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The Sustainability Tool Melting Pot

I’ve spent a good number of my columns debating the confusing terminology in our field. It’s proof of the relative infancy of our field that the same term is used for such varied sustainability objectives. Even simple terms like “tool” can mean wildly different things. So you can imagine what a more complex term like “product portfolio analysis” can do to induce head-spinning and confusion. It’s a melting pot of sustainability options. And now I have another glaring example of how the enormous range of things grouped under the term “sustainability” is itself feeding the confusion, the perceptions, and even more importantly the sustainability budget crunch.

Tackling the Role of Sustainability Manager

But first, a little role playing…Let’s say you’re a happy EHS manager with a degree in engineering and 20 years of experience at a large manufacturing company. Your role consists of dealing with things that you generally understand and feel confident about. What happens when your boss tacks on the title of “sustainability” to your already complex role? Congratulations, you’ve been promoted as our new EHS and Sustainability Manager! You’ll probably start with the things that you understand and that provide quick wins, like light bulbs and recycling programs. Then you’ll start looking into more complex things like the implications of broader energy management and waste reduction. But here’s the rub: there are so many facets to “sustainability” that perhaps energy management and waste reduction are NOT the most effective way for your company to get ROI. But then again, you don’t have the time or the bandwidth to worry about that now. You really can only get your head around the things that have traditionally come under your control, and you have KPIs and budgets to meet.

Now, try this: You are a young marketing associate who has been with the company for 4 years. You’re ambitious and energetic and you have grand plans for how you want to influence your company. When you did your MBA, you took a course in Sustainable Business and it was interesting and exciting. You want to give back. You want to be a part of the global community. You want to find a way to influence your company’s contribution to the world.

The marketing department is assigned to work on the company’s first sustainability (CSR) report and you volunteer to be a part of that project. And over the next year, you help produce the company’s first report complete with metrics, short and long range goals, and lots of beautiful photos of happy, smiling children and green fields of corn blowing in the unpolluted breeze. You have indeed contributed to the company’s sustainability, and the company’s stakeholders (especially its shareholders), are all happy to learn that “sustainability” is on the company’s agenda.

Both of these scenarios are happening every day. Both are considered part of a company’s “sustainability” agenda. Both are completely valid areas for companies to work on. Both show a level of commitment from a company. Sometimes they even happen simultaneously. And usually both are pulling from the same budget (which, frankly, is typically relatively small).

Innovations in Sustainability Technology

When I read the Environmental Leader Technology Reviews that were published last month, it struck me once again how diverse the term “sustainability” is being used and practically applied. With the top ranking of 5 stars out of 5, there are two companies with very specific technological innovations for very specific tasks within very specific industries. And while I’m convinced that these innovations are breakthroughs in their own areas, how do they trickle downstream or upstream to the rest of the supply chain or other industries? The companies in the next category of 4.5 stars out of 5 (of which we are proudly one), range from environmental impact measurement software like ours, to an acid that can replace petrochemicals, to a lighting system, and more. The range of application is enormous and they all come under “sustainability.” How can an EHS manager or a marketing associate be expected to be responsible for all of this?

Find a solution for your company’s objectives

There is major innovation happening in our field of sustainability solutions and applications as seen in the EL Technology Hall of Fame, which means that there is probably a solution to your energy, carbon, water or waste efficiency challenge. But, what’s a sustainability manager to do? Where does he or she begin? After the quick wins like energy efficient lighting, and before jumping in head first to another “sustainability” project that is based on media pressure or one person’s passion, it is critical to first understand where the benefits to your company are – whether they are in your raw materials, in your packaging, elsewhere along your supply chain, or even in the consumer stage like water usage for laundry detergent. Applying sustainability to your business, your brands, your products, your market, your customers, and even your employees, is critical to realizing long-term ROI.  Limiting yourself to tacking on sustainability to your EHS manager’s title or publishing a beautiful CSR report, has only a very short shelf-life and will have only limited effect on the company’s long-term positioning and profitability.

Sara Pax is the president of Bluehorse Associates, a developer of environmental sustainability metrics solutions specialized in the food and beverages industry featuring the Carbonostics suite of web-based applications for carbon & energy accounting and reporting, product portfolio assessments, product carbon footprinting, and lifecycle analysis. Carbonostics received a 4.5 star rating in the 2013 Environmental Leader Technology Review. For more on Carbonostics “best-in-class” technology, visit: www.carbonostics.com

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