In many companies, leaders are handed the responsibility for building a sustainability practice. Sometimes they have a background in the topic. But sometimes they’ve had little exposure to it, and are unsure where to begin.
Vehicle manufacturer Oshkosh Corporation offers a model for companies that want to understand how a sustainability practice develops. For the third consecutive year, Oshkosh has been named to the 2021 Dow Jones Sustainability World Index (DJSI) and has been recognized as a Barron’s Top 100 Most Sustainable Companies. From fire trucks to refuse haulers, defense vehicles to concrete mixers, the Wisconsin-based company operates across five continents to help users handle tough jobs.
In 2011, senior leaders at Oshkosh noticed that their competitors were talking about sustainability, and team members within the company started asking questions about how Oshkosh could become a more sustainable company. Ignacio Cortina, the Executive Vice President and General Counsel, made a strategic hire to help get the sustainability practice up and running. He recruited Kevin Tubbs, who had been Director of Environmental Affairs at Ingersoll Rand, the maker of pumps, compressors, and power tools.
Now Vice President and Chief Ethics, Compliance, and Sustainability Officer at Oshkosh, Tubbs shared insights into how the company set up its sustainability teams; how they work together toward their sustainability goals; and how other companies can begin their own sustainability work.
The Environmental and Sustainability Team and the Ethics and Compliance Team are experts in their respective fields, and supported by a cross-functional team of professionals from across Oshkosh Corporation. The Environmental and Sustainability Team has two full-time people plus a summer student intern. The Ethics and Compliance Team has five full-time people and a student intern.
Additionally, there is a Sustainability Advisory Committee and an Ethics and Compliance Advisory Committee. Each of those committees has members from various functions and businesses across Oshkosh Corporation, so every department is involved in sustainability as a core function of their work.
The Environmental and Sustainability Team and the Ethics and Compliance Team are part of the Legal and Corporate Affairs Department.
“I report to the Executive Vice President and General Counsel,” explains Tubbs. “I also report to the Governance Committee of the Oshkosh Board of Directors, who have oversight responsibility of the Oshkosh Sustainability Program written directly into their charter.”
Buy-in Across the Company is Key
The major business functions within Oshkosh Corporation have team members on the Sustainability Advisory Committee, including human resources, global procurement and supply chain, new product development, global branding and communications, and digital technology.
We have an internal sustainability intranet site we use to communicate with team members, and [we] conduct regular webinars to maintain interest in sustainability.
Tubbs acknowledges that it’s mission-critical to have buy-in across the organization for his team to meet the company’s sustainability goals. It also requires constant communication and the sharing of sustainability work happening across the organization. In many ways, this plays to Tubbs’s background in local government — he served three years as mayor of a small town in New Jersey — as elected officials have to constantly communicate with constituents.
“All my team members know the importance of influencing without authority, and that an essential part of their jobs is the formation of strong working relationships across the organization,” said Tubbs. “We communicate and work regularly with our businesses, both formally and informally. We have an internal sustainability intranet site we use to communicate with team members, and [we] conduct regular webinars to maintain interest in sustainability.”
Three Pieces of Advice on How to Build a Sustainability Practice and Measure Progress
Tubbs has three pieces of advice for other leaders who want to create a sustainability practice within their companies.
1. Decide which aspects of sustainability are most relevant to your organization
What do your people care about, and where can they make a difference? Start to measure these aspects, because you really do manage what you measure.
2. Seek out advocates and allies within your organization
“You can’t teach passion, and you can’t make progress alone,” says Tubbs. “Take a practical approach to sustainability. Remember that sustainability is referred to as the triple bottom line: environmental, social, and economic impacts.”
Lines of business want to know that you fully understand their concerns and that you share them. Environmental, social, and business performance have to work in concert with one another. Tubbs also points out that knowing where your advocates and allies are can help a company determine where to place their sustainability team within the organization.
You can’t teach passion, and you can’t make progress alone.
“It is important to be where there is top management support, a history of collaboration with business partners, and the respect of others in the organization,” Tubbs says. “Along with my functional reporting within Oshkosh, I think it is critical to our success that I have regular and dotted-line reporting directly to the Oshkosh Board of Directors through the Governance Committee.”
3. Communicate, communicate, communicate
Tubbs stresses that a large part of his team’s work involves communication within the company, community, and industry. Benchmarking tools are critical to chart and communicate progress toward their goals.
“Among the tools we’ve used are the Wisconsin Sustainable Business Council’s Green Masters Program for our Wisconsin-based operations, and the Dow Jones Sustainability Index CSA to measure our sustainability progress across a wide range of categories corporate wide,” says Tubbs.
In the spirit of transparency, Oshkosh makes all of its sustainability goals and progress publicly available through their website.