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Posted: January 01, 2011

Guest Column: Unloading the baggage of sustainability

By Pete Dignan

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"Make ‘sustainability' less annoying!"

Among the dozens of creative ideas that were scrawled on a big sheet of butcher paper during the Statewide Sustainability Roundtable in November, this one stood out.

Attendees were people whose jobs involve managing sustainability initiatives for companies and government agencies. Participants had been asked to post their best ideas for solving several daunting problems.

I think the author of this quip was implying that sustainability has become a pervasive but loaded term. To some, it is almost synonymous with avoiding climate change or promoting renewable energy. To others, it means recycling and reducing material waste. Maybe for you it's about buying locally, greening your supply chain or encouraging volunteerism in the community where your business operates.

As the executive director of CORE, a nonprofit association that promotes sustainable business practices, my challenge is to make sustainability more comprehensible and actionable for a large number of businesses.

One way to explain why business sustainability is necessary would be to focus on threats like climate change, loss of topsoil, draw-down of aquifers and accelerating species extinction. We could talk about how these are likely to lead to local and global energy, food and water shortages with accompanying price spikes, even triggering geopolitical instability.

But this sort of apocalyptic forecasting has been used by the environmental movement for many years without much effect.

CORE would rather focus on the opportunity for value creation - and communicate this value in understandable business language. In the 21st century, businesses that incorporate sustainability thinking in their strategies will benefit from increased revenue and brand value, lower operating costs, increased innovation and more resilience than those that take a more traditional approach.
Smart businesses begin by educating and engaging employees and suppliers. And they make deep commitments to the communities where they operate. Investing in people reduces employee turnover, drives customer retention and generates goodwill in the community.

The next step is to reframe our business processes from "take-make-waste" to "nothing wasted." My father, who grew up in the Great Depression, folded up used aluminum foil and put it back in the drawer to be used again. As kids, we would laugh at him, but he would just smile and say "waste not, want not." Reducing energy, water and material usage (and recycling everything we can) is the low-hanging fruit of sustainability, resulting in lower expenses and higher profits.

Wal-Mart is a great example - the company is removing energy and packaging waste from its supply chain and realizing enormous savings as a result. This approach is not limited to large businesses. Tennant is a relatively small U.S.-based manufacturer of floor and carpet cleaning equipment. It developed a process for cleaning that eliminated the need for chemicals and sharply reduced water use. This is driving sales growth and market cap for Tennant even in a down economy.

To the extent an organization can decrease its carbon footprint and eliminate potentially hazardous or toxic materials from its processes, it will reduce legal, financial and brand-image risk. We call this the "clean up your act" aspect of business sustainability. In this effort, companies that make or handle products will perform complete lifecycle assessments, while service businesses may focus primarily on carbon dioxide reduction.

Businesses are often vocal about their successes but quiet about their shortcomings. With sustainability efforts, the belief is that radical transparency adds real business value. Since the economic meltdown of 2008, respect for business has fallen to an all-time low. At CORE we believe that regular reporting of progress on sustainability efforts - warts and all - is an opportunity to rebuild some of that lost trust and grow the value of your brand.

Our plan at CORE over the coming years is to work with hundreds, and eventually thousands,
of Colorado companies to show that sustainability can be as straightforward as investing in people, eliminating waste, cleaning up your act and telling your story.

See, that's not so annoying, is it?

Pete Dignan is the executive director of CORE, an organization dedicated to helping companies implement sustainability policies and practices into their operations. He can be reached at pete@corecolorado.org.
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