Talking Sustainability Management: Insights from the Front Lines
On March 29, the Earth Institute and the M.S. in Sustainability Management program will host the event “Transforming Organizations with Sustainability Management.” Moderated by Steve Cohen, the Earth Institute’s executive director, the panel will discuss the importance of sustainability to investors, production processes, supply chains and marketing.
I spoke with the four panelists about their work in the field and their advice for students entering the field.
James Ossman, senior manager of global operations at Etsy, runs the peer-to-peer e-commerce website’s Workplace Operations group. The group designs and oversees Etsy’s facilities, health, safety and security strategy, and delivers food services and employee engagement programs across the company’s nine offices in North America, Europe and Australia. Etsy’s goal is to transition to 100 percent renewable electricity by 2020 and grow thriving, carbon neutral markets. Ossman earned an M.S. in Sustainability Management at Columbia University in 2015, and was a program coordinator at the Earth Institute.
Curtis Probst is managing director of sustainable finance at Rocky Mountain Institute. Rocky Mountain Institute is a global “think-and-do tank” focused on energy efficiency and renewable energy that conducts research and drives the implementation of solutions. He focuses on the innovative application of finance to a broad range of energy and sustainability issues. He is also an adjunct lecturer at Columbia University, and teaches “Financing the Green Economy” to graduate students.
Celine Ruben-Salama established For the Long Term, a company that works with some of the world’s largest banks and asset management firms to develop long-term strategies around climate change issues. Her company focuses on risks, opportunity identification, recording, carbon accounting, reduction strategies and other sustainability issues. She also teaches a class in “Corporate Sustainability Reporting, Strategy and Communications” in the MS Sustainability Management (SUMA) program at Columbia University.
Zachary Suttile is the New York director for Wildan Energy Solutions, a provider of energy efficiency consulting, mechanical engineering and central utility engineering services that works with large facilities needing power, cooling and heating. He straddles the operations of this group and business development for New York, the region, and occasionally national business development and strategy. In 2010, Suttile earned an M.P.A. in Environmental Science and Policy at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.
What exactly do you do?
“I have several goals this year,” said Ossman, “But the one I’m most excited about is increasing the long-term sustainability of Workplace Operations and creating a culture of data-driven, continual improvement in all of our programs and services. … This goal builds heavily on foundational work we undertook in 2016 to set global standards and introduce new tools that collect critical data at each of our locations. Building off these tools and standards, we’re now harnessing the data to improve the way we work. This is informing plans that range from optimizing our offices for energy and space utilization to targeting improvements in waste diversion from landfill.”
Probst’s work in sustainable finance connects capital providers with sustainable investment opportunities. He focuses on helping market participants overcome barriers that often include risk-return, information or scale. “For example,” he said, “if opportunities offer an inadequate risk-adjusted return, we may develop strategies to mitigate certain risks, using insurance or other means. If there is inadequate information for capital providers to evaluate opportunities, we may undertake additional research to educate market participants. If the scale of the investment opportunity is too small to attract most lenders, we may help aggregate projects or develop standardized documentation to help reduce transaction costs for lenders and facilitate their participation.”
Ruben-Salama’s company looks at internal operations for the services industries—mostly office spaces and data centers. “We provide long-range energy forecasts, long-range goal setting in terms of carbon reductions and/or renewable strategies, and figure out the most cost effective way to reduce their internal impact,” she said. “But the majority of the impacts of these companies are in the companies they invest in. So we also look at the risks, figure out how to account for them, how to work with companies that they would invest in and engage in policies that reduce risks or create some transparency around risk.”
Suttile and his staff work with the New York Power Authority, New York State Energy Research & Development Authority and Con Edison on program implementation. “Policy gets set by the Public Service Commission and public comment,” he explained. “For example, they decide that they’re going to ask the utilities to save this much energy (this procedure is in the process of changing). We then help the utility design and implement a program that achieves whatever the goal is—what the incentives look like, what the eligible technologies are, putting together a sales team to speak to customers and educate them about the programs. … Because we are a full-service company, we can help our customers do a master plan and figure out how to plan out their energy over the next 10 years. At the same time, if they need a boiler fixed, we have the engineers on staff that have the license and know-how to actually go and deal with some of the more complex solves that need to be done.”
What is the biggest obstacle to achieving your goals?
“My team has to deliver on our goal in an environment of high growth and rapid change,” said Ossman. ”This requires a flexible and adaptive approach, which can be a challenge when working to roll out and improve upon programs and services in a standard way across nine locations, three time zones, and three languages. It’s all about striking a balance between achieving operational standards and being locally relevant. You can’t get too focused on a single track.”
The barriers to adopting renewable energy in developing economies may be very different than those in a more developed economy, explained Probst. “In general, the obstacles can be placed in one of three categories—capital, policy or technology,” he said. “But even with abundant capital, optimal policies and effective technologies, it will still take time and effort to make the transition to a clean energy economy given the long-lived nature of assets that produce and consume energy, and the need for an effective transition given the importance of energy in our lives.”
