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We Are Slowly Starting to Manage Sustainably

The desire for quick profits, rapid development and massive fossil fuel use is a tidal wave that is built on a set of values and beliefs that will take generations to reverse. Still, the slow process of change is underway.
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Along with several Earth Institute colleagues, I have begun the process of developing a research program in sustainability policy and management. Our goal is to conduct rigorous, practical, but academic research that facilitates the transition to a renewable, sustainable economy. The research program has two key elements: 1. A focus on government's regulatory and tax policies and their ability to encourage or discourage sustainability; and 2. A focus on the operational management decisions made by private, nonprofit and public organizations, identifying methods of reducing the environmental impacts and increasing the use of renewable resources.

We began the process of framing this research program with a series of informal discussions with sustainability managers in corporations and sustainability planners in city governments. We have spoken with about 20 corporate sustainability managers, and last spring my students conducted a study of sustainability planning in 36 cities: 30 in the U.S. and six abroad. We have also begun a large benchmarking study of sustainability metrics around the world. It will be several years before these studies are completed and published, but it is clear that an enormous amount of innovative sustainability practices are now underway. I think that the relationship of human economic production to our planet is undergoing a paradigm shift, although we are only at the start of the change that has just begun.

The desire for quick profits, rapid development and massive fossil fuel use is a tidal wave that is built on a set of values and beliefs that will take generations to reverse. Still, the slow process of change is underway. Here in America and certainly in Europe, we have seen a limit to the public's tolerance of overt and obvious environmental destruction. China and India are beginning to learn those lessons too, but they clearly have not yet taken hold.

The key finding is that there is no free lunch. Or as Barry Commoner once famously observed, "Everything must go somewhere." On an increasingly crowded planet, even the rich cannot fully insulate themselves from a degraded environment. Moreover, corporations are learning that wasting energy and other resources costs money and can make them less competitive. The paradigm shift is the move from pure environmentalism to sustainability management. This is the recognition that we do not protect the environment because we love it (although many of us do), but because we need it.

Here in America we have stopped dumping toxic waste in ditches on the side of the road. In retrospect, the wanton destruction of our environment seems idiotic and expensive. Between the military, government and the private sector, our three-decade-long effort to contain those poisons has cost at least $500 billion and possibly as much as $1.7 trillion. And the clean-up is still underway. No one really knows how much its cost, since there is no organization that has collected all the data. But what we do know is that eventually those costs must be paid. They must be paid because the food, water and air that we need can only be produced on a planet that is not poisoned with toxic chemicals.

While most of the recent attention to fossil fuel pollution focuses on climate change, the more immediate impact of growing fossil fuel use has been the destruction of ecosystems damaged when fossil fuels are extracted from the earth. Both sets of impacts are important and both should stimulate the development of safer and cleaner alternatives.

We have learned the importance of ecological resources the hard way, but the good news is that there is growing awareness of the importance of protecting the environment. This increased awareness does not see environmental protection as an end but as a means. Cities are pursuing goals such as energy efficiency, cleaner air, enhanced parks and mass transit, and recycling to make them more attractive places to live. They are doing this because they believe they are in a global competition with other cities for businesses, residents and tourists. Businesses are looking to reduce their energy and material costs and the costs of managing their wastes, for the same reason: to enhance their ability to compete.

While I can't say that Wall Street has picked up on this yet, a growing number of analysts are beginning to equate a company's capacity to include environmental factors in decision making as an indicator of excellence in management. Our interviews with private sector sustainability managers over the past several months have provided us with a deeper understanding of the sophistication and determination of the companies attempting to integrate environmental considerations into corporate decision-making. Sustainability is not taking root because of environmental idealism, but because it helps organizations achieve their goals.

Private corporations are not going to change nor should they. They will continue to seek maximum profits, return on equity and market share. That is a given and must be understood. Corporate sustainability officers describe how they work with their colleagues to demonstrate the financial benefits of resource efficiency, recycling and effective waste management. Engineers are starting to understand and apply the principles of closed system industrial ecology. The growing costs of energy and waste management have caused industry to reduce waste and even make capital investments needed to accomplish that goal.

What is more important than the specific actions taken by any one company or city, is the process of adding sustainability considerations to routine decision-making. In the 20th century we saw the addition of mass production, human resource management, generally accepted accounting principles, information management and globalization to management decision-making. The role of the CEO has expanded to deal with greater organizational complexity. Organizations, like people, are slow to change. The physical dimensions of sustainability are slowly finding their way into the decision calculus. Sustainability staff told us that increasingly, they are brought into routine discussions of organizational strategy. Cities have integrated sustainability concepts into economic development plans. Some organizations and cities bring in sustainability as they seek to identify themselves as forward thinking and future oriented. While there is reason to be cautious about PR efforts at green-washing, these sustainability efforts appear to be a more fundamental attempt to redefine the organization or locality which back up the words with actions.

In addition to the management constraints caused by the degradation of a finite planet, a related cause of this paradigm shift is a younger generation that deeply understands the need to protect the planet. They are hoping it can be done without sacrificing the material base of their lifestyle. However, they do not view sustainability as an option, but rather as a necessity. These perceptions are reinforced by the reality of images and video transmitted instantly from all around the world. They see the yellow air, the rising sea and the burning forests. They are also exposed to the latest fashion, technology, art and music. The whole planet is as real to them, as my neighborhood was to me when I was a kid. Just as I knew the reality of that part of Brooklyn, the reality of the planet's constraints do not need to be explained to them.

A more thoughtful and careful production process is the goal of sustainability management. We do not yet know how to achieve this goal. It is far more complicated than stopping a pipeline or ending a destructive mining practice. Fortunately the learning process has begun. But to be effective it will be a slow and sometimes frustrating process. I guess slow and steady will need to win this race.

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