Moving Sustainability to the Asset Side of the Ledger

Join the Human Impacts Institute‘s Community Conversation! What role do you see the private sector play in environmental sustainability?


Since the beginning of the environmental movement, private industry has often viewed sustainability as a restriction to a healthy profit line. In an arena of market-control, regulations associated with environmental protection and social benefit are often seen as obstacles to success and financial growth. This shortsighted outlook has slowly begun to transform and the stark margin between these two “opposing” forces blurred. Now, in a time of heightened social awareness, business is investing in the personal happiness of employees and aligning their ethical goals to that of the worker. The result has been an increase in employee productivity and a coupling of sustainability and profit. What was once a liability has become a major asset. This new paradigm was the focus of Part Two of the Bard MBA Sustainable Business Series “Is Sustainable More Productive?”, a lecture that brought together three accomplished professionals pushing this frame of thought in their respective fields.

The first panelist to share was Julie Engerran, a director from Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Limited. Amongst her many roles includes the analysis of polls her company uses for its consultation arm. Specifically, she spoke towards the difference between Gen Yers (1960-1980) and Gen Xers (1980-2000), and their opinions towards the purpose of business. When polled about this subject, words like “profit” were being supplanted by “societal development”. As this generational shift continues to develop in the workplace, a link between productivity and purpose becomes more discernible. Julie offered an example of this relationship in Burt’s Bees of Durham, NC. This personal care product company provides benefits to employees who are committed to greening their lives as well as enforcing mandatory sustainability education. They have found this recognition has not only attracted the type of employee they are looking for, but also given the employee a strong sense of purpose and moral resolve, ultimately increasing productivity.

Second to go was Serge Appel from the architecture group Cook+Fox. Serge was responsible for the design of the new Bank of America building in Midtown, the world’s first LEED platinum skyscraper and a truly beautiful addition to the New York City skyline. The primary goal of design was embracing the nature-human interface. The architects at Cook+Fox wanted to create an environment that encouraged health and happiness. Employing a wealth of strategies that include triple-filtered air, increased natural daylight to every square foot, green roofs, and rainwater collection amongst others, employee satisfaction is at the forefront of the design. And again, this satisfaction and guilt-free association to workplace hopes to increase the productivity of those at One Bryant Park. Under this building’s green roof, a 1% increase in productivity would return $10 million per year! Separate from employee mindset, the building’s energy efficiency is also a boon to the bottom-line. Where most buildings of its stature experience 73% energy loss with 27% usable energy, the BOA building is seeing a 23% waste clip while utilizing nearly 77% of its self-produced energy. Also, nearly all of the strategies employed have paid themselves back within a 4-year window. It’s this sort of sustainable responsibility that trickles down benefits of productivity and energy savings.

The final speaker was Lee Coker from the Environmental Defense Fund. The EDF acts as a sustainable consulting group to private industry and boasts quite the track record with a wide range of corporations. This includes a number of oil-based energy companies who are looking to lower their carbon emissions. The initial intention may be saving on energy costs, but this impetus is offering unanticipated benefits for employees and productivity. When looking at strategies of sustainability, Coker stressed the importance of scope. Some of their clients are so large (McDonalds, Walmart, FedEx) that one minor tweak can have an incredible cascading effect. An example shared was with a major trucking company out of Texas. When this company placed governors on their trucks to restrict the maximum speed to 56 mph, the amount of annual savings was in the millions. Imagine the amount of carbon savings!

I left this lecture thinking what an incredible tool the private industry could be towards the betterment of society. With bottomless pockets, powerful influence, and an army of determined workers, the potential for paramount change is inherent in corporations. Throughout these talks were reminders of how a minor tweak in a sector so massive can have such far-reaching effects. One change here or one modification there across an industry can scale to gigatons of carbon saved or millions of people fed. This growing ethical corporate responsibility to the planet and its residents, rooted and honed from the individuals who engine these companies, will prove to be a crucial weapon in the daunting bid to track our civilization back towards a sustainable path.

By Alex Turek, 2012 Human Impacts Institute Environmental Services Intern

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