by John Trybus, Managing Director

Earth Day is on Sunday and so it’s only fitting that this week’s episode of the Social Strategist Project tackles the topic of environmental sustainability with a true leader on the topic: Joyce Coffee, vice president of corporate social responsibility and sustainability at Edelman.

Joyce, who I caught up with on location at the PR powerhouse’s Chicago headquarters, has a thesis about how to make the planet more environmentally sustainable.

Her answer? Corporations.

Companies like Walmart, IBM, GE and Nike (not to mention a plethora of smaller for-profits) are making a big impact when it comes to sustainability, she says.

Can corporations really not only protect, but improve, environmental conditions?

“I think corporations are at the absolute heart of that question,” Joyce counters.

“We have an opportunity to see the corporate sector as an incredible asset in this question of what our future looks like because they’ve been the asset moving forward,” she explained in our interview. “It’s too easy to suggest the corporate sector is the problem. In fact they’ve been the solution over and over and over again.”

Joyce should know. With stints overseas (exploring water issues in the Philippines and Vietnam) as well as leading the City of Chicago’s Climate Action Plan (a project with an ambitious goal of reducing citywide greenhouse gas emissions 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2020) and more, she has dedicated her career to exploring the intersection of the business, government and nonprofit sectors in promoting and working toward environmental friendly practices.

So how exactly can companies make sustainability sustainable, so to speak? Here’s a preview:

  • Sustainability must be part of the C-suite. Joyce points out that effective sustainability work must first come from a company’s leadership and upper management. “When sustainability is only within the communications division…that’s tough,” she says. “Because sustainability is a question that needs to be asked at the very beginning of strategic planning across the board.”
  • Set targets. It’s scary for some companies to set environmental targets because “setting a target means you might fail” and not reach your goal, she explains. Yet targets give a company something for which to strive and in fact, even if they are not met Joyce believes most  stakeholders are savvy enough to recognize the hard work that goes into trying to meet those goals and will reward companies accordingly.
  • It’s ok for companies to pat themselves on the back. And in fact they should. “You should ask yourself what we’re already doing that’s succeeding as a sustainability enterprise,” Joyce says she recommends to companies. For-profits should start by properly recognizing what they’re doing right and build on to the next stage of environmental stewardship from there.

Listen to my interview with social strategist Joyce Coffee to learn more about the role corporations can – and should – play in environmental sustainability. And remember Joyce’s call to action: “We each have a role in sustainability whether we work on environmental issues or not.”

P.S. – Happy Earth Day!