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Key Practice Area - Sustainability - What is Sustainability
Key Practice Area: Sustainability

What is Sustainability?

These interviews with experts and corporate decision-makers provide an overview of sustainability, including how it’s changing business today.


In this section, you will find:

FAQ: “What is Sustainability?”

This FAQ by Dr. Joseph Fiksel, Executive Director of the Center for Resilience at The Ohio State University, provides an overview of sustainability, from the Brundtland Commission to how companies are making it a reality today.

Interview: “How does EHS relate to Sustainability?”

Kelvin Roth, Director, Environment, Health and Safety Group for AMCOL International Corp., explains how he views the relationship between EHS and sustainability.

Career Profile: What do environmental sustainability managers do?

What skills do you need to get a job in this field? Hear from Steve Walker, Manager of Environmental Sustainability at Burt’s Bees Inc., about how he got his start and what he loves about his career.


What is sustainability?

By Dr. Joseph Fiksel

Very simply, sustainability is the capacity to last a long time. In recent decades, it has become evident that the sustainability of the global economy depends on the availability of natural resources to satisfy basic human needs, such as nourishment and energy. Also, many believe that sustaining quality of life for human societies requires additional conditions such as freedom, fairness and human dignity.

In 1987, the United Nations Brundtland Commission published the most widely cited definition of sustainable development:

“Development that meets the needs of the present, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

The above definition is too abstract for purposes of management decision-making, and a variety of more specific definitions have been developed by different organizations. Many of these are based on the concept of the “three pillars” of sustainability—environmental, economic and social. For example, the United States Environmental Protection Agency has begun to use this definition:

“Sustainability is the continued assurance of human health and well-being, environmental resource protection and economic prosperity—today and for generations to come.”

For purposes of business enterprises, sustainability is generally viewed from a slightly different lens. According to the Dow Jones Sustainability Indexes:
“Sustainability is a business approach that creates long-term shareholder value by embracing opportunities and managing risks that derive from economic, environmental and social developments.”

How is sustainability different from being “environmentally friendly”?
Companies are considered “environmentally friendly” if they make an effort to conserve natural resources, and reduce waste and emissions. This begins with attention to manufacturing processes and then extends to include the entire product life cycle, from extraction of resources and processing of feedstocks, to transportation, logistics, distribution and end-of-life asset recovery. The terms “green business” and “green products” typically refer to these practices.

Sustainability includes these green practices, but goes much further—it describes the fundamental relationship of a company to society. A sustainable enterprise enhances its competitiveness by addressing the broader needs and concerns of its stakeholders, including employees, customers, suppliers, regulators, advocacy groups and the communities in which the company operates. In other words, sustainable companies are both environmentally and socially responsible.

Why is sustainability a trend that corporations should pay attention to?
It has been demonstrated by financial analysts that sustainable companies outperform their competitors in terms of long-term shareholder value. This is probably because most industry leaders have voluntarily adopted sustainability principles.

There are basically two ways in which sustainable business practices increase shareholder value. First, sustainability can directly improve profitability, as described below. Secondly, sustainability can create strategic value by improving a company’s “intangible” value drivers, including reputation, brand equity, license to operate and ability to attract talent.

What are some of the profit-making opportunities sustainability introduces?
Sustainability practitioners have identified several different factors that improve profitability, including:

  • Reduction in operating costs due to improved productivity, reduced material management costs and conservation of electricity, fuel, water and other resources. Sustainability is aligned with “lean” and other business practices aimed at eliminating waste.
  • Improvement in market share due to preference for sustainable products over comparably priced products and services, especially for institutional or business-to-business customers.
  • Reduction in the risk of business interruption due to environmental, health or safety-related incidents, including accidents, regulatory interventions and external complaints.
  • Reduction in capital costs associated with plants, property and equipment.

In some cases, products or services that feature sustainability characteristics (e.g., recyclability) can command a premium in the marketplace, but only if customers have specific requirements.

What are some of the different ways companies are approaching sustainability?
Application of sustainability principles can vary widely depending on the type of business and the dominant strategies of the company.

