02/27/2013 03:50 pm ET Updated Apr 29, 2013

Sustainability Structures That Fail

A former client recently pointed out that her executive management team considered sustainability as integrated into their organization. When I asked where it was integrated, she said, "in the facilities department."

I have come across this perspective in the last six months in various conversations that I have had with businesses. Many mid-sized companies believe that they have adopted sustainable business practices. What this really means, in the majority of cases, is that their facilities department has been tasked with retrofitting lighting and some of the building equipment in order to increase energy efficiency, and with posting signs to increase recycling and decrease waste to landfill. I have even seen titles that incorporate the two, such as 'Director of Facilities Department and Sustainability.'

In other instances, the facilities department addresses energy and waste, and someone else in the organization is in charge of 'sustainability', and the two don't speak. Some of these companies even have Green Teams. These teams are mainly made up of younger individuals who are excited about sustainability and who send out occasional tips and post signs to remind their colleagues to recycle and turn off the lights.

Let me be clear: I am not saying that the facilities department cannot oversee sustainable business practices nor that Green Teams are ineffective. What I am saying is that sustainability cannot rest solely with the facilities department. Further, if some aspects of sustainability fall within the purview of the facilities department, facilities should be in close contact with the rest of the organization about this topic.

Facilities management, by definition, is concerned with building systems. It stands to reason then, that if sustainability rests with the facilities department only, it will most likely be building-focused. It is important to make building-specific changes, and these are often the easiest to quantify. However, there are other areas of the organization that must be engaged in order for a company in today's market to truthfully claim that they are an environmentally sustainable organization.

If a company wants to be sustainable and its outputs consist mainly of products, at the very least, the engineers in charge of creating the products and the executives with the vision should be part of the conversation. If the main output of the organization is services, the organization should incorporate sustainable business practices in their internal processes. In both scenarios, sustainability needs to be cross-departmental. Studies consistently show that companies that incorporate sustainability -- including resource efficiency -- across the organization come out on top financially.

Going back to my initial example, it is important for executive management to be aware of the potential pitfalls of locating sustainability in the facilities department. Sustainability is now a strategic business decision. Companies that are leading in the sustainability arena tend to have an executive who is responsible for overseeing its implementation organization-wide. While hiring an executive solely for this area may not be as economically feasible now, coordination and communication is still necessary to ensure that sustainability is embedded into the organization.

The effort will fail in the long term if sustainability is structured such that it rests solely with the facilities department. Likewise, if there are multiple individuals in different parts of the organization in charge of various aspects of sustainability, they should be in close contact on an ongoing basis. Companies that are not on the Fortune 500 list should take a page from those that are. A 2012 survey by MIT Sloan found that companies with over 100,000 employees are more likely to have a comprehensive sustainability strategy, one that has been implemented across departments.

If you are reading this and this applies to your workplace, it is time to take action and start the dialogue. This will put you closer to sustainability being implemented throughout the organization.