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Will You Be Sustainable When No One is Watching?

I remember the first Earth Day back in 1970, when the green movement was dominated by hippies and teach-ins. A lot has changed over the past decades and sustainability has gone mainstream. I've been involved in environmental affairs long enough to know that over the years, the subject has not always remained popular.

Today, we live in an era where sustainability is expected. There's more pressure to do work that not only delivers a financial return but also value to society at large. More people are passionate -- and serious -- about sustainability than in the past, and it's consistent with the growing focus on corporate responsibility. That's a good thing. We're on the front edge of a new wave of business leaders who think not just about stockholders, but also about stakeholders.

I'm passionate about sustainability and I believe strongly that good environmental management makes good business sense. But it's hard work and it takes a long-term commitment.

Over the last five years in particular, interest in the environment has really exploded in popularity. Today, everyone wants to be green. Sustainability is cool, and that's great. But it's easier to be green when everyone is watching. Genuine environmental leadership involves what you do when no one is watching.

For people interested in doing good for both business and the environment, they need to sustain that interest when the subject slips in popularity, which is inevitable.

It also takes a broad-brush approach. Doing well for both business and the environment entails more than just climate change. It takes more than a clever label or a rating scheme. And it certainly takes a lot more than a marketing campaign.

Sustainability takes a long-term, systemic approach that must thrive during periods of both popularity and relative anonymity -- during periods of heady success and weak results.

It also requires anticipating the inevitable. Unfortunate accidents, product recalls and environmental liabilities at the very best of companies involves learning from past experience and never resting on your laurels, no matter how impressive they may be.

While good environmental management makes good business sense, not everything that's green is gold. Sustainability requires people to be committed to breakthrough thinking and innovation.

Making business processes, products and services more efficient will almost always produce benefits to the environment. We should also make intelligent decisions around natural resource consumption and environmental impact.

I believe it's important to go out and do well -- not only for yourself, but also for our societies and the world in which we all live. Point your moral compass in the right direction, but be sure to stay the course. We're in it for the long haul.

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