  • Companies that emphasize product differentiation have developed “sustainable design” protocols and conducted life cycle assessments to support their claims in the marketplace.
  • Companies that emphasize efficiency and cost reduction have used six sigma techniques to drive waste out of their products and processes, thus reducing pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Companies with a high degree of outsourced manufacturing have enhanced their purchasing practices and encouraged their suppliers to become more socially and environmentally responsible.
  • Companies with a large capital base have investigated ways to improve the sustainability of their buildings and infrastructure.
  • Companies with a strong international presence have explored alternative products and services to serve disadvantaged populations at the “base of the pyramid”.
  • Companies in high-technology industries have emphasized sustainability as a driver of innovation.

Many companies have done all of the above. The one essential practice that is common to all successful practitioners is increased engagement with stakeholders to understand their expectations; this can range from supporting diversity among employees to establishing community advisory panels.

How does sustainability affect the structure of a company?
Ideally, adoption of sustainability principles should require minimal changes in company structure. Rather than creating a new organization to manage sustainability, most successful practitioners have injected sustainability awareness into existing line and staff functions, so that it becomes an overlay upon the company structure and culture. This can be accomplished with a relatively small core group of sustainability experts that provide internal consulting to various business units and departments.

How does sustainability change how a company does business?
When a company adopts sustainability, it is typically driven by a high-level commitment on the part of company leadership. The sustainability ethic needs to be communicated effectively to employees so that it is fully understood and embraced; otherwise, cynicism may lead to business-as-usual. Ideally, sustainability thinking should be integrated into all company activities, from maintenance of facilities to establishment of contracts to acquisition of new businesses. This enables company employees to approach their business relationships with a renewed sense of pride and responsibility. In the long run, a sustainable enterprise will eventually re-examine all of its policies and practices to ensure that respect for human dignity and environmental integrity are woven into the identity of the company.

Is sustainability often misused?
The term “sustainability” has been used so loosely that it is often confusing. It can refer to almost any corporate activity that shows sensitivity to stakeholder values, including product stewardship, energy efficiency, waste elimination, fair labor practices and business ethics. For this reason, many companies have chosen to avoid the word, and use other terms such as “corporate responsibility” and “citizenship”. It is perhaps easier to say what sustainability is not. It is not merely complying with regulations and avoiding risks. Companies that apply the “sustainability” label to their traditional environmental, health and safety programs without substantial changes may be accused of “greenwashing”.

How is sustainability related to philanthropy?
Corporate philanthropy is a powerful tool for supporting the sustainability aspirations of communities and societies. Many leading companies have benefited their stakeholders by contributing to improved education, access to energy and mobility, and restoration of natural resources. Some have used “strategic philanthropy” as a mechanism for strengthening social and natural capital in a way that aligns with the long-term interests of the business. However, philanthropy is not a substitute for internalizing sustainability principles into enterprise business processes.

About the author:
Dr. Joseph Fiksel is Executive Director of the Center for Resilience at The Ohio State University, and Principal and Co-Founder of the consulting firm Eco-Nomics LLC. He is a recognized authority on sustainable business practices, with more than 25 years of research and consulting experience for multi-national companies, government agencies and consortia such as the World Business Council for Sustainable Development. A native of Montreal, Joseph began his career at DuPont of Canada, and subsequently was Director of Decision and Risk Management at Arthur D. Little, Inc. and Vice President for Life Cycle Management at Battelle. He has published over 70 refereed articles and several books, and is a frequent invited speaker at professional conferences. Joseph holds a B.Sc. from M.I.T., a Ph.D. in Operations Research from Stanford University, and an advanced degree from La Sorbonne. Much of the above material is derived from his latest book, “Design for Environment: A Guide to Sustainable Product Development”, published by McGraw-Hill in 2009.


Practioner's Perspective: How does EHS relate to sustainability?

By Kelvin Roth

For those who might not be familiar with the term, what is environment, health and safety (EHS) management?
EHS managers are the corporate leaders who drive environment, health and safety policy and translate that policy into practice. In addition to managing risks and maintaining compliance with government regulations, they work behind the scenes to reduce pollution, preserve natural resources, create safe and healthy workplaces and fulfill a corporation’s responsibility to society.

Following the establishment of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA), companies began systematically managing these issues through new business processes. Over time, companies started viewing these issues as risks to business.

