Becky DeSalvo was clicking around the web one day when she found a video of birds on Midway Atoll in the North Pacific Ocean after they had eaten plastic trash. The birds looked like they had blown up from the inside, little bits of bottle caps, lighters, and packages jutting out.
“It was just one of those Facebook things that was floating around. I showed it to my kids, and they were really bummed out by it,” recalled DeSalvo, a chemistry teacher in Ashland, Oregon. “They just started asking, what can we do?”
DeSalvo’s 10-year-old son Charlie had an idea: His school lunchroom could use metal instead of disposable utensils. He wrote a letter to the head of his school’s food service. She replied with a note of her own explaining that they previously tried using metal utensils but the children often threw them away.
So Charlie went to the student council. They rallied for the school to respond, adding bins in the lunchroom to collect the plastic utensils to show they could learn to save metal forks and spoons. Once the school saw the students could do it, they replaced the disposables with metal.
Now the schoolchildren are wondering what to tackle next.
“I think they feel empowered,” Becky DeSalvo said. “They know they have the power to make a difference, especially when they work together.”
It seems simple: if a bunch of middle school students with no real power can figure out how to be more environmentally conscious, so can managers in their workplaces.
It isn’t about jumping on a trendy environmental bandwagon so that your marketing department can brag about it on Twitter. With the world’s dwindling resources, companies nowadays should be thinking about sustainability as part of their long-term strategy.
“You get to the green thinking by asking how you can prepare your company for the future,” said Christoph Lueneburger, a German expat who leads executive search firm Egon Zehnder’s global private-equity practice in New York City. “Resources are becoming constrained, and that means many of the things we have been doing are going to become increasingly more difficult.”
Europe has long been out front on sustainability, Lueneburger said. In the UK, for instance, measuring a company’s carbon impact has become part of business. Some executives receive part of their bonus based on such achievements. Asian countries appear to be catching up, but the US is still behind in its willingness to really talk sustainability in the boardroom.
Managers ought to be bringing ideas on how to be more green to their supervisors, even if it’s not something in their remit or that the company itself is focused on, said Lueneburger, who is also author of the book Culture of Purpose: How to Choose the Right People and Make the Right People Choose You. Don’t start the conversation with how to save the Amazon. Instead, begin by selling how the idea can positively impact the company’s business model. Your best bet: focus on the supply chain or demand issues that are most likely to have an effect on your firm’s ability to make a profit.
“Before bringing it up the chain of command you have to ask, ‘What is the hook in what I’m proposing to make my business ready for a future where the supply of goods may change?’” Lueneburger suggested.
Of course, if you want to pitch an idea that will help the company, you will need tangible data and information. If you’re wondering now how to begin, that’s where someone like Anna Dengler of New York City-based Great Forest comes in. Her company consults with companies on how to become more sustainable.
The first step is to analyze the environmental impact of the resources you’re using, Dengler said. Then drill down into waste, like after-hour energy use or spikes in water supplies.
Finally comes the brainstorming, where you as a manager get your team together to figure out how to shore up the wasted resources. It may take some pretty tough calculations, too. A manufacturer that switches from steel to aluminum may increase costs today, but it may save money when steel becomes scarce.
“This is where managers are at their best,” Dengler said. “This is where you show your ability to creatively solve a problem.”
One company Dengler worked with found a simple solution. Corporate rules required special requests, like a car service for top clients, to be made on paper. That led to a lot of unnecessary boxes of paper and wasted toner cartridges. It sounded easy — just switch to email. But printing the request had become part of the office culture and suddenly everybody had to learn a new system.
“Usually the problem of company waste is obvious, but it’s the solution that’s challenging because it changes the office culture,” Dengler said.
That’s where the managers come into play again. Consider what happened at Walmart after the company launched a program to become more sustainable a decade ago. The retailer made widespread changes like using more energy efficient lights and trucks.
But it also looked at micro changes that can make impacts. One store employee noticed that the vending machines stayed lit all night, even when nobody was around to use them. The company instituted a chain-wide policy to unplug the vending machine light sources and saved a reported $1m per year.
There’s also the example of German shoe maker Puma, which began a sustainability program in 1993, long before sustainability became a trend. The company first studied its suppliers to figure out if they were sourcing materials responsibly. Then Puma switched away from materials it deemed could become scarce in the future. That cost the money in the short term but improved their image enough that the switch eventually increased profits, Lueneburger said.
The idea of how to use less scarce materials is not far off from the discussion the DeSalvo family is having since Charlie got his school to convert to metal utensils. This summer they’re planning to brainstorm other simple ways the school could become more sustainable.
“Charlie was always the kid with the messiest desk at school. He wasn’t the one that was so organized,” Becky DeSalvo said. “Then here he was getting his whole school motivated. It really shows you what one person can do to change something.”
Sure, the sustainability issues at your company may be bigger than a plastic utensil habit. But challenging the existing process to exact change works in offices — not just lunch rooms.
Has your company prepared for a future with fewer supplies? What ways have you found to make your business more sustainable? To comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Capital, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.