to quickly get their employees the tools they needed to securely work remotely from wherever they were. Similarly, procurement leaders have recently had to navigate global supply chain chaos to keep their businesses running. And now, with many companies transitioning back into the office at least in some form, facilities and real estate leaders are stepping up, finding new ways to create office spaces that are safe and socially distant.

In the post-pandemic world, we are going to see these same types of unsung heroes become very “sung” from a climate perspective. And many of these heroes will come from the same types of roles mentioned above: facilities, real estate, and procurement.

As GreenBiz recently covered in its “State of Green Business 2022” report, there is no real distinction between “green” and “not green” jobs — rather, all jobs “fall on a spectrum of greenness to the degree that their primary function is to move toward a low-carbon economy.” The report specifically mentions logistics managers and facilities managers as roles that are not traditionally considered “green” that are increasingly important to the greening of the economy. 

Beyond the operation of buildings, construction of buildings alone accounts for 25-40% of global carbon emissions each year — meaning that real estate teams have an outsize opportunity to help drive down emissions. And I’ve touched on Scope 3 emissions before, but the fact that emissions from up and down the supply chain are 1) massive, and 2) now being recognized, means that procurement is also ripe for a green revolution.

These roles have rarely had to think about waste and emissions, and thus waste and emissions have piled up. Now, we don’t have that luxury. We have eight years to reduce our greenhouse gas pollution by 50%, if we are to achieve our national target for 2030. CEOs will still certainly play a role, but the ones who will be driving the change are the operators in these areas.

So how do we empower procurement, real estate, and operations leaders to become sustainability leaders as well? The first step is, of course, to recognize these people — let them (and others) know that they play a valuable role in reaching sustainability goals. But recognition alone is not enough; we must also train and equip these employees. They need to understand sustainability concepts and think about environmental issues that were never part of their jobs before. And then they need the skills to take that knowledge and affect change.

A lot of this starts with budget. While these departments have traditionally tended to have fixed budgets, our real estate, procurement, and operations leaders need discretionary budgets that allow them to explore sustainability programs and education. In terms of training, there are a range of options to choose from. On one hand, there are a wide variety of sustainability education courses available from foundations or universities; less formally, conferences and events also present a great opportunity for learning (and networking).

To that end, part of education is finding others in the market that you can emulate. Take Google, for example — their real estate team goes beyond the traditional responsibilities of finding and filling office space, and instead acts as a central player in reducing the company’s footprint from a waste, space, and carbon perspective. Not every company has the resources of Google, but every company can utilize that mindset. 

Goal-setting is another key element for success. Not only should these teams begin incorporating long-term sustainability goals into their OKRs, but these goals should be aligned directly with overall corporate goals for sustainability. By integrating high-level company OKRs into departmental OKRs, you can make sure the small individual steps are taken to create company-wide change.

Once you have these goals in place, you can build incentives around them. Just as roles or departments are often rewarded for hitting financial targets, everyone at your company should be incentivized to reach sustainability targets as well. While we’d all like to think that helping the Earth is incentive enough, there is something to be said for putting your money where your mouth is.

Similarly, while increased sustainability is certainly the core benefit of these efforts, I believe businesses will see other benefits as well if they can turn these “not-traditionally-green” roles into sustainability leaders. For example, procurement roles in particular face a lot of pressure and generally have a high amount of turnover — according to global management consulting firm Kearney, “the average tenure of [a Chief Procurement Officer] is less than four years.” If you invest in these people — recognizing their importance, providing them with educational opportunities, and bringing them into the larger sustainability movement — they will be more likely to stay and grow with you. It may even have a diversity benefit as well, as the investment in new leaders from different departments could bring new types of people into a C-Suite that in general is extremely homogeneous.

As the battle against climate change becomes ever more urgent, we can’t just rely on the traditional “sustainability heroes” to create the change we need. Leaders in procurement, real estate, operations, and beyond have the opportunity to play a massive role in shaping a sustainable future — but it’s up to us to empower them first.


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