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Charleston Business

The New Normal: Sustainability isn’t a cause—it’s a business strategy

By Tom Martin | Executive in Residence | The College of Charleston

 No, it’s not your imagination. Lately it seems the news is overwhelmed daily by reports of raging wildfires in California, record-breaking heat waves practically every month, football-field sized plastic masses in the oceans and huge cities like New Delhi, India, choked with life-threatening smog. Welcome to the new normal. 

So, what are we to do? Is the situation hopeless? Is life on planet Earth doomed?

Not necessarily. We have achieved impressive turnarounds before. Cities like London and Pittsburgh were once choking on air pollution so bad that daytime sometimes looked like night. Now these cities are models of livability. The Cuyahoga River in Cleveland notoriously once caught fire because it was so clogged with toxic chemicals. That famous fire led to the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972, and today the river is much cleaner—as are other rivers and streams around the country.

Nevertheless, the stresses from global population growth, deforestation, water scarcity and the rapid industrialization of countries like China and India have presented environmental challenges more serious than any we have ever faced. The debate about the causes of climate change will never end, but the facts of global warming are presented in stark detail every time we turn on the news.

For companies, government entities and non-profit organizations, these realities present new opportunities as well as threats for the future. Sustainability shouldn’t be thought of as something nice to have that we can support, like giving to the Red Cross after a hurricane or donating to our child’s annual fundraiser. Sustainability, as in the continuation of life as we know it, isn’t really an option; it is an imperative. That’s why businesses are increasingly finding new ways to deliver services, manufacture products and partner with government agencies and non-profits to operate in a more sustainable way.

Examples of creative new approaches are everywhere. Through a comprehensive approach to recycling, Xerox, through its Green World Alliance, has kept 145 million pounds of waste out of landfills. It doesn’t solve the problem, but it helps. Each year, Waste Management Corporation sponsors and operates the largest golf tournament on the PGA tour in Phoenix, with an estimated attendance of over 700,000 for the week. They do this as a zero-waste event, with 100 percent of the waste being diverted from landfills. Chipotle and Intermarché, the third largest grocer in France, have teamed up to launch the “Inglorious Foods” campaign that sells misshapen and otherwise imperfect fruits and vegetables at a discount in an effort to reduce the enormous problem of global food waste. 

Other companies are looking at everything from supplier relationships to executive incentives, board governance to new ways to encourage sustainable operation. Adobe, the software company, has set goals of reducing overall emissions by 75 percent through renewable energy technologies like hydrogen fuel cells and solar arrays, and improving the cooling efficiency of its data centers. Most people don’t think about it, but server farms and data centers, which supply the burgeoning tech industry, are becoming the fastest growing global consumers of electricity.

Why should you care? Because your customers, employees and investors do. Recent surveys have noted that 75 percent of consumers now say that sustainability is one of the key factors they take into account when making buying decisions. An overwhelming majority—as many as 7 in 10—millennials cite corporate social responsibility (CSR) as something they are looking for when they consider a potential employer. 

People really began paying attention when the huge investment firm Blackrock, with assets under management of almost $7 trillion, turned its focus to purpose and sustainability. Its CEO, Larry Fink, penned a game-changing letter to shareholders that focused on the importance of purpose in making investment decisions. On its website, Blackrock states: “BlackRock recognizes that sound environmental management is central to our business, important to our employees and clients and key to securing our future.” The website provides ample content illustrating how these words are turned into action for employees, customers, investors and communities.

These examples may seem lofty and hard to attain for smaller businesses. But every company, regardless of size, can move toward a more sustainable future by asking themselves a few basic questions: What is the largest source of our energy consumption and how could we use it more efficiently? What is the nature of the waste generated by our operations and products and how can we ensure that a smaller quantity of it ends up in landfills? How are we working with our suppliers so that the components or raw materials we obtain from them are more sustainably produced? What are we saying to our employees and customers about our commitment to sustainability? How do our actions match our words?

Change is hard. But it begins with a commitment to understanding the nature of the problems we are facing with ensuring a sustainable future for our children and grandchildren and reshaping how we operate to tackle these problems. In the simplest terms, the world will have a better future if we can live more efficiently, waste less, and protect and preserve the finite resources available on planet Earth. 

We can’t import more land, air or water from another planet. At least not for the foreseeable future. For now, we have to use what we have wisely. Our lives truly do depend on it.