How All Professional Roles Contribute to Sustainability
In my last article, I wrote about how environmental sustainability can relate to any educational background or functional group in a company. One of my colleagues asked how he could contribute to the sustainability movement without an environmental degree, and I’ve heard from others who share this hesitation. In this article, I explore the opportunities for people from different functional groups and educational backgrounds to contribute to corporate sustainability.
Environmental, Health and Safety (EH&S)
EH&S professionals, who have a variety of backgrounds from operations to environmental compliance, are often de facto sustainability leaders, particularly at companies with manufacturing traditions.
One of the early forms that sustainability took in EH&S groups was the pollution prevention movement, pioneered by programs like 3M’s Pollution Prevention Pays (3P), which has eliminated more than 3 billion pounds of pollutants and saved $1.4B since its inception in 1975. The pollution prevention movement was the first to go beyond “end-of-tailpipe” solutions—scrubbers on smokestacks—by redesigning manufacturing processes to eliminate effluents and wastes.
One cause at the confluence of safety and environment today is providing a safe workplace by eliminating toxins prevalent in manufacturing processes, a goal embodied by practices such as green chemistry. Organizations like NAEM bring EH&S professionals together to explore their evolving sustainability roles and responsibilities.
Facilities departments control or influence a huge portion of an organization’s environmental footprint, and are integrally involved in “greening” activities on a corporate campus. For example, they can implement energy-efficiency measures ranging from light occupancy sensors to big capital investments in energy-efficient HVAC equipment.
One overlooked advantage of a facilities team is their accurate understanding of human behavior. Facilities professionals know how an employee population will react to a new policy, making them invaluable partners in behavioral change management. Our own facilities team worked with our Green Team to eliminate all disposable flatware in our new facility by installing soda fountains, dishwashers and reusable flatware in all the break rooms—no small feat.
The drive for clean manufacturing is nothing new—in past decades, it has taken the form of quality and efficiency programs like lean, six sigma, and kaizen manufacturing. Clean manufacturing practices now go beyond simply reducing material and energy.
One example of an advanced clean manufacturing technique is design for disassembly (DfD). This involves retooling a manufacturing process so that it can be reversed and the product disassembled to allow its component parts to be reused or recycled; for example, using snaps or screws instead of glues to fasten parts. Practices like reducing the number and types of materials used in manufacturing, which Greg Unruh calls “materials parsimony” in his 2010 book Earth, Inc., aid in DfD. These are spurred on by extended producer responsibility or “take back” laws, like the EU’s Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) mandate.
Design and Engineering
There’s a quiet revolution going on right now in the way that products are designed and made, through the growing use of life cycle assessment (LCA). LCA is a way to comprehensively measure the environmental impacts of a product or process throughout its entire life cycle, across several ecological indicators. Software tools have been developed for engineers and designers that incorporate LCA methodologies and life cycle thinking into product development. (For full disclosure, my company works in this space.)
Measuring your impacts is only useful if you do something with your results, and the space of sustainable innovation is similarly bursting with possibilities. Innovators can use nature-inspired designs and technologies through the practice of biomimicry, and even redesign the entire product system by using closed-loop or cradle to cradle practices.
Datacenters alone account for an astounding 1.5 percent of all US electricity consumption. This hasn’t escaped the notice of companies like IBM, Microsoft, Google and Amazon. These companies are leveraging a new discipline termed Green IT, which focuses on ways to maximize computing power while minimizing energy through practices like server virtualization.
IT professionals have a huge opportunity to reduce energy and electronic waste (e-waste). I work at a software company where CPUs outnumber employees, so we’re working with our IT department on how to give developers better teleworking options so they don’t have to leave their computers on to log in remotely.
Finance and Accounting
The contribution of an accountant or financial professional to sustainability is less obvious, but critical. They can perform return-on-investment (ROI) analyses for sustainability projects, such as operational investment in efficient machinery or R&D investment for greener products and services. They leverage tools like net present value (NPV) analysis, or even real options analysis for sustainability investments. Financial professionals interested in creating a better world can use these sophisticated models to make the business case for sustainability.
All sustainability investments yield a positive ROI, as long as you define the “R” more broadly than financial return. Economists are innovating on how sustainability is valued, such as the ecosystem services model, and even commoditized and traded, such as global carbon offsets and regional carbon-credit exchanges. These innovative financial instruments have the power to serve as market levers toward sustainability.
Business Development and Strategy
Some of the most exciting innovation is happening not just in the redesign of products and services, but in the redesign of business models. The individuals responsible for strategy and business development within an organization are often some of the most senior leaders of the company, and come from backgrounds like MBA programs.
One way to add value for customers without adding environmental impact is dematerializing, or selling (and pricing for) the delivery of a service instead of the physical objects that enable it. For example, an IT service might sell “computing power” rather than physical servers to encourage virtualization; or a utility might price for the number of satisfied customers rather than therms of heat or watts of electricity (a specific practice known as “utility decoupling”). Because of the emphasis on services over goods, dematerialization is sometimes called “servicizing”.
Studies from Net Impact and the Boston College Center for Corporate Citizenship show that today’s professionals and recent graduates are placing increasing importance on working for companies with a strong social and environmental record. Leading companies use corporate social responsibility (CSR) and environmental sustainability programs to help recruit and retain talent.
At my company, we are always looking for ways we can have our Green Team leaders recognized for their important efforts. As one of our executives said to me, “this isn’t like playing on a company softball team; the efforts of our Green Teams have a real business benefit to our company.”
Sales, Marketing and Communications
Five to ten years ago, marketers were making all manner of environmental claims, whether or not they were substantiated—or even accurate. The environmental community labeled this act of making false or misleading environmental marketing claims “greenwashing.”
Today, the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction. Companies are often now doing more than they’re talking about, a phenomenon termed “green muting“. This too is a disservice to sustainability. Companies that tell a strong social and environmental story put pressure on their peers and competitors to match efforts, and enable customers to vote with their dollars for good corporate citizenship. Corporate communicators share a tremendous responsibility to encourage open, transparent dialogue with stakeholders—customers, suppliers, community members and the general public.
Did you find a contribution you could make to a company’s interdisciplinary sustainability efforts, or did I miss a piece to the puzzle?
Asheen Phansey is the North American sustainability leader for Dassault Systèmes® and sustainability product manager for the SolidWorks® brand. He also teaches sustainable business courses as an adjunct professor in the MBA program at Babson College. Dassault Systèmes is the world leader in product lifecycle management (PLM), providing solutions that enable businesses of every size and sector to design, simulate and experience tomorrow’s products. You can learn more about sustainable design tools from DS SolidWorks at www.solidworks.com/sustainability.
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