Sustainability solutions frequently have a safety outcome, said Andy Stewart, director of Grainger

Sold on Sustainability

Four Grainger managers explain why every company is pursuing sustainability and how it dovetails with safety.

Sustainability is part of Grainger's corporate social responsibility commitment, and it is increasingly important to the company's customers, as well. Jeff Rehm, Grainger's manager, sustainability; Andy Stewart, director of its green product portfolio; and Daniel Munoz, senior manager, green products, explained during the 2014 Grainger Show why sustainability is now recognized as a priority for practically every company. This year's show, held in February in Orlando, was the biggest yet with about 15,400 people involved.

"Sustainability encompasses lean manufacturing, quality, safety," Stewart said. "What you find usually are deeper efforts than people may actually realize. We focused our efforts with our customers on four major pillars: managing energy, water conservation, indoor air quality, and waste. Oftentimes waste is the first one that you go to, but you have to make the solution be a financially viable solution that helps a business really define sustainability. We focus on that and then find ways to oftentimes have other unintended or intended consequences."

He said Grainger looks both at what it is doing internally as a business and also what its personnel are doing to help customers, offering products and services to help them become more sustainable. Grainger released its first Corporate Social Responsibility report in 2013, and it participates in the Carbon Disclosure Project, an international organization that provides a system for companies and cities to measure, disclose, and share key environmental information. The company recently reported that it operates 16 LEED certified buildings in North America, is building a distribution center in Toronto, Canada, to LEED specifications, and its U.S. distribution centers recycled more than 2,500 tons of cardboard, plastic wrap, and metal in 2013, improving their recycling rate by 5.1 percent year over year.

"We've internalized it, and it' part of our overall corporate social responsibility commitment--a commitment to the environment," Rehm said. "With that, the motto or catchphrase of the sustainability movement is 'people, profit, plant.' You are making decisions that are affecting all of those in a positive way, otherwise it's not a sustainable investment or program." So Grainger strives to run its facilities as efficiently as possible to reduce costs and also confer environmental benefit, then it transfers those ideas and approaches to its customers, he explained.

"Back and forth: We're a great test lab for ourselves. All of us work together, talk often, to share ideas. Sometimes a new supplier/technology will come in, they bring it to us and say, hey, this is viable now," Rehm added.

He cited the example of LED lighting upgrades, explaining that Grainger consistently sees 10-15 percent energy reductions in its warehouse lighting. "We partner with Grainger Lighting Services to do those projects. It's a great program, it's something that we've just embedded into our capital plans year after year," Rehm said.

How Sustainability Dovetails with Safety
Stewart said sustainability solutions frequently have a safety outcome. Improved lighting, for example, makes a parking lot safer or can prevent slips and falls on a shop floor. Extended-life lamps are changed less often, which translates to fewer accidents and lower insurance rates. "When we can tie them together, it makes a better solution," he said.

"We want to ensure we position the offer correctly for customers. Are they meeting regulatory guidelines? Are these offers going to improve their bottom line?" Munoz said. "We have limited resources, and therefore we need to manage those resources. We need figure out what resonates with our customers and then we package that to our customers so that it is aligned to our message internally."

Asked whether sustainability nevertheless remains a hard sell for some customers, Munoz answered, "I think the reason for that is because the way that sustainability has been positioned in the past has been mostly from an ideology point of view. We're saying sustainability is not just about being green, it's about being lawful--regulatory compliance--and number three is the economic driver. A lot of these things are going to save you money in the long run."

His answer raised the question of what percentage of their customers are involved in sustainability. "The answer is all of them," Stewart replied, "but they just don't always call it that. I don't know of any that don't have some sort of financial barrier they're trying to break through. Call it sustainability or whatever you like, the endgame is how we accomplish the goal with you."

About 33,000 to 34,000 SKUs in Grainger's vast offerings bear an insignia of "environmentally preferable product," and they said this number has grown dramatically from just 10,000 two years ago. The number soared because Grainger has gotten better at identifying sustainable products and because these products are in demand. Grainger's product certifications are third-party audited to make sure they are accurate, up to date, and reflect the most important attributes that are in the market, Stewart said.

Jeff Weaver, senior manager of safety for Grainger, agreed that many customers he meets are very interested in sustainability. He identified several recent crossovers he's seen between safety and sustainability: signage manufactured from sustainable materials, gloves sourced from bamboo, and a hard hat sourced from sugar cane.

"We're trying to help customers become more efficient and effective at safety," Weaver said. Safety directors are still struggling with limited resources and tight budgets, he said, and they're challenged to keep up with OSHA regulations and by a changing workforce—how to ensure that workers of various ages, temporary workers, and multilingual workforces are working safely, even on the first day of work. "That's a dangerous day, we're hearing from our customers and we know from NIOSH and OSHA data," he added.

Working with Suppliers
Stewart said it's fairly easy to interest suppliers in the certification effort because they already understand sustainability's importance and "because it is based on what customers tell us--we can say to them, 'Customers are asking for it, customers need it.' We try to get them to understand that the expense to get certified is worthwhile, and it's simple math: We can demonstrate that these products grow faster and sell faster than others do."

They agreed "green" products work only if their effectiveness equals that of the products they are replacing. In other words, a "greener" pesticide is the right choice if it works as well as the less-green alternative. The common wisdom that green products are less effective and cost more is wrong, they said. Green really hasn't been fully developed in some categories, Munoz said—he cited industrial and household lubricants, as well as cleaning chemicals--so there are some niches developing only now, and companies are identifying new products for them and bringing them to Grainger. In turn, Grainger helps suppliers by identifying promising areas, he said.

Greener chemicals are preferable from a safety professional's perspective, as well, because better chemicals mean fewer SDSs and less exposure risk, Rehm added.

This article originally appeared in the June 2014 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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