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In Business, Don't Waste a Crisis

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This is the third blog in a weekly series on how sustainability can save business. It appears every Tuesday.

Many Canadians are trying to do more with less during this economy of thrift. But we all face essential expenses -- those costs associated with "keeping the lights on" -- often, literally.

Whether you're managing a household or a large corporation, energy -- that stuff that enables your car to move from one place to another, keeps your beer cold and your shower hot -- is generally regarded as an essential expense. Sure, you could drink warm beer and take cold showers; but really? There's got to be a better way.

During a poor economy, it can be a challenge for a business to increase profitability as competition for the "cautious consumer" intensifies and there is increasing pressure on margins. But a recession offers the perfect opportunity to question the way things have always been done -- and drive out waste and inefficiency. One of Jim's favourite slogans is: "a crisis is a terrible thing to waste."

While most are cautiously optimistic about the North American economy today, it was a different story in the latter half of 2008 when Canadian Tire launched its Business Sustainability Strategy with an aspiration to profitably grow the business without increasing energy use or contributing to an increase in the carbon footprint of the economy.

And the company has been somewhat successful: energy and fuel used to move product from vendors to stores is nine per cent lower, despite a 22 per cent increase in tonne-km of product shipped. And energy use for buildings and operations has been cut nine per cent despite more than a nine per cent increase in the amount of real estate square footage.

So sustainability cut costs and mitigated risk against rising energy prices. So how did Canadian Tire achieve this?

The first step was insight and political will. Business leaders need to view sustainability as a way of driving out waste and inefficiency -- and a strategic tool in engaging employees and suppliers in transforming operations.

Second was measuring the energy and carbon footprint of the business and its supply chain -- after all, what gets measured gets managed. This quickly identified two core operational functions responsible for most of the energy use: heating, lighting and cooling over 34-million square feet of retail space, and moving billions of dollars worth of product from over 50 countries from all over the world to a store near you.

The third step was to recognize that innovation is a social process. Employees formed "sustainable innovation networks" around buildings and operations, product transportation, and products and packaging, bringing together people from Corporate Strategy, Marketing, Merchandizing, Packaging, Real Estate, Supply Chain, Strategic Sourcing and Transportation.

These teams broke through their traditional silos to examine and optimize the systems that are Canadian Tire's extended value chain, identifying inefficiency and waste. They brainstormed what more streamlined, energy efficient operations would look like in three, five and 10 years. And then the teams brainstormed the projects and initiatives that would get them there.

With the path revealed, they began their journey and started reporting progress quarterly and measuring economic and environmental benefits.

Three years and more than 1,350 business sustainability projects later, the energy use of Canadian Tire's operations have become significantly more efficient. The amount of energy used to transport a tonne of product one kilometre has decreased by more than 26 per cent, and the amount of energy used to heat, light and cool a single square foot of real estate has decreased by 18 per cent.

That's like having more cold beer at a lower cost while doing your part for the environment -- it's a win-win-win -- or, for Canadian Tire, it's the equivalent of realizing the net profit of three and a half additional stores without actually having to build and operate them.

So sustainability is a strategy that business should be pursuing, especially in a recessionary market.