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Academic and Corporate Perspectives Converge at EOH Symposium

rain-forest2Nearly 200 attendees gathered at California State University, Northridge, Feb. 18 to tour the university’s one-megawatt fuel cell power plant and accompanying rainforest before hearing from leading sustainability thinkers from the academic and private sectors. Geared primarily toward those in the field of environmental and occupational health and safety, the fourth annual Environmental and Occupational Health (“EOH”) Technical Symposium provided a variety of perspectives on the topic of “Sustainability Initiatives: A View to the Future.

The event kicked off with a guided tour of the university’s fuel cell power plant, which supplies nearly 20 percent of the campus’ electricity and contributes to some of its heating and cooling needs (including the pool and campus bar). Installed in 2006, the fuel cell is the largest installation of a fuel cell technology of any university in the world and is the only one to use its waste products to sustain an outdoor subtropical rainforest.

After experiencing this concrete example of a successfully implemented sustainability initiative, attendees heard from distinguished speakers from UCLA, UC Berkeley and the private sector about what their organizations are doing to embrace sustainable practices.

Nurit Katz, UCLA’s Sustainability Coordinator and founder of the UCLA Sustainability Resource Center, shocked the audience with images from photographer Chris Jordan that depict inordinate amounts of waste being created every second to demonstrate what sustainability is not.

“Sustainability is less about the answers as it is about asking the right questions,” she said. At UCLA, measuring and reducing waste is an important part of the university’s strategy to reduce its carbon footprint, as is systems thinking.

“Sustainability is an inherently multidisciplinary issue requiring organized and intense collaboration between disciplines,” Katz said, noting the challenge of breaking down silos to create cross-collaborative teams. Students have been instrumental in pushing for new programs and projects; UCLA now has more than 200 courses relating to climate change and sustainability and through extension offers a Global Sustainability Certificate Program.

Dr. Michael Wilson, research scientist at the Center for Occupational and Environmental Health, School of Public Health at UC Berkeley, and Acting Executive Director of Berkeley Center for Green Chemistry, provided an overview of the chemicals industry and California’s Green Chemistry Initiative and discussed the international regulatory environment. Wilson discussed how most of the health and ecological risks associated with industrial chemicals are poorly understood because U.S. chemicals policies do not require producers to generate basic information on chemical uses, health effects or exposure potential.

“Sustainability is an integrated problem that requires input from different sectors,” Wilson said. The Berkeley Center for Green Chemistry is a collaborative effort of faculty from the College of Chemistry, School of Public Health, College of Natural Resources and the Schools of Law and Business.

Mark Katchen, managing principal of The Phylmar Group, an environmental consulting firm that helps Fortune 1000 companies incorporate sustainability into their core business practices, presented about the role of EOH professionals in implementing sustainability initiatives.

In addition to defining sustainability, Katchen provided examples of transferable cognitive frameworks that EOH students can apply to sustainability issues. He also said the key to becoming an effective advocate for sustainability is to think like management and make the case for sustainability in business terms.

“Bottom line is businesses are in business to make money,” Katchen said.

This sentiment was echoed by Lorraine Sedlak, director of EHS and Sustainability at a division of Black & Decker, who said success in pushing sustainable initiatives depends upon making the business case for sustainability and presenting sustainability as a business strategy. When competitors are already branding themselves as green, sustainability leadership creates a competitive advantage.

Amanda Crater, CEO of CraterCom, a public relations and branding firm for green businesses, reported from the event for Environmental Leader.

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