When companies began viewing EHS as a risk, more was required from EHS professionals. Today, EHS managers need more than just technical answers to technical questions: They need strong management and communication skills, as well as a solid understanding of how the business operates.

I view the profession’s maturity curve similar to the quality curve, where initially it required a lot of technical gurus. As the market has matured, the technical skills still needed to be there, but the managerial and business skills started playing a larger role.

How do you define “sustainability”?
For me, the word is largely a “buzzword” now. In its simplest definition, though, it means the ability for an organization to continue to thrive. That will mean different things to different companies. What I believe has changed, is that that companies are now looking toward a more distant horizon and re-evaluating the broader systems in which they operate. At the annual NAEM Forum in 2009, Peter Senge talked about how sustainability meant collaborating across functions inside your organization as well as across value chains and between sectors.

How does EHS relate to sustainability within a company?
While EHS and sustainability can overlap, EHS is about creating management systems to solve that environment, health and safety issues in a business context, while sustainability puts those management systems into the larger system of the organization, the customers, the value chain and the community where the business operates.

A good analogy might be that EHS is to sustainability what a diet is to being healthy. To be on a diet, you need technical expertise, you need monitoring, and you need moral support. But diet is only one of many healthy habits. There’s also an important physical and psychological aspect to being healthy that you can’t ignore and to argue that any one of those three should own the health concept is missing the point. The same is true for EHS and sustainability. EHS is critical to sustainability, but it’s not the whole story.

Can you give me some examples of the respective roles for EHS and sustainability leaders?
Sure. Two common examples might be water and energy management:

Issue EHS Sustainability
Water Management
  • Regulatory compliance
  • Minimizing use and waste
  • Managing natural resources
  • Supply chain management
  • Facility siting
  • Product design
Energy Management
  • Energy reduction
  • Greenhouse gas tracking and reporting
  • Renewable energy generation
  • Product packaging
  • Logistical options
  • Product energy use

Many EHS leaders have sustainability in their titles or are taking the lead in areas some might consider sustainability. Such examples include engaging farmers to manage regional water resources or leading programs to take companies to zero waste. Should EHS be leading these efforts?
It depends. Each business has to define sustainability for itself based on its individual goals and markets. So whether or not an EHS person has that attached to his or her title, is more a reflection of how that company is approaching sustainability. The type or skills of the person leading the sustainability therefore reflects how it fits into the overall corporate strategy. If it’s a marketing strategy, for example, you’re more likely to see a communications person leading it. If it’s a sales component, you may have people with a greater sensibility there.

I think it’s a testament to the success of EHS professionals that they have often been selected as sustainability leaders. It really speaks to the maturity of the profession that we are being viewed as strategic leaders in our companies.

At last fall’s NAEM Forum, Steve Ramsey, Senior Visiting Fellow of the Yale School of Forestry and the Environment, said sustainability won’t become a reality until we figure out how to ‘operationalize’ it. Is this another way to look at the relationship between EHS and sustainability?
Absolutely. Sustainability is not the responsibility of any one person or department; it’s a value that needs to be embedded into every system, every process and every decision of the workplace culture.

To revisit the diet analogy, sustainability is a matter of making your healthy habits into an entire lifestyle so you never need to go on the diet. If your goal is to lose ten pounds in two months, you can achieve that in many ways, some healthy and some not. If you’re looking at a longer-range lifestyle change, you may need to try something different.

A former colleague of mine - Howard Brown, from dMass - used to say, “To turn a large ocean freighter, you don’t have to whip the wheel, you just need to turn the rudder gently. Over time, you will have moved millions of pounds in a new direction.” It’s about having that longer vision and knowing what small incremental changes will get you there.

Career Profile

Career Profile: Environmental Sustainability

An interview with Steve Walker, Manager of Environmental Sustainability at Burt's Bees Inc.

What is environmental sustainability?
Environmental sustainability takes the “E” from environment, health and safety and turns it from a compliance focus to one that seeks the best environmental performance possible within an organization’s financial and social sustainability bounds. I like to say that environmental and social sustainability are enabled by financial sustainability. You can’t work in the former spaces if you’re not tending to the latter as well. However, organizations have a responsibility to consider not only how they may minimize their environmental footprint but, ultimately, have a net positive impact on the environment as a whole.

