How can an organization enact profound ESG governance in a sector of the economy that might not be facing external pressures to operate more sustainably? The Cox family of companies accepted this challenge before sustainability was even in the zeitgeist.
"The journey towards sustainability for a non-manufacturer is definitely different." — Meredith Lindvall, Director of Recycling & Waste Diversion, Cox Enterprises
From its humble beginnings in 1898, Cox Enterprises is now a fourth-generation, family-owned company that has evolved into a global innovator in the broadband and transportation industries. It is home to two major brands, Cox Communications (the nation's third-largest cable and telecom business) and Cox Automotive (home to Kelley Blue Book and Autotrader, among others).
Even before corporate apparatus existed to codify sustainability, Cox leadership solicited sustainability input from its employees. Much of what leadership learned wasn't on their radar — both in terms of potential target areas and, more importantly, just how ready employees were to act.
Cox Conserves, the company's internal sustainability arm, has been around for over a decade. Founded by Chairman Jim Kennedy, Cox Conserves has been instrumental in driving tangible environmental improvements.
"We've been doing sustainability before we even called it sustainability," Lindvall said.
Kennedy came to Cox's leadership in 2007 thinking about legacy. He wanted his company and his name remembered as stakeholders that left the world a better place than they found it.
So, he laid out the vision and tasked leadership to build it from the ground up. Cox codified sustainability into corporate culture in 2007 by setting its first sustainability goal: Carbon reduction. The team soared beyond its goal well ahead of schedule, which got leadership thinking about grander plans and the cumulative power of buy-in.
Conversations driven by Kennedy, the family and leadership revealed that employees' motivation, buy-in and insight aligned with leadership's vision of a future-proof company. The next step was building mechanisms to fuse leadership's vision and employee ambition through meaningful action — so, they crafted more ambitious goals beyond just carbon reductions.
Five years ahead of schedule on its initial sustainability goals, Cox rolled out its updated sustainability road map in '12-'13 — adding water- and waste-reduction targets on top of carbon: Zero waste to landfill by 2024, and energy and water neutrality by 2044.
At the time the company’s goal went live in 2013, Cox had a measly 9 percent diversion rate; the company is now 80 percent waste-free. And the carbon and water reduction goals are on track to be met ten years ahead of schedule, making Cox readjust carbon- and water-neutrality deadlines to 2034.
Cox has invested nearly $140 million in 400+ sustainability and conservation projects and is on track toward meeting all of its water-, waste- and carbon-reduction goals on or ahead of schedule.
But internal sustainability isn't enough. Thanks to buy-in across the entire organization, Cox also engages supply chain and business partner sustainability to reduce scope 3 emissions; and partners with national environmental groups to protect of the nation's coastlines, waterways and public lands.
Sustainability is a constantly evolving matrix of setting targets, quantifying baselines, measuring progress, and evaluating. When there's buy-in across company culture, goals can be met ahead of schedule. For Cox, this wasn't an invitation to sit on its laurels, but to push the envelope.
The power of buy-in
For sustainability to work, leadership needed two things: Trust in the inherent value of sustainability and trust that employees would run with that vision. From its first carbon commitment to now, Cox Conserves has grown into a company-wide movement with buy-in across the board. Nearly 30 employees staff Cox's sustainability department; but as Lindvall pointed out, that's not where the magic happens.
Cox's secret sustainability sauce lies in the initial vision of its founder and employee buy-in across the entire organization. Operating sustainably is as inseparable as turning a profit.
"Not only do we have buy-in from the highest level, which is key; we also have grassroots employee motivations," Lindvall said. "We're extremely laser-focused on driving behavior change and making progress towards those goals. Once Cox employees make up their minds they want to do something, there's no stopping them."
Cox's leadership put a stake in the ground back in 2007. It evolved into a core value of Cox Enterprises, something employees can engage in that's tangible and important to leadership.
"I think we're a little spoiled because sustainability is something that every Cox employee can get engaged in," Lindvall said. "And because it's vertically integrated from buy-in, it gives them a lot of purpose."
The power of engagement
Cox has more sustainability engagement and initiative from its employees than it can handle, Lindvall said proudly. Cox Impact is an employee-driven environmental stewardship platform where employees can share their ideas and act in campaigns dedicated to certain sustainability practices. Last month offered challenges on zero waste: Lunch-and-learns, training sessions, planning materials, links to educational articles, and targeted action plans roll out with each challenge, empowering employees to take educated action.
At any time, a Cox employee can access thousands of various actions to drive sustainability at work and in their own homes, with quantifiable metrics for each reported directly to the board. Friendly competitions gamify the whole experience, with plenty of engagement throughout the leadership column.
