The ever-increasing awareness of how manufacturing, consumption and commerce affect the environment continues to offer exciting new opportunities in the business world. Companies that have environmentally focused strategies are making genuine connections with customers, which translates into success with traditional business measures.
But it’s not easy. In theory, every company has the ability to prioritize sustainability and make more environmentally friendly choices. In reality, it requires strong leadership and vision to take on the potentially greater risk or longer timelines for profitability.
Environmental and business objectives are not mutually exclusive. In fact, these two seemingly disparate elements can work together to produce bottom-line results.
Ray Anderson, the founder of Interface Inc., faced a wake-up call in the 1990s – 20 years after starting his carpet manufacturing company. He credits “The Ecology of Commerce” by Paul Hawken for his environmental awakening as a “spear-in-the-chest experience.” As a result, he steered the company on a path to erase any negative effects Interface had on the environment by 2020. Anderson realized the tremendous influence and economic power businesses have to drive tangible change. The path of his business was forever altered, and he went on to earn the nickname of “World’s Greenest CEO.”
Yvon Chouinard of Patagonia is another leader whose environmental philosophies have become legendary. In addition to leading the way by using ethical suppliers and sustainable or recycled materials, Patagonia’s marketing strategy is famous for encouraging customers not to buy its products. Instead, Patagonia emphasizes the high quality and durability of its wares and pioneers efforts in recycling and developing new materials to help the environment. Given that the company’s sales hit $750 million in 2015, it’s clear that customers support this strategy.
With these inspirational leaders in mind, my partners and I opted for a different approach when we founded 2920 Sleep in 2016 and entered the hypercompetitive, direct-to-consumer mattress industry. Combined with personal experiences seeing our natural environment rapidly changing over the past decade, we started the company with the opportunity and passion to do things differently – especially when it came to sustainability and product design.
One of the biggest problems we wanted to tackle was the industry’s high return rate. Up to 16 percent of direct-to-consumer mattress purchases are returned, which is more than three times higher than a traditional mattress retailer. Returned mattresses are incredibly difficult to resell. Donation centers have been overwhelmed by returned beds, and it has admittedly been easier to send them to recycling centers or landfills. This domino effect has created serious landfill issues, as each bed takes up about 23 cubic feet of landfill space, in addition to sending large numbers of near-new mattresses to recycling centers.
Our strategy focused on investing in quality and design first and foremost. We invested extra time and resources on independent testing to validate our design and material choices. We pushed ourselves on manufacturing and quality control to minimize our waste. The result? A higher-quality product, a return rate significantly lower than our competitors, higher customer satisfaction, and a direct benefit to our bottom line and the environment.
Odds are you don’t operate in the direct-to-consumer mattress industry. Fear not, as there are ways to incorporate sustainability into any business. To ensure you’re just as concerned about Mother Earth as you are with your profit margins, here are a few key leadership principles to guide your strategies and decisions.