Sustainability – What is it?
These days, it seems like everyone is rushing to call themselves sustainable. At the grocery store, you see sustainably-caught fish and sustainably-sourced chickpeas. At the hardware store, you can find rows and rows of sustainable lumber. When you go outside in the morning, you can tell that your newspaper was made from sustainably-recycled materials because it has already been dissolved by the rain (unless it’s covered in an unsustainable plastic sleeve). Each one of the companies behind these examples may utilize some sort of sustainable practice in their product creation, but exactly how a product or company is sustainable can be difficult to discern. Commonly, we’ve seen that sustainability is defined as “developments or practices that meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.”
So, if we are being practical, what does sustainability mean for an organization? For this post, I’ll be describing a business-relevant definition of the term and how it is applied to a company’s social, economic, and environmental impact. These are known in the professional vernacular as the three pillars of sustainability or the Triple Bottom Line.
Companies and employees have the most direct control of their environmental impact when it is embedded in their operations or direct supply chain. For example, companies can set targets for their facilities to move to zero-waste or to reduce energy use and thereby CO2 emissions (See GHG Protocol). These types of programs are great for a few reasons; they reduce the overall potential negative impact of your product, they recognize the growing demand for (and marketability of) sustainable business, and most importantly they improve an organization’s bottom-line!
From this, we can better define sustainability and why it matters to a business. The implementation of a proactive sustainable business program improves a company’s Triple Bottom Line by addressing social and environmental deficiencies of their current practices while saving money and making the company more resilient over the long-term.
So, how do I ensure my company incorporates sustainability?
Organizations can implement the concepts of sustainability in different manners based on a number of factors, including type of industry, scope of current practices, etc. Some universal methods that can fast-track your program include the following:
- Report on sustainability targets, initiatives, and progress.
- Work with other companies for change (i.e. recycling acceptance).
- Improve business processes continually.
- Determine the impacts of your supply chain (both direct and indirect).
Reporting sustainability has become the de facto start for organizations on this journey. It is important to look internally, think about core business processes, and how those can be re-thought to both support a business case and sustainable development. Reporting on targets and progress also promotes accountability to employees and stakeholders.
Let’s use an example to show how to report on a sustainable target: tracking waste. Whether you operate an office or major manufacturing plant, you are producing waste. We know, based on the EPA waste hierarchy, that there is a range of methods for managing waste; from the most preferred (reusing waste) to the least preferred (shipping to a landfill). If your waste isn’t hazardous, there are no federally mandated laws that forbid you from simply dumping it all in a landfill.
But, even though it’s not federally regulated, we can all agree that reusing materials is a better waste management strategy than dumping into a landfill (reduces the need for virgin resources, reduces land allocated to waste, etc.) By adjusting business processes through the lens of sustainable practices, re-imagining trash disposal can become a force for good (and foster innovation in high waste-generating industries)!
Bringing it back to your business, you need to define the areas where you have the most control, as well as those which would have the highest impact or environmental benefit. Start here, set goals, track your progress, engage employees and you quickly have some of the major tenets of an applied sustainability program!
Don’t forget – Compliance is the bedrock of Sustainability
Just like you can’t build a sturdy house without a foundation, you can’t build a resilient sustainability program without addressing environmental compliance.
How sustainability helps your business:
- Increase employee engagement/expertise with your program
- Reduce Risk (supply chain, regulations, brand reputation)
- Gain market share, increase brand reputation
How strong compliance helps your business:
- Increase employee engagement/expertise with your program
- Reduce Risk (facilities, supply chain, litigation, brand reputation)
Notice any similarities? While it’s true, you won’t be able to measure increased market share from compliance programs as directly as you could with sustainable programs (and ensuring compliance is not nearly as glamorous to report publicly), but companies that fall out of compliance and pollute illegally usually end up in the news (or the courtroom)! This is the negative type of PR that every company wants to avoid especially if they are already marketing sustainability. We know, ensuring compliance is relatively complicated and requires constant effort and attention. But without it, you’re not ready to apply resources to your sustainable program.
The public also understands that a company that is polluting is not committed to sustainability! It’s important to know that these efforts are built on the assumption that an organization already has programs that are compliant to the law and are working on programs and projects that are beyond simple compliance. In other words, don’t focus too much energy on your sustainability targets until you’ve met your legal obligations and furthermore, don’t lose sight of your legal obligations once (see Volkswagen owing $2.8 Billion to the EPA) you have adopted sustainability programs. Your brand has a reputation, make sure you protect it and its value!
In other words, you can have environmental compliance without sustainability – but you can’t have an honest sustainability program while polluting the air, water, or land.