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Sustainability Attainability is Here 

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By David Hodes

Can your company get to zero?

How deeply entrenched are corporations when it comes to sustainability initiatives? Look at the movements of three multinational companies: UPS, Bristol-Myers Squibb and Subaru.

UPS has identified more than 30 performance measurements for sustainability efforts, including vehicle accidents, normalized emissions efficiency in its airplanes, and two different measures of employee satisfaction.

Bristol-Myers Squibb, recognized by Newsweek as one of the leading companies in innovative sustainability efforts during the last 20 years, has just released a plan for comprehensive sustainability goals through 2015.

In 2011, Subaru set targets for eight specific corporate sustainability categories: customers and products; employees; the environment; compliance; information disclosure; procurement; social contribution, and corporate governance.

Today’s multinational companies are giving more than just lip service to social responsibility.  They understand that the next stage of sustainable practices has arrived. And driving that bus is their customers, the savvy consumers who can see through green-wash marketing efforts.

According to a 2012 research report, “The Innovation Bottom Line,” by the MIT Sloan Management Review and the Boston Consulting Group, nearly 50 percent of companies across the globe have changed their business models as a result of sustainability opportunities — a 20 percent jump from 2011.

As industries grapple with costs, the report says, they are turning to their supply chains to reduce energy use, simplify packaging, mitigate commodity price risks and meet customer sustainability expectations stated in the report.  “Companies can find ways to solve these problems of sustainability and profit in the process,” says Jason Jay, director, MIT Sloan Initiative for Sustainable Business and Society. “But to do so takes innovation in management practices, business models and market infrastructures.”

For some companies this means a completely different way of doing business. It requires a leap of faith to implement programs or develop projects that threaten near-term profits with the sketchy promise of a better customer base once they deliver what they say they will in terms of sustainability.

David Kiron, executive editor of MIT Sloan Management Review and a co-author of the Sloan MIT/BCG report, in an email response, points out that for many companies, recognizing the importance of sustainability and organizing the company to act — and then acting — can be a long, slow process “with lots of a-ha moments and organizational change,” Kiron notes.

“Doing sustainability well often requires stretching a company in uncomfortable ways, and the leadership needs to be open to some challenging discussions with both internal and external stakeholders,” Kiron says. “Achieving that level of openness is often slow.”

It requires a leap of faith to implement programs or develop projects that threaten near-term profits with the sketchy promise of a better customer base once they deliver what they say they will in terms of sustainability.

Kiron writes that CEOs can be the champions of sustainability for the organization, citing Kimberly-Clark, Patagonia and Timberland as just a few of the companies with CEOs passionate about sustainability issues.

Says Thomas Taylor, general manager of St. Louis-based Vertegy, as with many things, when you talk about sustainability, there is no short answer. Vertegy provides design, procurement and construction consulting services for green and sustainable facilities. “Just because a company’s owner has chosen to be in one of the LEED [Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design] facilities, it doesn’t mean they are sustainable,” Taylor says. “They could be very sustainable and not be in a LEED building.”

As more people became aware of the changes in the environment, he says, they seek out companies to work for that match what they feel. “So if this is a person that is passionate about recycling or using less electricity or whatever the case may be, they are going to seek out a company that demonstrates those things,” Taylor says.

Taking Action

Huge waste streams generated by a sports facility are one of the key challenges for sustainability efforts because the use of containers for food and the resulting disposal of trash is a very visible part of the food preparation and consumption process.

Tim Trefzer, sustainability coordinator, Georgia World Conference Center Authority (GWCCA), says his organization places an emphasis on sustainability to set them apart from the competition in the convention industry.

Trefzer says although the 3.9 million-square-feet the authority manages, which includes the 71,000 seat Georgia Dome and 21-acre Centennial Olympic Park, hasn’t been able to measure all waste streams until the last couple of years, it does have enough data to show for the year ending in June 2012, waste diverted from landfills rose 8.9 percent to 32.4 percent.

Through partnerships with the GWCCA, the city of Atlanta placed recycling bins downtown at primary pedestrian access points where there were not normally recycling bins. Is the public getting it? “Part of my challenge over the last few years is to make it easier for a regular person to make the more sustainable decision,” Trefzer says. “I think a lot of people are coming around to seeing how small changes that they make personally can add up.”

However, in Southeast cities such as Atlanta, and states such as Georgia, getting to zero waste in landfills is still pretty far off, “I don’t think that is possible in the next decade for sure,” Trefzer says. “Here, we are lacking the infrastructure, especially in rural areas, where we can make that possible.”


Mission Zero

With sustainability efforts drawing in more companies from a variety of industries, is it realistic that a company can really get to zero? The answer: It depends.

Kiron says that the problem with getting to zero waste is much more than challenges with infrastructure. “The sustainability problem isn’t just on the production side — consumerism is driving a big part of the problem,” Kiron writes. “This is why you see companies like Starbucks and Greif (manufacturer of industrial packaging) working on the entire lifecycle of goods like coffee cups and containers on ships. From production to consumption back to production, there is so much waste that getting to zero is a problem that extends far beyond an individual company or the infrastructure it depends on, or even the infrastructure the consumer depends on.”

Holly Elmore is the founder and CEO of Elemental Impact (Ei) a national non-profit organization of global non-profit and government partners involved in sustainability, including the U.S. Composting Council, to advance composting and organic recycling; as well as the Green Economy Diversity Initiative, an umbrella organization for green advocacy groups.

Elmore says Ei is “going to stay on the zero waste path” through blog updates about what is going on in the food service industry and other efforts.

One of the ways the organization is working to spread the benefits of getting to zero is through water conservation efforts.  The organization is in the midst of a pilot program with the Atlanta airport and its food service businesses. “Almost all the food service outlets have a hood system over their fryers and stoves that collect a tremendous amount of grease,” Elmore says. The grease goes up the duct system and onto the roof.

Ei partner Ellis Fibre designed a patented lamb’s wool filter that is placed in front of the hood baffle filters. The filters collect 90 percent to 95 percent of the grease before it enters the ducts, preventing grease buildup throughout the hood system and on the roof. The baffle filters are generally washed on a weekly basis instead of every night, representing an 86 percent reduction in labor and water usage normally required for the task.

At 350 gallons per cleaning, one restaurant will on average save 3,500 gallons of water and related cleaning toxins per year.

Elmore says that Whole Foods and Procter & Gamble are two companies heading to zero waste. “Any of the companies that are astute and understand that No. 1 they are hurting their bottom line by not doing it,” she says. “Because by going in and doing energy savings and water savings and zero waste — it all improves the bottom line.”

Sustainability efforts have ebbed and flowed, in part because of the commitment needed from corporate management to refocus business goals and redo business models. “Now it’s kind of been a more natural progression from a few years back, when the government was giving a lot of incentives to [support] investments in renewable energy,” Taylor says. “People spent the money, then the government stopped funding it, and it all went away.

“We might be moving more slowly but it is more genuine, so that where it is going, it will be harder to backslide,” Taylor continues.

This has resulted in an increased understanding that we are all in this together, Elmore says. “Zero waste is a team sport. You don’t do it alone. You do it with your suppliers and with your community because it doesn’t just impact you. It’s a whole shift in consciousness.”

For complete details on the organizations featured in this article, visit:

Elemental Impact

Georgia World Conference Center Authority

MIT Sloan Initiative for Sustainable Business and Society

MIT Sloan Management Review


Illustration by Chaiwat at Free Digital Photos.net

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About the author: David Hodes

David Hodes is a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at dhodes11@gmail.com.

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