Why You Should Care About Sustainability

published in The Daily Transcript, March 17, 2006

Maybe you should ask the 30,000 Ford Motor Co. workers and the 30,000 GM workers about sus­tainability. Are the two motor giants “sustaining” their work force? Are they creating the next generation vehicles with “sustainable” technology and reliance on renew­able energy sources?

Sustainability is really having a mindset that goes beyond the bottom line and well beyond delivering “shareholder value.” It means that a company sustains its work force, sustains the communities in which it operates and sustains the environment that it affects. And it means that its con­tributions will be manifest long after the CEO and the board of directors have passed on. In short, a company’s sustain­able practices are its legacy.

The concept of sustainability is relevant to all industries and is alive and well here in San Diego. And one institution believes it’s so important that it has established one of the fist sustainability programs of its kind: UCSD’s new Environment and Sustainability Initiative. At the helm of the organization is a man who left his acade­mic post as director of Scripps Institute of
Oceanography because he believed he could make a greater impact on the future of the environment, and particularly in southern California.

As the new director of UCSD’s Environmental and Sustainability Initiative, Charles Kennel believes as I do that the concept of sustainability is no longer a choice for today’s CEO — it holds the promise for the future of business.

Kennel’s group will focus on climate change, the loss of biodiversity and ris­ing sea levels. He sees today’s environ­mental problems as having reached a breaking point. In discussions with Kennel, he sites the numerous facts related to depletion of our natural resources. Beyond these problems, he sees science and business must come together to focus on sustainability in a win-win agenda that will tackle these tough problems. And his vision is that science can provide the “sustainable” solutions that businesses can integrate into their operations.

The companies that survive will be the focused, forward-thinking compa­nies that embrace sustainability initia­tives, and have put these strategies into their long-range business plans. They understand that investing in sustainable practices is critical and will translate into future cost savings. As Kennel puts it, “A few years of investing in designing more energy-efficient operations or reducing energy usage, the more prof­itable a company could be later on — when the cost of energy rises.”

Our colli­sion course with depletion of natural resources is here and I concur with Kennel that we must maintain our level of economic growth, examine our resource consumption and preserve the environment that sustains us.This point was echoed at the recent Business for Social Responsibility Conference held in Washington, D.C., where company leaders and analysts concurred that long-term sustainability assessment is making its way into the financial market operations. It was no surprise to hear CEOs discuss their sus­tainability progress in terms of their triple bottom line (social, financial and environmental) progress.

Why should you care about sustain­ability? You should if you want to stay in business in the future. The auto indus­try layoffs are just one example of what’s coming down the pike. Maybe we should all take a lesson from UCSD and its commitment to sustainability.

Burton is a specialist in the field of cor­porate social responsibility and received accreditation on conducting social audits from the New Economics Foundation in London.

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