Tesla Cultivates Grassroots Sustainability Culture: Q&A with Mary Jo Press

Tesla’s goal is to support the creation of a sustainable energy ecosystem. Since starting up in 2003, the Palo Alto, California-based automotive and energy company has introduced several all-electric vehicle models along with energy products like the Powerpack and Powerwall made at their unique Gigafactories.

“Being a relatively new company with lots of new products, we have to close the loop and go back and say, ‘How do we make all of this more efficient?’” says Mary Jo Press, who has been with Tesla for about two years in global safety center of excellence management.

Becoming more efficient doesn’t just apply to production, either. The process of careful re-examination also applies to the organization’s internal sustainability strategy.

Press, who has a background in EHS&S leadership, focuses on developing and deploying key programs, standards, and guidance across Tesla’s global operations for safety. She also collaborates closely with the organization’s environmental center of excellence leader.

Recently we caught up with her to find out how sustainability culture takes root at the company.

How does sustainability show up at Tesla?

You see it in each person and every job function. As we go about our mission to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy, we all integrate that into everything we do. It is not any one department’s responsibility, it is every person’s responsibility.

What is the strategy for reaching that point?

Tesla is different in the sense of how we work. We all have responsibility to many topics, not just quality, safety, and sustainability. At any given moment you will see senior leadership on the floor, hands-on, seeing the effects of decisions they’ve made. That culture helps us look at these aspects holistically.

We started with a volunteer effort where employees opt into an email and tracking system to share ideas. We are currently working on developing a new “ambassadors” program that will be launched in the future.

The grassroots efforts are usually the best because you see personally what needs to change in a department or job function. Then you can share that success with other areas and watch it bloom. That’s the fun part for me, being able to replicate those best practices.

When you have those best practices in place, what are the advantages for Tesla?

There are many great outcomes. Recently we’ve been working on the front end of design to ensure that waste streams are not comingled early so you’re not having to worry about separating them later. Then the management and reuse possibilities increase, and the disposal costs decrease.

You have wins across many platforms when you first choose to reuse where you can. You get more value out of oils, hydraulic fluids, and things like that, and keep the water stream separate as well.

Do you have another example of a win?

I’ll choose one that’s totally different from manufacturing. Food trucks come to our site and their generators continued to run. They needed that for cooking and making their products, but we reached out to some of them, and they were able to have more efficient or electric generators.

It was a small win, but that launched the shuttles. As they come to pick up people, a bus pulls up and sits. If it’s just for the loading and the unloading, that makes sense, but to idle for some period of time in our warm climate doesn’t. That’s the kind of grassroots thing where people saw it one area and said we have the same thing over here. They put up signs that say, “No idling if the vehicle is not attended.” It’s working.

Do you have advice for other sustainability leaders?

No matter where we are or what company we work for, we all have to think about what can we do to show that sustainability really does positively impact the bottom line. We have to be able to talk the language — here’s the dollar factor if we make this change, it does have an ROI — and that is where you have management support for change.

A lot of companies I’ve seen over the years think about the costs to build a building, for example, but don’t always factor in the cost to maintain that building long-term. Think about your cost to continue running, not just to start running.

Where is sustainability culture headed at Tesla, and in general?

We have re-thought how sustainability needs to work, and it has to be driven to the level of every individual. When you engage every person to make a little impact, then your overall impact is great. I hope we continue the course we are on to capture grassroots ideas that make somebody else’s day even better.

It’s fun to be part of change in the world in a new way — sustainability not in the sense of just counting the number of gallons or BTUs, but holistically. That’s where I’d like to see the sustainability community going. We need to think about more than the numbers.

Learn more about how to cultivate successful sustainability culture at the 4th Annual Environmental Leader & Energy Manager Conference May 13 – 15, 2019 in Denver. Register here.

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