Corporate green committees cascade into regional and local committees, all unified by a central theme. Not surprisingly, locations with highly active green councils excel on sustainability KPIs.
"Each one of those [committees] will create their own actions," Lindvall said. "It's really a great feedback loop. The cool thing about having a feedback structure is [employees] are able to give feedback all the way back to us about opportunities they see."
Accountability buzzes up and down the leadership column. Management and leadership check up on goal progress; employees strategize and innovate on making sustainability attainable and tangible on the ground. And they learn from each other.
"Having that buy-in from the top where employees can say 'Hey, if I take this action, this is something that's important to my leader, my leader's leader, and all the way to the top that's actually reported out to the board of Cox Enterprises," Lindvall said.
Wholistic engagement makes sustainable behavioral changes a vertically integrated KPI, just like productivity and profit.
"It might be hard for someone to directly connect their actions," Lindvall said. "The relationship between making a sustainable decision and that direct line to one of Cox's objectives really keeps them motivated."
From knowledgeable eco-evangelists to someone just getting started in their sustainability journey, Cox carves out steps for deeper engagement — taking the same steps with suppliers, communities and other business stakeholders. As Lindvall said:
"We really want to be a thought leader. How can we turn what we've learned and help others on their journey? We can't do sustainability by ourselves. One of the things we've done that makes us so successful internally and externally is really meeting people where they are."
The power of big goals
It's not the size of a goal that's the problem, but employee buy-in. When employees and leadership make the ambition their own, no dream is too lofty. It's the key that unlocks internally motivated sustainability.
Leadership found the formula for successful sustainability goals early on: When you don't know what to adopt, set something reasonable, review, reset and shoot for the stars. Armed with the knowledge of what Cox can do, Lindvall and the team were empowered to set even more ambitious goals simply because leadership and the Cox family believed in the power of their employees to coalesce and make positive change.
And there's proof in Cox's pudding: A recent company-wide survey indicated that employees still want to do more despite Cox's already ambitious sustainability goals. More importantly, they believe they can do more.
Lindvall's tips on internally motivating sustainability
Tip #1: Measured matters.
Providing measured feedback to employees aligns everyone's vision of success, Lindvall said. This old rule applies to most anything in business, but it's the stamina for Cox's sustainability success.
Tip #2: Give them wins.
"You've got to allow people wins; and that means setting interim milestones," Lindvall said.
It's admirable and necessary to adopt waste-, water- and carbon-reduction goals. But lofty targets alone may not be enough to foster sustained action.
"That's an all-or-nothing goal," she said. "It doesn't allow for folks to feel success for everything they're working on … and it makes it really difficult for that to be a metric that leadership and employees can gain buy-in to."
Lindvall's pro tip is 10 percent chunks towards goals. That gives employees ownership to set their own milestones, making the difference between "Here's what I think you should do" and "Look what we can do."
Tip #3: Let them talk.
Cox creates playbooks chock-full of ways for employees to get engaged. But it also makes channels of dialogue jettisoning custom-tailored solutions to fit the needs and play to the strengths of regional and local offices.
No one solution works for everyone; but soliciting feedback can ensure milestones are met and align with company culture.
"Make sure you're getting that buy-in and feedback, allowing them to work on the goal that's in their language," Lindvall said. "How can we integrate this into your workflow?" Meeting people where they are at means matching KPIs for work with KPIs for sustainability.
Tip #4: Connect sustainability to good business
"It's business-critical that we integrate sustainability for resiliency into our future plans," Lindvall said. "It's gotta be a way that you think about making sure your business stays in business."
Sustainable Brands’ Enabling the Good Life report revealed that if brands want to remain competitive, they must adopt business strategies aligned with the expectations of a new generation of consumers — “those whose decisions are driven to create a better world for themselves and their families, without negatively impacting the world around them.”
Even if an organization isn’t facing demands from customers to become sustainable, it will from talent. Millennials are the biggest workforce today, and they're working at places that take sustainability seriously.
Cox recruiters approached leadership asking for more info on what the company is doing for the planet. Talent wants to know, Lindvall said; and they won't work at a company that doesn't take a stance.
The final word
"Set those lofty goals, but make sure there's a way for employees to directly take action on them," Lindvall concluded. "If you just keep it to 26 sustainability engineers, you don't get the change that you want … You need engineering, but you also need employee engagement to drive the type of success that you want to see towards those goals."
Top-down and grassroots dance to make the change. Where they meet in the middle is where amazing things happen.