Hope is NOT a sustainability strategy

When I was a kid I would hope for many things, as all kids do, thinking they would make my life better. You name it, I hoped for it, a Stretch Armstrong action figure for my birthday or a new bike for Christmas. And often, I would hear my dad in the background saying, “you get what you work for not what you hope for.”

At the time, I’ll admit I rolled my eyes, but the sentiment stuck with me. During my studies in the Executive Master of Natural Resources program at Virginia Tech, I’d often think of this sentiment as it applies to sustainability. You see, while hope is many things including power and inspiration, it’s not a strategy when it comes to sustainability.

Develop a strategy and implement it

At Cox, we have three primary sustainability goals: to send zero waste to landfill by 2024, and become water neutral and carbon neutral by 2034. Two strategies we use to help meet those goals are employee engagement and investments.

Employees are a tremendous source of knowledge and ideas. If your goal is to drive change throughout your organization, you need to get employees involved from the start. As an added bonus, research has shown that employees who are engaged in the workplace and align with the company’s values, tend to be happier and more productive. To make the biggest impact, sustainability goals should run parallel with your operating goals. Our employees help us drive innovation by seamlessly integrating our sustainability projects in support of their existing processes and efforts.

For example, we have a cross-functional and employee-driven Cox Conserves Council that’s constantly looking for ways to meet our sustainability goals through everything from e-cycling to reducing idling time in our fleet vehicles. A few years ago, we noticed that our employees were spending too much time leaving their vehicles idling needlessly. Through a program encouraging employees to turn off their vehicles when parked, we were able to save 67,000 gallons of gas and remove 120,000 lbs. of carbon dioxide from the environment between 2017 and May 2020.

At the national level, our employees participate in an annual “Chairman’s Challenge.” Named for our Chairman Jim Kennedy, this monthlong campaign encourages employees to take sustainable actions at home, rewarding them with points for each action they complete. The six employees with the most points at the end then work with the James M. Cox Foundation to award $52,500 to their environmental nonprofit of choice. And for every employee that participates, Cox will plant a tree through the National Forest Foundation. This commitment will add up to 25,000 new trees to the more than 380,000 trees Cox has planted since 2013.

That leads me to our second strategy – investments. Since 2007, our parent company Cox Enterprises has invested nearly $1 billion in sustainable businesses and technologies. They recently announced the creation of Cox Cleantech, a new division that will invest in and acquire clean resource efficient businesses that provide sustainable energy, food and water.

In Virginia, we’ve made investments to change the way we’re getting our electricity. In early 2020, we partnered with Calpine Energy Solutions to source our power from sustainable, non-carbon producing sources like wind and solar farms biomass, hydro-electric and even landfill gas. And we’re not just addressing our own energy use, we’re powering homes and businesses in Virginia thanks to a partnership between our New River Clean Energy facility in West Virginia and the Raleigh County Solid Waste Authority.  This facility captures, dries, cleans and compresses methane gas from landfills, then converts it into renewable electricity that is then used to power our operations.

Supporting environmental causes at the local level is vital as well. From sponsoring Chesapeake Bay clean ups to awarding grants that recognize volunteers for the work they do – we’re dedicated to investing in positive environmental change in the communities and neighborhoods we serve.

Regardless of which strategy you choose, for us to really make an impact and save the planet, we need collaboration and commitment from a lot of people. Most importantly, we need leaders willing to take potential solutions from theory to action.

There are solutions on every topic – some better than others – but the real, meaningful impact doesn’t come from knowing the solutions; it comes from implementing them.

As leaders we need to establish a clear direction, get everyone aligned on a common goal and ensure their commitment to implementing the solution. Successful leaders will need to gain commitment through partnership, collaboration, and influence. Those leaders will find ways to engage others and find common ground to build upon.

There’s no planet B

Cox is a fourth-generation, family-owned company. Our CEO Alex Taylor is the great-grandson of our founder, Governor James M. Cox. So, when we think about strategic planning – whether it’s business continuity or corporate social responsibility – we don’t just plan for our success today, but for the generations to come.

And it’s clear, the world needs commitment, collaboration, and action if we’re going to save the planet for the next generation.

I understand that the task at hand, saving the planet, might seem daunting. The science behind carbon capturing, rising sea levels, and greenhouse effect might seem intimidating. And the fact that we may not even reap the rewards of our hard work during our lifetimes might be depressing. But our planet is deserving of the effort.

Afterall, hope may not be a sustainability strategy, but it’s worth hanging on to for inspiration.

My hope is for my grandchildren’s grandchildren to play at the beach and dip their toes into clean water or hike up to the top of the mountains to bear witness to the awesomeness that is nature.  What’s your hope for the future?

Our goal isn’t just to reduce our impact on the environment, but to encourage others to do the same. Be inspired and learn more at https://www.coxenterprises.com/cox-conserves.

Jeff Merritt is Vice President of Roanoke Operations for Cox Virginia. As the executive sponsor of the regional Cox Conserves Council, he advises employee volunteers advocating for positive environmental change. He holds a Master of Natural Resources degree in Sustainability from Virginia Tech.