Corporate Sustainability

Corporate Sustainability August 16, 2012
A factory in Sweden in 1995.  A place I visited on business, but not part of the corporation I work for.  This was in January.  It was cold and dark.

The corporation I work for has released its first Sustainability Report. It’s a public report, but I’m not going to link to it or tell you how to google it – I don’t mention my employer’s name anywhere on the internet. It’s not a hostile place to work (as corporations go, it’s pretty decent), but they don’t want their name associated with any religion. I don’t blame them: religion brings controversy and controversy is bad for business.

After reading the report I have three general observations I think are worth sharing.

The first is that there has been some good work done toward achieving some good goals. Energy use is down 14% since 2009 and the goal is a 25% reduction by 2014. Greenhouse gas emissions are down 43% with a goal of 50%. Total emissions, solid waste generation and water use are all down significantly, with goals for further reductions. These are measured as a percent of sales – they represent real improvements, not just lower levels of activity due to the recession.

Many of these improvements required an initial investment: better lighting in factories, more efficient vehicles, motion sensors to turn off lights in empty rooms and offices. Some simply required changing old habits, like increasing recycling and raising office temperatures by 2 degrees. Considering how cold the offices used to be, that’s been an employee morale improvement too. While this company takes ethics seriously (at least to the extent that ethics are defined by law and by the media), they aren’t altruistic. Becoming more efficient means cutting expenses which means more profits.

I don’t care why you do the right thing so long as you do the right thing.

The second observation is that while this report shows good progress towards worthwhile goals, it really doesn’t have anything to do with sustainability. I won’t call it greenwashing (though some will), but efficiency is not the same thing as sustainability. Sustainability is the ability to continue indefinitely, which requires moving away from fossil fuels (which will eventually run out) and moving away from a business model based on continual growth. This company is looking at alternative energy sources but not to any great extent, and proposing a zero-growth business model would mean career death for a manager of a publicly traded company.

Embracing true sustainability will require a major shift in cultural mindset and we’re nowhere near that today.

The third observation doesn’t come directly from the report, but from a “town hall meeting” the CEO had this week with all employees. Someone asked if the report would be good public relations. The CEO said he didn’t think so – our competitors have been doing this for years and a few key customers have been insisting we produce one too.

What this means is that saving energy and reducing emissions have become expected in the corporate world, or at least in the part of the corporate world that makes and sells things. I started my career in 1984. That was hardly the environmental dark ages (the EPA was established in 1970 on the momentum of the first Earth Day), but I can remember a few conversations on the cost of compliance vs. the risk of getting caught, and I can remember several energy-saving investments being rejected because they wouldn’t pay for themselves in under one year. Those debates would be unthinkable today.

The culture has shifted. Not far enough and not fast enough, but it has shifted. And if it has shifted this far, it can eventually shift to true sustainability. We just have to keep insisting on better, cleaner, and more efficient products and processes. We have to change the culture.

Good change never happens as fast as we like. It’s important to recognize the progress we do make – it reminds us our work isn’t in vain.

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