I was honored to say a few words about Universal Companies’ sustainability initiatives at the 4th Annual Green Spa Network Fall Congress. My hope is our efforts will inspire other companies to find their green path.
My motivation for “greening” Universal was a 2007 Fast Company article where the author referred to the “Eco-Innovation Revolution.” The premise was simple: capitalism got us into this mess; therefore, capitalism is the most effective way to get us out of it.
The author predicted that small innovative entrepreneurial businesses would find the upside to addressing global concerns, and that these companies would not only make a positive impact on our environment, but also on our economy. I began envisioning how I wanted to conduct Universal in the future.
I was inspired by business heroes like the late Ray Anderson, founder of Interface, the world’s largest producer of contract commercial carpet. He proved beyond any doubt that what was good for the environment was also good for the financial growth of his company. Interface’s conservation efforts resulted in a 45% reduction in use of fossil fuels. The water used in the manufacturing process was cut to 1/3 of the traditional amount. Amazingly, sales rose almost 50%!
My first initiative was to put a sergeant in charge of our program who would protect us from the possibility of green-washing. Someone so passionate about doing it right and so devoted to sustainability that there would never be a shadow of a doubt that our company would set a high standard for others to follow. That person was Lisa Sykes–an organic gardener, vegetarian cook, and long-time ‘tree-hugger’.
We then created the Green Team, a group of 15 volunteers who were assigned to “wage a war on waste.” In addition to implementing numerous effective recycling programs within our offices and educational programs for recycling at home, they provided the details regarding a cardboard baler for our warehouse, showing a Return on Investment within 12 months, and allowing us to recycle and sell thousands of pounds of waste.
The second area of influence that we knew we had is with the over 5,000 products we sell in our catalog. Even though Universal is not a manufacturer, its leverage with its vendors is strong. We knew that if we could set strict criteria for our earth-friendlier products, our 300+ vendors would feel the need to apply higher environmental standards to their manufacturing practices and merchandise.
In our 2008 catalog, we made “green” the primary theme and highlighted the products and manufacturers that held up to Lisa’s scrutiny.
Finally, the third and largest area of influence we had, was to reach the 28,000 spa professionals who purchase regularly from Universal Companies. As always, our most successful campaigns were when we helped our customers with a business solution. Education was our focus, showing our customers that the LOHAS demographic was exactly the same as the spa-goer, and to reach and retain this market segment, establishing eco-friendlier standards was not just the right thing to do, but the necessary thing to do to grow their businesses.
Throughout the past 4 years, even in spite of the recession, the brands that have experienced the most growth at Universal Companies (many with double digit growth), have been our green, natural brands. The vendors who stepped up to the challenge, and the spas that made sustainability part of their business plan, are making money – even in a tough economy.
Sometimes inspiration begins with a bright, quick spark. But I’ve learned that the subsequent changes it encourages do not happen instantly. They require careful calculated steps over time to produce strong, steady results.
If any of you are uncertain about whether or not one person can truly make a difference, just find your inspiration, look for your heroes and emulate what they have done. And then use your network and area of influence. You just might be surprised to see what happens!