A New Green Philosophy with the Glass Half Full: Interview with Yalmaz Siddiqui of Office Depot

Filed under: Business Sustainabilty | |

Yalmaz Siddiqui, Office Depot’s Director of Environmental Strategy, shares his glass-half-full view of environmental policy, calls for a new definition of “green” and talks about the legacy he’d like to leave.

Siddiqui joined Office Depot in 2006. He’s since developed programs that improve the environmental standards of Office Depot’s supply chain, its internal operations and the consumer market.

What is Office Depot’s approach to environmental responsibility?

We have a very comprehensive approach, which we articulate as Buy Green, Be Green and Sell Green. We have a series of purchasing approaches—both for products we resell or products we use ourselves—that encourage the purchasing of products with green attributes and certifications.

“Be Green” means actively working to reduce waste, fuel and energy and associated carbon emissions on an absolute basis, and then to find innovative ways to engage our customer base in purchasing greener options. That’s our broad approach, which is really centered on business—making economic decisions that are also environmental decisions.

What is your goal with Office Depot? Did you begin the Buy Green, Be Green, Sell Green initiative?

I established the framework and helped create a clear set of quantifiable metrics that we used to evaluate the success of our implementation.

Office Depot hired its first director of environmental affairs in 2003 and I joined in 2006. [The inaugural director] focused on Office Depot’s most material and environmental impact, paper, which, was a concern of our customers and stakeholders. There was a demand for us to provide more sustainable options and look at sourcing from forests.

Now, as we’ve built up our Buy, Be, Sell approach we have two business goals, which both lead to environmental performance improvement. The first is to find ways to cut costs over the long run—material efficiency, fuel efficiency and energy efficiency, and the second is to drive differentiation for Office Depot and win customers.

Office Depot’s environmental strategy is not disconnected from its business strategy; as we achieve successful sales of green products and successful execution of efficiency programs, the environment will benefit and our business will improve.

Several years ago Office Depot spent more than $20 million in lighting retrofits, energy system upgrades, and delivery truck fleet conversion. How did the company justify such a large upfront investment?

It was part of a broad program to improve operational efficiency. We analyzed our return on investments and found that our fleet transitions, store retrofits, energy management system and other upgrades would pay back within three years. In this current economic climate, it’s a bit more complex. The environmental improvements really have to pass economic tests as well. [Office Depot saved $6.2 million in electricity costs in one year by retrofitting store lighting to T5 Energy-Efficient Lighting and installing energy management systems across its chain of more than 1,200 stores.]

One thing I want to highlight is that large businesses are going to be compelled to “go green” if their customers ask and if it’s in their operational best interests. In some respect, the environmental community has not looked at things that are economically beneficial as “good enough.” It’s almost this feeling that you have to pay to be green. And we feel that it’s much more sustainable to focus on things that are actually economically beneficial as part of an environmental program.

Where should businesses looking to engage in environmental programs start?

It’s important to look at environmental initiatives as you do other elements of the business. It’s an investment you make, similar to investing in marketing to get a return.

First begin with your customers. Ask, “What do our customers care about?” vis à vis which products and services you could be selling. It can be as simple as having conversations with your customers. But before converting customer feedback into new products and services, you need to analyze your own material and environmental impact. You don’t need to look at all of your footprints, but look at the most significant environmental impact and find no-cost or low cost ways the environmental end can help reduce system or operational costs. Then it’s important to quantify how much is being saved after the investments and programs have been implemented. You can gather these savings in a separate budget line item and use them to fund other upgrades or programs that invariably will cost something.

So the customer comes first, then internal cost-saving opportunities and finally more long-term operational efficiency programs. Once you have a baseline story that expresses that you’re walking the talk and going green yourself, then do a push outward to meet the customer needs you learned about.

You work as one part of a very large company. Do you get frustrated that you can’t be more aggressive with your environmental initiatives?

The notion of environmental improvement affects absolutely everything that a company does. Someone in an environmental role could see the volume of things that need to get done and be concerned that the company is not doing even one-quarter of what needs to be done. Well that’s the half-empty view. The half-full view would look at all that a company has done and is continuing to do and try and find ways to encourage—through carrots, through business casing, through internal and external business recognition programs—to do more. There’ll always be more to do. No one is perfectly green. Everyone is on a continuum of shades of green.

I’m encouraged by what Office Depot is doing and by what other companies are doing and I’d like my company to do more and others to do more, but I cannot sit and get frustrated based on what we’re not doing. I’d rather focus on what we are doing and encourage more progress in these areas.

And this is one of the changes I’d like to see from the environmental community as well; there’s a tendency to focus on what companies are not doing and looking at the situation negatively, rather than looking at what companies are doing, supporting them and promoting their initiatives.

What percent of Office Depot stores are outfitted with energy saving fixtures and equipment?

More than 90%.

What’s the legacy you’d like to leave?

I’d like to see a full, robust range of ‘light green’ and ‘dark green’ products that are packaged in one, consistent package and are available globally. That would be the great achievement on the product side.

On the operations side, I’d like to see a continued absolute reduction in CO2, meeting or exceeding the goals set out by Copenhagen.

On the customer side, I’d love to see dedicated green sections in our stores and greater evidence that customers are choosing Office Depot because of our comprehensive, and hopefully well regarded, environmental program. If customers choose to buy from us because of our strong environmental programs, that would be success.


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Author: Olivia Khalili (2 Articles)

Olivia is the founder of CauseCapitalism.com, a resource to help entrepreneurs create purpose driven businesses. She works with companies to grow their businesses by implementing a social mission. Her approach is guided by her experiences helping launch three online startups, advising nonprofits on program and fund development and working in international development in Micronesia for a year through the Kennedy School of Government. She's lived in France, the Marshall Islands and Argentina and recently moved to Washington, D.C., to consult with Ashoka's Changemakers. Follow Olivia on twitter or read her blog.