Sustainability – the new buzz word?

4 Apr 2012

Sustainability seems to be showing up everywhere. Certainly, in the national budget debates, and the arguments over national health care, we hear many arguments about what is and is not sustainable. As a topic, environmental sustainability is certainly rising on the radar screens of corporate America. Companies as varied as Ford, GM, Kimberly-Clark, Alcoa, Dole Food, Boeing, all have appointed corporate sustainability executives and are setting sustainability goals. Dow recently announced a $10 Million grant to the University of Michigan to support research fellows on the topic of sustainability.

There are many reasons for adopting a corporate sustainability mind-set. Certainly, saving money in production costs, disposal costs and energy costs are usually at the forefront. Additionally, execs focus on customer perception and corporate reputation.   What is “sustainable”? Well that depends.  A commonly referred to definition of sustainability comes from the Brundtland Commission of the United Nations from March 20, 1987: “sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”  While there has been a lot of talk about improving the “Triple Bottom Line” of benefits in  ecology, society and traditional profits, the first two are much harder to measure than the third.

Ernst & Young recently released a report on sustainability noting that, while, sustainability as a concept is in its infancy, it is catching on among corporations.  The report notes that, among other things, employees are often a key group in developing and maintaining working sustainability programs. This makes sense as a top-down approach simply won’t work (how many times do you tell your kids to turn off the lights when they leave a room?)

There is some very sophisticated thinking going on in corporate America with companies focusing on their supply chains as well as their customers’ short and long term needs to determine how best to achieve greater sustainability.

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