For Ruben-Salama, the big obstacle is internal accounting mechanisms. “When we’re looking at the operational footprint of companies, to a large degree the low-hanging fruit has already been taken care of,” she said. “The operations are already very efficient, so the incremental improvements typically have a long payback period, and they compete with money from all over the rest of the company. This is often a problem—justifying the long payback periods of certain efficiency or renewables investments. And then operational inertia is also an obstacle. It’s very, very slow to change things. For example, you can be talking about setting a carbon reduction goal for several years until you actually do it.”
Suttile believes that one of the main reasons we can’t achieve more energy efficiency and clean energy is because people don’t really see the value of it yet. Energy is still a relatively small part of people’s annual budget. “Unless you’re really concerned about not getting access to the grid, have poor power quality, or are paranoid and really want to be off the grid, you’re not putting on solar panels,” he said. “People need another benefit. We need to try to quantify the environmental benefits of clean energy, and they’re not easy to quantify because we don’t have a carbon tax yet. Utilities really haven’t had to go through that calculus; they haven’t had to say to a homeowner, ‘if you put a solar panel on your house on this street in this part of the network it’s worth this much.’ It’s a lot of analytics that just haven’t been done yet.”
What are one or two skills that you feel are key to being effective at sustainability management?
“When you have the choice of approaching a situation by maintaining the status quo or taking a sustainable approach,” said Ossman. “The only way the sustainable option wins out is if you’re able to understand complex issues, make evidence-backed recommendations, and deliver on implementation. I find that systems-orientation and a deep appreciation for data analysis are two skills that uniquely enable people to deliver in these areas.”
Probst emphasized the ability to work in teams. “Most of the challenges in the field require multidisciplinary solutions,” he said. “So perhaps the most important thing is to be able to work in teams—to understand what skills you can contribute, and to involve those with skills that you need to accomplish your goal.”
Ruben-Salama zeroed in on the ability to liaise between technical people and business people. “Sustainability management is a lot about engineering and energy and water and inputs, things that are actually quite technical and complex,” she said. “Understanding science and being able to communicate it in an effective way is important, because business people don’t want to understand all the details, nor do they really have the skill set to be able to translate back and forth.
“A second important skill is about choosing your words properly…you need to know when not to say climate change, for example, or sustainability or resilience, because there are definitely people who will completely tune out when you say those words. Sometimes you’ll be more effective if you can couch the argument in different terms. Such as ‘be more energy independent’ to help ‘reduce risks to your operation’ or looking at the numbers, ‘renewables is a great investment option.’ Even if the company itself has a public position of working on climate change issues, not everyone in the organization is going to agree. So you have to be able to read people and understand what words to use. … Diplomacy.”
“Curiosity is important. I think in order to really be good at what you do, you need to care about it enough to do it when it’s inconvenient,” said Suttile. “I spend a lot of time after work reading and trying to learn about things outside of work. I don’t think I would have been able to get involved with as many things as I did at Wildan without putting in the effort to learn things I didn’t know. … And it’s important to understand, especially with policy, what motivates people. That’s really the only way to find compromise.”
What advice do you have for students entering the field?
“My advice to students is to load up on the courses that come less naturally to them,” said Ossman. “Sustainability managers need to be well-rounded, balancing strategy with tactics, numbers with stories, science with practice. When studying to enter into this field, really think about the strengths you walk in with, and those you need to build. Take advantage of every credit to expand your toolkit as much as possible.”
“First, become an expert in at least one aspect of sustainability,” said Probst. “Whether it is architecture, finance, policy or otherwise, have an area where you are or can become an expert. … Over time, you can develop a broader perspective on the field, but initially, you can often accelerate your career development by focusing on a specific area. … And to round out your experience and knowledge, consider joining relevant not-for-profit organizations, whether as a volunteer, board member or otherwise.”
Ruben-Salama stressed the importance of understanding spreadsheets. “You need to be able to look at big data sets, be able to analyze what’s going on, be able to assemble a data set, match numbers up, do analysis, slice and dice, interpret what you see,” she said. “Also, develop two or three specific narratives about what aspect of sustainability you want to focus on and why you’re competent to do that. Is it climate change, is it water provision, is it packaging reduction? And what is it that makes you a credible person to do this? Also think about what you are interested in affecting in terms of sustainability and identify the appropriate industry to tackle that.”
“Take the hardest classes that are offered, not necessarily the most interesting,” said Suttile. “Because with how much information is out there now, you need to learn how to filter all that stuff. It’s stressful to be in an industry that’s changing as quickly as energy—you need to understand how to filter. I think economics by far carries the most weight into what I do now. … And pay attention to the research. You have access to the Earth Institute—take advantage of it. You have access to people doing things on the cutting edge, and the international conversation is one of the major benefits of SIPA (School of International and Public Affairs).
Ruben-Salama also advised students not to get discouraged. “Sometimes it’s easy to feel hopeless on these jobs when things aren’t moving as quickly as you want, because people who care about climate change feel the urgency all the time,” she said. “But don’t get discouraged, because things go in fits and starts. You can’t be 100 percent effective all the time. … If you look back five or 10 years, things have changed a lot. We all have a part to play, but if you’re thinking that you’re going to singlehandedly change everything, you’re setting yourself up to be discouraged. Keep the perspective.”
Transforming Organizations with Sustainability Management will take place Wednesday, March 29 from 6-7pm at Low Library. Click here to register.