An Earth Day Conversation with Cox Enterprises Chairman Jim Kennedy

Apr 22, 2015 2:00 PM ET
Cox Enterprises Chairman Jim Kennedy

In celebration of Earth Day, below is a Q&A with Cox Enterprises Chairman Jim Kennedy about sustainability and the environment. Kennedy serves on the board for the PATH Foundation. He is a former president of Wetlands America Trust, Inc. and previously served on the boards of Ducks Unlimited and Atlanta Committee for Progress. He's the recipient of The Trust for Public Land’s Conservation Champion award, Ducks Unlimited's Conservation Achievement Award and the Georgia Conservancy's Distinguished Conservationist of the Year award. 

You introduced Cox Conserves in 2007. What was the impetus behind the company’s commitment to sustainability?

There was no one point or event that prompted that commitment. It truly was just the natural expression of the philosophy that has driven our business for well over a century: Doing business can’t be separate from doing the right thing. We want to think about the environmental and societal impact of every business decision we make for our employees, the communities we serve and the world at large. Since we launched Cox Conserves formally, it has grown into a more than $100 million investment in sustainability and conservation through operations, projects and grants to environmental nonprofits.

Cox Enterprises has defined some ambitious sustainability goals to send zero waste to landfill by 2024 and become carbon and water neutral by 2044. What is the biggest challenge to realizing these goals in the time frames targeted?

We’ve put them in place not only to help prioritize our work, but also to remind us that we can’t think of sustainability as a final state, even if we’ve announced a deadline. Sustainability is really a dynamic process that requires us to make choices about the changes we want to bring about – from the exploitation of resources to technological development. There’s a need for people to share our understanding that, at its core, all economic development is essentially a sustainability issue. Everyone needs to understand that every decision must be made with an eye toward its impact on the future.

How does employee engagement help you work toward realizing your sustainability goals?

Our people are our most important resource; they are the driving force behind our progress. That’s why our internal communications focus on ways our employees can make a difference at work, home and in the community. Our objective is to make everyone mindful of what they can do to create a more sustainable future. And that manifests itself in many ways – sharing creative ideas to streamline our operations, simply hesitating before printing something, banding together to volunteer  for community organizations or displaying enthusiasm for competing in the Chairman’s Cup. When employees are motivated not  just by external rewards, but also by having  a purpose and being committed to shared values, then the organization has a much better chance of achieving its goals.

Innovation is critical to business growth and success. How can sustainability lead to innovation?

Establishing sustainable practices forces companies to think differently about every-thing they do and how they do it – their products, processes, technology and business models. That kind of thinking creates new products, reduces the volume of resources consumed, lowers costs and spawns new businesses to meet customer needs. Everyone today needs to understand that when we make sustainability an essential part of development, we’re actually building a competitive advantage. 

Does the average citizen today understand what is at stake in working to make business practices more sustainable? How do you communicate your commitment to sustainability to your customers?

I often worry that in today’s hectic city life, many people are so consumed with day-to-day activities that environmental concerns get pushed into the background. Because our media outlets reach more than 50 million Americans weekly, we can inform them about sustainability issues when there’s an appropriate opportunity. We use our media reach to communicate our vision, demonstrate its  relevance, provide concrete results of our sustainable practices and create opportunities for our audiences to be engaged with us in the work we do. That’s how we educate people. Our goal is to help them realize that from now on, every business must be dedicated to meeting their needs without compromising the quality of life for those who come after us.

There also is great value in leading by example – offering paperless billing to  Cox Communications customers; or letting our Manheim customers know how much water we’re saving in our operations; or meeting with our suppliers to talk about environmentally responsible business practices. It’s the same approach as engaging our employees – we want to underscore the idea that everyone must do their part – that our actions speak.

About Cox Conserves:

Launched in 2007 by Chairman Jim Kennedy, Cox Conserves is Cox Enterprises' national sustainability program. Cox Conserves focuses on reducing waste and energy consumption, as well as conserving water. The program engages each of the company's major subsidiaries (Cox Communications, Cox Automotive and Cox Media Group) and encourages Cox Enterprises' 50,000 employees and their families to engage in eco-friendly practices.

The company's sustainability goals are to send zero waste to landfill by 2024 and become carbon and water neutral by 2044. The company also presents the Cox Conserves Sustainability Survey, a nationwide survey that examines sustainability opportunities and challenges for small and medium-sized businesses.