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Posted: March 03, 2011

Sustainable Meaning

Sustainable Opportunities Summit Special Section

David Lewis

Sustainability is everywhere, no kidding.

For proof we turn to Google, the oracle of the age (with apologies to Oracle), where a search for "sustainability" yields 39.2 million results and "sustainability" and "business" together display 31.6 million pages.

More impressive still is the result of a search for "sustainability business plan," which shows 10.7 million pages, some of them darn helpful, or a search for "sustainability business management," which turns up 16.5 million results.

Meantime, sustainability has of late made the covers of Fortune, BusinessWeek, Fast Company, Newsweek and Time. Gigantic corporations everywhere are surveying suppliers about their sustainability practices - General Electric, Unilever, Wal-Mart, Procter & Gamble, Kaiser Permanente, IBM, Pepsi - to name a few, with more announcements all the time. Outside the corporate realm, eight of Colorado's 10 largest municipalities have significant sustainability initiatives under way.

But here's the sustainability conundrum:

Despite all its successes, the sustainability movement has yet to reach millions of U.S. businesses and other institutions.

On the other hand, some businesspeople already seem weary of dealing with the demands of sustainability as well as the apparent ubiquity of its message.
In sum, too many people today regard "sustainability" as a royal pain.

Pete Dignan, executive director of Denver-based CORE, Connected Organizations for a Responsible Economy, put it best.

In January, Dignan wrote a ColoradoBiz guest column that began with this plea from a participant in the Statewide Sustainability Roundtable: "Make ‘sustainability' less annoying!"
Dignan wrote that he thought the pleader meant that sustainability has become a pervasive but loaded term.

"I was talking yesterday to a woman largely responsible for sustainability at a large natural-gas company, and she said she never even uses the term ‘sustainability' inside her company because it is just too loaded," Dignan wrote. "She uses other terminology more acceptable, more palatable to the people she is working with.

"‘Sustainability' is a lot like words like ‘beauty' or ‘truth' or ‘justice': They are big, powerful words, but we could argue all day about what they really mean," he points out.

Dignan's solution to the annoyance of the background buzz of sustainability is to unpack its meanings and actually get stuff done:

"You drill down and come up with, for instance, ‘What can we do to heat or cool our building," or "What can we do specifically to manage water and the way we use water and the amount of water we waste,' or ‘What can we do specifically to engage with stakeholders in the communities where we operate to find out what impacts our business has on those communities where we operate, and how we can make those impacts more favorable.'

"You can drill down into those more specific elements of sustainability and get into a more practical discussion with people."

Sustainability really has three or four distinct meanings for business, Dignan says. One might come under the heading of "best practices." Some of those best practices have to do with internal efficiencies.

Dignan has observed that, "Most businesspeople are eager to save money; they are eager to find efficiencies. Anything that helps them to be leaner and more efficient in their operation and save money in the process - well, you've got folks' attention at that point."

Take Framingham, Mass.-based Staples Inc., which was founded 45 years ago.

The company formalized its grip on sustainability and supply-chain best-practices in 2002, establishing its "four cornerstones": selling more environmentally responsible products; reducing the company's impact regarding climate change and amping up its use of renewable energy; recycling more; and "finally, starting to educate customers and associates as to why this is important," explains vice president-environmental affairs Mark Buckley, whose position was established in 2002, too.

Last October, Staples sought to crown its program through the "Race to the Top," a "sustainability challenge" to suppliers to compete on product quality, cost and features - and "finding eco-friendly solutions for product manufacturing, packaging and distribution," the company said, similar to existing programs at Wal-Mart and P&G.

Another angle is that sustainability practices can fuel innovation.

"Most business leaders want to think about innovation," Dignan says. "They want to think about ways to adjust their business model to innovate new products and services that will drive demand and drive their top line, and sustainability contains some of those opportunities as well."

Some S-word innovations go to the core of the corporate mission.

Take the case of Kaiser Permanente.

"Our reason for existing is to provide great health care and improve the health of the community we serve," says Kathy Gerwig, Kaiser Permanente's vice president for Workplace Safety and environmental stewardship officer. "That's our mission - to improve the health of our members and the communities we serve. And we know you can't have healthy people if you have polluted communities."

In mid-decade Kaiser drilled down to some of the practical results of which Dignan spoke, beginning the virtual elimination of mercury in its system.

"When you eliminate mercury, that's good for workers, because you never have an exposure if there has been a spill; good for patients for the same reason; and obviously it's good for the environment," Gerwig says.

What could be called sustainability practices for Kaiser Permanente are in effect existential.

"Our desire is to really clean up the entire supply chain in health care, with chemicals that are inherently low-hazard to people and the environment, (and) to build buildings that contribute to the health of community as opposed to harming it in some way. We think that reducing environmental contributors to disease is part of our mission."

Companies like Staples and Kaiser Permanente did not set out to build sustainable businesses, vertically through the supply chain and horizontally through employees and customers (or patients), but they are now.

Other businesses start out that way. Ryan Ferrero, president of Denver- and Boulder-based Green Garage, has been in the car business one way or the other all his life and decided he could do better than the status quo.

That means running a conventional green garage on the ground, as well as a valet service and a mobile green garage repair truck. And it means offering a green product.
Lots of them. "We have a suite of 50 products. We are constantly churning these products all the time looking for better products that we can test and get to market," he says.
Offering sustainable products and services at Green Garage might mean pumping nitrogen in the tires instead of air, Ferrero says, and it means re-refining used oil into new oil and using a WD-40 alternative based on soy products.

Whether consumers buy the idea has yet to be seen, but Ferrero has put together a stellar list of investors, at any rate.

"I talked to people and asked them if they wanted to come along with me and build a business focused on sustainable transportation here in Colorado, and lo and behold, it has started resonating," Ferrero says.

"Transparency is the thing that is going to start to drive more and more companies to run their business more sustainably," Staples' Buckley says.

Ferrero agrees harping on sustainability has become annoying, but like Dignan looks at the question pragmatically, and like Buckley, he sees transparency at its root.

"Sustainability is to take a very transparent look at what works, what's right - so less bad - and what's better for your wallet," Ferrero says. ν
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David Lewis is a freelance writer based in Denver.

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