What’s the “hook” some sustainability professionals at large companies use to get buy-in from c-level executives in support of climate change initiatives?

For Gwen Migita, vice president of sustainability and community affairs for Caesars Entertainment, it’s “customer satisfaction and loyalty.” That’s language the top executives understand, she said.

For less senior-level management, it’s saying that addressing the company’s carbon footprint is a way to mitigate financial risks, Migita said.

She and other senior sustainability leaders spoke during a session about operating in a low-carbon economy at the 2013 Climate Leadership Conference, which ran from Feb. 27-March 1. The conference was hosted by The Climate Registry, the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, and the Association of Climate Change Officers, with EPA as the event's headline sponsor. Bloomberg BNA also was among the sponsors.

Other panelists included TJ DiCaprio, global director for sustainability at Microsoft; Jenell Moffett, climate protection coordinator for Austin, Texas; and John Reilly, senior lecturer for the Center for Environmental Policy Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Getting a Good Inventory

All panelists agreed that the first step in getting corporate leaders on board is to develop a solid inventory of greenhouse gas emissions by using protocols such as the ones developed by the Carbon Disclosure Project or The Climate Registry.

Afterward, being able to monetize the cost of GHG emissions, such as showing how costs can be saved through energy efficiency measures, is also something senior and mid-level managers can understand, according to the panelists.

More Personal Approach Needed

However, to get the message to stick over the long haul appears to require a more personal approach.
For example, Migita said she’s been able to attain sustainability goals for Caesar’s by finding a high-level official who understands the need to operate in a low-carbon way to sponsor the initiatives. “Not every CEO signs on to a strategy,” she said.

For Microsoft’s TJ Dicaprio, a strategy that worked to drive home the need to reduce energy use and greenhouse gas emissions was to focus on people working in the company’s high-revenue growth areas and speak about the future. “They’re more entrepreneurial and able to understand that it’s about revenue growth,” she said.

MIT’s Reilly said that getting c-level suite attention has to be communicated in term of the company’s success. They have to be told that “if we don’t prepare for a change, we’ll be left behind.”

Dicaprio said for her, monetizing climate risks was not straightforward and most of what she proposed to the c-level suite was around soft metrics, such as finding the dollar value of the company brand and tying it to good corporate citizenship and commitment to consumers to use less energy.

In discussing hard metrics, she said it can be useful to "turn it around" and instead of finding a dollar value, for example on company brand, to look where funds are being used, say for renewable energy credits, and then assign a price on carbon. Dicaprio said it's better to start with a low price on carbon, adding that, "You don't want to shock anybody with a high price."

Operations Pose Different Challenges

In addition to dealing with the c-level suite, panelists said managers at the operations level posed a different set of challenges.
For example, Moffett said some 30-plus departments were grouped by similarities in operations. For example, landfill, water, and utilities made up one group, while police, fire, and emergency medical squads made up another. Then by listening carefully and understanding that they have their own operational goals to fulfill, “we asked them how we can move the needle so that all our goals can be met.”

The city is half way to reaching its goal set in 2007 to be net-carbon zero by 2020, she said.

Moffett also said she had to deal with push back from some employees, who for example weren’t trained in the maintenance of alternative-fueled vehicles or who were concerned that not enough fueling stations would be able to support an alternative-fueled vehicle fleet.

Message Is Clear

Overall, one of the biggest challenges, the panelists said, was making sustainability goals stick in day-to-day business operations. “It’s a huge issue,” Migita said, “You just have to continue reiterating it every day and engage employees.” Moffett added that getting a top down buy-in approach—in her case from the mayor—is the main reason the city’s strategy is working.