How did you get your start in environmental sustainability?
My first job out of college was working as an Environmental Engineer for a manufacturing company in the Dayton, Ohio area. After about six months of observing the lack of a formal safety program, I was tapped to handle health and safety as well.

After completing grad school, I then joined another manufacturing firm as an environment, health and safety (EHS) Engineer. The company was a global auto supplier based outside of Detroit and I quickly moved into a divisional role. Within a few years, I transferred to their headquarters as Global Environmental and EHS Management Systems Manager. After five years of travelling the world and building a solid environmental metrics program for the company, I realized they did not plan to move forward with reducing the environmental impacts we were measuring through the metrics system.

As I began to explore other opportunities, I reconnected with a human resources manager who had been my boss back at the auto supplier’s plant in Ohio. She was working for Burt’s Bees in Durham, N.C. and they happened to be looking for someone with my skill set.

I initially joined the company in 2007 at their Supply Chain Sustainability Manager. At the time, they defined “supply chain” as their internal “buy-make-ship” functions and I also supervised the company’s safety personnel. After a year-and-a-half, I moved into my current role as Manager, Environmental Sustainability.

ith safety now reporting elsewhere in the organization, I’ve been able to focus entirely on environmental compliance and, moreover, our environmental sustainability efforts.

What did you study in college?
I hold a Bachelor of Science degree in Environmental Engineering Technology with a minor in Industrial Engineering Technology from the University of Dayton. That got my foot in the door at my first employer. After taking about six months off from school to settle into my job, I returned to night school where I completed my Master of Science degree in Environmental Management through the University of Findlay.

What do you do as an environmental sustainability manager?
That’s a big question. I currently find myself playing a number of roles, including teacher, student, leader, implementer, enforcer and cheerleader. It just depends on the topic and the audience.

In general, I typically act as a subject matter expert on environmental sustainability within our team. I sit on our Sustainability Steering Committee to help guide the company as a formal part of our governance model; but day-to-day, I directly manage our environmental sustainability efforts related to energy, water and by-products (waste). It takes a lot of team work but I ultimately have to ensure that our maintenance, production, distribution and other teams are following through on their assigned actions. When needed, I can employ connections outside our usual organizational structure to help break down barriers to success.

I also have the opportunity to collaborate on:

  • Social sustainability efforts with our Director of Sustainability,
  • Packaging issues with our packaging team,
  • Responsible sourcing issues with our Senior Manager, Responsible Sourcing,
  • Employee engagement work with the human resources team.

What are some of the most exciting parts of your job?
Working with all levels and roles in our organization is wonderful. I also enjoy learning about new and exciting developments in the environmental and social responsibility realms. Problems with no ready solution a few months or years ago are now being solved. The field is just moving so fast!

What are some of the challenges that put you to the test?
By far – misinformation. No information is easier to overcome than misinformation. We’re in an era of greenwashing and confusing claims by marketers of all sorts. I enjoy the challenge of digging into the details and cutting through the hype to find the nugget of truth (when it exists). Unfortunately, it looks like this will only get worse in the near-term but there’s hope for the future since we’re at least talking about the triple-bottom line now.

What skills do you think someone started out should develop to get their foot in the door?
First and foremost? Communication skills. I’ve come to realize that I think and, usually, speak as an engineer. My current role at Burt’s Bees has helped me refine my communication skills as I often need to share technical information with non-technical co-workers. Beyond the technical realm, being clear and detailed in your communications will save much confusion for all involved. This is especially true in written communications, like e-mail, where you have to leave your assumptions out and put the details in.

Second, never stop learning. Whether from co-workers, professional colleagues, books, trade publications, continuing education courses, or any other means, never stop taking in new information. The world as you now know it only exists in the past. Once you’ve had time to take in information and process it into knowledge, the world’s changed.

Any other advice?
Seek the facts in everything that you do. There’s so much good happening in the field of environmental sustainability at the moment. Take time to celebrate the real positive impacts that you achieve. Resist the temptation to oversell or hype any of your achievements. Let the truth of your good work speak for itself without embellishment.

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