Within every company, there lies a sleeping giant. Companies have long been viewed as either the primary cause of environmental destruction, or as a deep-pocketed funding source for people trying to confront it. But with their access to innovation, new technology, and intellectual firepower, most companies are built to tackle the challenges our planet faces in a way smaller organizations and foundations can’t.

What would happen if executives stopped looking at sustainability as a side project for the PR team and saw it instead as a way to benefit the planet and their profits?

The giant would be awakened—and the world would never be the same.

Jake Kheel wrote Waking the Sleeping Giant to help unlock your company’s hidden power to save the planet. He offers an action-driven, common sense approach to sustainability supported by real-life examples from his work in the Dominican Republic that demonstrate how companies can become a potent force for sustainability. I recently caught up with Jake to learn more about what inspired him to write the book and his favorite idea he shares with readers.

Published with permission from the author.

What happened that made you decide to write the book? What was the exact moment you realized these ideas needed to get out there?

Over the years, I have participated in dozens of business conferences, meetings and workshops about sustainability, sustainable tourism, and any number of environment related challenges that businesses face and how to address them. At one meeting, while we debated once again the best way to convince a CEO how to get fully on board with a proposed solution, it occurred to me that the same issues and questions kept coming up, like it was an environmental groundhog’s day and every meeting it was as if we were starting from scratch.

Yet we weren’t starting from scratch. There were many examples from companies of successful (and unsuccessful) programs that we could all be learning from, if someone was willing to share them. In my case, I have been confronting social and environmental challenges for 15 years as VP of Sustainability for Grupo Puntacana. I’ve built up a ton of experience of what works and what doesn’t, have developed my own stealthy strategies for getting our company to find solutions without getting bogged down in corporate resistance, and have created dozens of concrete examples to share. For years people had visited me in Punta Cana to learn from these experiences, but in-person visits have a limited reach. It became clear to me that writing a book was the best way to engage a larger audience to share my experiences and impart some of my most hard-fought lessons to others. My hope was to end the groundhog day and help other sustainability implementers solve some of their biggest challenges.

What’s your favorite specific, actionable idea in the book?

Don’t become an environmentalist! You don’t need to be a sustainability expert to contribute to solving social and environmental challenges. In fact, in order to solve some of the world’s most pressing problems, we need the ideas of sustainability to become inherently embedded in all kinds of professions and fields. Instead of studying or training to become a sustainability guru, we need sustainability to become the status quo and practices so widely that it becomes part and parcel of most professions. We need all architects to contemplate green designs, instead of it becoming a niche specialization. The same goes with green building, green hotels, responsible travel, sustainable agriculture, among others. Instead of becoming a sustainable plumber, we need all plumbers to practice sustainability. Don’t become the environmentalist or sustainability expert that operates separate from and outside of the basic operations of your company. This makes sustainability just another special interest group.

Some of the biggest successes I’ve had at Grupo Puntacana occur when a new initiative or decision with clear environmental considerations is suggested by someone else in the company (rather than Jake the eco guy). For example, the business team presents a proposal to develop a solar energy project or the real estate and architecture departments develop landscaping guidelines that require the use of native plants and vegetation that require little or no chemical inputs or irrigation. These types of decisions reflect an obvious shift in the corporate culture, where sustainable decision-making becomes part of the DNA of the company. This is when I know I am doing my job, when sustainability is baked into the culture and not an add on separate from the normal decision-making process.

Published with permission from the author.

What’s a story of how you’ve applied this lesson in your own life? What has this lesson done for you?

When I present a new sustainability initiative to our board or executive committee, I rarely try to justify the project exclusively on its social or environmental merits. The initiative has to create value for the company, for our customers, or provide some competitive advantage. Sustainability can help your image and provide marketing and PR value. It can help improve efficiency and provide cost savings. It can create a culture for innovation that makes your company more creative, or more resilient in the face of new challenges, or more adept at changing when market conditions change. Sustainability can motivate loyalty from your collaborators, boosting morale and keeping them from seeking new job opportunities. There are a lot of reasons to make the investment of time, resources and human capital in sustainability, but it can’t be exclusively about saving the planet if you want people to support you. Sustainability has to produce real value for the company.

For example, in 2007 when we pitched the idea of Grupo Puntacana becoming a Zero Waste property (an aspiration goal to eventually produce literally no garbage) to our CEO, we built a business case based on the economics, cost-savings, improvements in our corporate image, and getting ahead of government environmental regulations that would eventually require improvements in waste management for all companies. We created spreadsheets, presentations, and generated arguments that barely mentioned the environmental benefits of reducing our waste footprint. We took our CEO through all the reasons that justified the initial investment in becoming Zero Waste, and our CEO waved us off. He said, we have to do this because it’s the right thing to do morally and as responsible corporate citizens. Additionally, becoming Zero Waste in tourism makes perfect sense because most of our visitors come from developed countries where their waste is handled far better than the DR. If we want them to feel comfortable and at home, we need to meet the expectations they have from home.