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How the Collaboration Economy Turns Sustainable Dreams into Sustainable Realities

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Posted: 4:34PM April 17th, 2014 | Comments

Our Dream of Zero Waste Future: Collaboration Economy Model Helps Turn Sustainable Dreams into Sustainable Realities


Submitted by Andrea Slinde, email .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)


Environmental sustainability can be a good business practice that, amongst other benefits, adds value to executives, employees, and customers by promoting trust between all three groups. Yet, when company begins to wrestle with the challenge of trying to minimize their environmental impact by implementing newer and more sustainable business practices, it may feel like a solitary pursuit. That’s why it’s so important for companies to realize that sustainability can be achieved with the strategic collaboration of public and nonprofit sectors.

At a time when individuals are beginning to take environmental issues into purchasing decisions, more companies, like Wisconsin’s own American Family Insurance, are becoming leaders in environmental stewardship by harnessing the full potential of a collaboration economy.

Leading sustainability expert and author of The Collaboration Economy, Eric Lowitt, describes the model as an “economic system in which smart growth, fueled by collaborative initiatives, serves as a vehicle to accelerate the journey toward sustainable development”. In this model, public, private, and nonprofit organizations work together with the intention of achieving environmental sustainability.

At the recent 2014 Sustainability Summit in Milwaukee, Wis., American Family Insurance spelled out its environmental stewardship efforts on a panel discussion called “Our Dream of a Zero Waste Future”. The panel discussion, moderated by American Family Insurance Sustainability Specialist Beth Churchill, focused on the collaborative efforts needed to implement corporate sustainability programs. Each person on the panel represented a key player and contributor to American Family Insurance’s success in sustainability: George Dreckmann, City of Madison recycling coordinator, Maggie Becker, the Zero Waste Program Lead at American Family Insurance, and Jessie Lerner, Executive Director at Sustain Dane.

As Maggie Becker noted, American Family Insurance would not have been successful without the help from nonprofit and public partners, like Sustain Dane and the City of Madison. This collaborative partnership catalyzed the design and implementation of American Family Insurance’s Zero Waste Future - a comprehensive program to allow less than 10% of the company’s total waste to end up in a landfill.

The newest strategy under American Family Insurance’s Zero Waste Program is a organization-wide organic matter recycling program. Maggie Becker presented American Family Insurance’s recent integration of the recycling project, illustrating how the sustainability team has collaborated with local community partners to make this sustainable dream a sustainable reality. The sustainability team worked closely with the City of Madison to determine the best onsite methods to separate and recycle organic matter from paper and other recyclables.

Becker said that the most complicated component of the project is educating employees how to utilize the new system correctly and keeping them interested and prideful about participating. Dreckmann underscored the importance of creating a company culture around the program in order to cultivate long-term behavior change and a corporate value of sustainability. To do that, Becker and her Zero Waste team are hosting an educational waste audit on Earth Day to show employees how they can directly curb organic matter that otherwise ends up in landfills. They will be shown exactly what is and is not organic matter, and they will have an opportunity to ask experts from the City any questions they have about the system.

Through our MPower Business Champion Program, Sustain Dane helps American Family Insurance to develop relationships with other local businesses that are also working towards sustainability. These relationships help to expand knowledge and experiences with other businesses that are having similar difficulties when planning sustainability projects.

Jessie Lerner emphasized the importance for champions to have absolute trust and transparency with their sustainability efforts so that quality connections between businesses can become beneficial to all. Failures, mistakes, successes, and knowledge should be shared experiences among collaborators as a way to avoid making the same mistakes in the future. For example, Lands’ End and American Family Insurance have worked closely to build a relationship where both companies benefit from the other’s previous sustainability experiences.

Moderator Beth Churchill led the audience through an interactive exercise to brainstorm and discuss what our dream of a zero waste future would be and how it could be achieved. We were able to get a glimpse of the difficulties that corporate sustainability teams face when trying to coordinate programs that work reduce their environmental impact. Sustainability planning requires a whole new way of thought. Churchill’s exercise allowed us to practice applying the dream mentality that American Family Insurance firmly believes in.

This is why, in 2012, American Family created a co-working space on Madison’s Capitol Square called DreamBank, which truly leverages collaboration as a vehicle for change. At the DreamBank, individuals can network, attend free workshops and events, and brainstorm ways to stimulate change by collaborating with other members of the community. As a frequent DreamBank visitor, I have been able to acquire skills that have facilitated successful change in my own life, and I have enjoyed having a productive space to work as I write this article. 

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