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Posted: December 01, 2010

Cote’s Colorado: Making sustainability obsolete

Mike Cote

Alice Madden likes to tell the story of an upstart job applicant who had the nerve to confront his potential employer about the lack of sustainability information on the company's website.

The executive was irritated by the question - but three days later the company added a corporate sustainability section to its website, says Madden, who serves as climate change adviser for Gov. Bill Ritter.

The anecdote drives home what many business people already know: Their employees and customers expect them to embrace something more than the next quarter's earnings statement.
"We have this generation that expects this," Madden told a group of about 200 people gathered in November for the Statewide Sustainability Roundtable.

Madden appeared with Mark Gasta, senior vice president at Vail Resorts Management Co., on a panel that capped the all-day event at the University of Denver, organized by the Alliance for Sustainable Colorado. (ColoradoBiz was among the event's sponsors.)

Participants spent much of the day gathered in small-group discussions about overcoming barriers in organizations, developing professional programs and financing renewable energy projects. They listened to keynote speakers like Fowler Town Administrator Wayne Snider, who chronicled the southeastern Colorado town's adoption of renewable energy; and small group presenters like Llewellyn Wells of Living City Block, a nonprofit group kicking off its urban sustainability initiative with a group of buildings in Denver's LoDo neighborhood.

Madden's and Gasta's talk, moderated by University of Denver Adjunct Professor James "Skip" Spensley, centered on how to make sustainability more mainstream.

"For people to change their behavior, it has to be really, really easy, and it has to be cheap, or there has to be an easy way to have access to capital," Madden said.

The Governor's Energy Office has worked with Realtors to include energy information in home sale materials. Some 70 percent of homes in Colorado included in multiple listing service data include information on energy efficiency, Madden said.

"So if you're looking at two houses, and one has been rehabbed for energy and one hasn't, and they're about the same price, which one are you going to go with?" she said.

Within corporations, sustainability needs to become part of the business process so that it's no longer considered a separate function, said Gasta, whose company has embraced renewable energy, recycling and sustainable building design at its ski resort properties.

"Time and time and time again, the metrics show that businesses that focus on sustainability outperform their peer group," he said. "How do we actually make sustainability obsolete, so that it's just part of the business planning process, in which we look at people, profit and planet?"

Gasta said he was attracted to work at Vail Resorts in large part because CEO Rob Katz has demonstrated a commitment to sustainability.

"He wants to try to find the balance between all the key stakeholders, doing well by employees, by guests and by shareholders," Gasta said. "The first rule of business is stay in business, and then you can reinvest in all those other key stakeholders, including your community and the environment."

Sustainability still needs more "true believers," people who can help drive home that it reduces costs, Madden said.

"People realize they can save money, and that really becomes the corporate ethic," she said. "And that's happened with every business I have been associated with that has jumped into this."
The state and business need to create partnerships to better recognize sustainability initiatives, Gasta said.

"For example, we do ‘best places to work' type awards in this state. That's one of the key stakeholders as I see it in sustainability: the employee," he said. "How do we begin to educate the population of the broader definition of sustainability and reward behaviors like that?"

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Mike Cote is the former editor of ColoradoBiz. E-mail him at mcote@cobizmag.com.

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