Transforming Organizations with Sustainability Management

by |April 3, 2017
Steven Cohen, August 11, 2015 Photo by Bruce Gilbert

Read more from Executive Director Steven Cohen at the Huffington Post.

More and more companies and nonprofits have a chief sustainability officer and are beginning to incorporate sustainability concerns into routine management. The world is slowly starting the transition from today’s economy based on fossil fuels, destruction of ecosystems, and the one time use and disposal of finite resources, to an economy based on renewable resources and the least possible damage of natural systems by human activities. I believe that we can develop a sustainable economy and generate sufficient wealth to end poverty and maintain the type of lifestyle many of us enjoy today. I am counting on our values, human ingenuity and technology to accomplish this goal. But to deliver on our potential, we must develop the organizational capacity to make our vision a reality. Dreams, vision and policy are necessary, but not sufficient, to achieve sustainability. To achieve sustainability we must define, measure, staff, and learn the new organizational behaviors that preserve rather than destroy our natural world.

The organizational capacity we must develop will not be built by government fiat, nor will it be built quickly. But over time, with the hard work and brain power of many we can transform the old-fashioned, industrial-style organizations of yesterday into the agile, fast learning, sustainable organizations of tomorrow. These organizations will pay close attention to what we have come to call the physical dimensions of sustainability: the careful use of energy, water and other material resources; the construction of green buildings and sustainable physical settings for work; the reduction and reuse of waste streams; and the reduction of the environmental impacts of an organization’s production processes and outputs. Our goal is to maximize our use of renewable resources, recycle resources as much as possible, and minimize our impact on our planet–to grow our economy while preserving the planet.

This requires a change in the nature of consumption but also a change in the definition of competent management. A competent manager must be able to read financial statements, and understand finance, human resources, strategy, information, technology and marketing, as well as understand and manage their organization’s physical sustainability. Last week I had the pleasure of moderating a discussion of the key elements of sustainability management with a panel of sustainability professionals who all graduated from master’s programs built and managed as partnerships between the Earth Institute and Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs and School of Professional Studies. I started and direct these programs: the Master of Public Administration in Environmental Science and Policy and the Master of Science in Sustainability Management. Together, they have together graduated over 1,000 sustainability professionals. The panelists included:

  • James Ossman: A graduate of the MS in Sustainability Management program, who worked as a senior operations manager at the Earth Institute before moving to his current role at Etsy, where he manages global operations.
  • Curtis Probst: A graduate of the MPA in Environmental Science and Policy program who now leads Sustainable Finance at Rocky Mountain Institute and teaches sustainability finance in the Sustainability Management program. Before coming to Columbia, Curtis spent much of his career on Wall Street, most recently at Goldman Sachs.
  • Celine Ruben-Salama: A graduate of the MPA in Environmental Science and Policy program who now teaches classes on corporate sustainability reporting and consumerism in the Sustainability Management program, while also working as the principle at FOR THE LONG-TERM, a consultancy focused on sustainability strategy.
  • Zachary Suttile: A graduate of the MPA in Environmental Science and Policy program who now leads the development of clean energy programs at Willdan Energy Solutions, a company whose board I also sit on.

We had a thoughtful discussion of sustainable supply chains, recycling, green building, and concern for ecological and climate impacts. We also explored the kind of internal governance structures that help sustainability take root in contemporary organizations.  We examined the ways in which sustainability is being factored into corporate finance. We discussed energy efficiency and renewable energy and learned how organizations communicate their sustainability practices to investors, customers, funders and stakeholders.

Many discussions of sustainability focus on macro issues of goals, policies and strategy, but our discussion focused on the nitty gritty of day to day work that takes sustainability management from talk to action. From the classroom and text book, these concepts need to be translated into standard operating procedures and organizational routines. If we are to build a sustainable economy it will take hundreds of millions of small steps by many, many dedicated change agents.  No matter what happens in America’s national capital, this work is going on every day in communities all over this country and all over the world.

The reason this work continues in the face of a backwards-facing federal government was discussed by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg in a superb New York Times column this past week. According to the mayor:

“President Trump’s unfortunate and misguided rollback of environmental protections has led to a depressing and widespread belief that the United States can no longer meet its commitment under the Paris climate change agreement. But here’s the good news: It’s wrong… When we made the commitment in Paris, we were already about a third of the way there, thanks mostly to the closing of so many coal plants. The Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, which works to replace coal with cleaner forms of energy (and which my foundation supports), projects that more plant closings will get us to nearly two-thirds of our goal. In combination with existing federal policies that can’t be undone, like vehicle fuel efficiency standards through model year 2021, the last third can be achieved by cities and businesses that are taking action to cut pollution and improve their energy efficiency. This week, many of the 81 major corporations (including Apple and Wal-Mart) that signed a pledge in 2015 to reduce their emissions reaffirmed their commitments, and Anheuser-Busch InBev announced that it aims to get 100 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2025. (My company is pursuing the same goal.) No mandate from Washington is forcing these companies to act — just their own self-interest. Cities, too, are acting out of self-interest. By improving their air quality and becoming greener, cities turn into more attractive places to live and work. And where people want to live and work, businesses want to invest. That’s Economics 101, and mayors understand it even when Washington doesn’t.”

The movement toward sustainability is driven by ideals and self-interest. It is a powerful combination. My graduates and Mayor Bloomberg represent the future and the reality of the evolving world economy. That reality is being shaped everyday as companies, cities, communities and individuals decide on how to shape their work and lives. It’s an unstoppable force.

As a political scientist, I’ve always been fascinated by the forces that shape the public policy agenda and political competition. Politics, society, the physical world, culture and economics interact and influence each other. Social preferences create an irrefutable reality. Feminism, civil rights, gay rights, globalism, the move toward wellness, sustainability, individual freedom and expression are grassroots, social phenomena. They will persist and find voice. The web, smartphones, security cameras, satellite communication and drones assure that whatever happens can be observed, and despite the rhetoric, news can’t be faked. Powerful images and stories go viral and if they are not real, they are typically exposed. Climate change, toxics, marine debris, invasive species, destroyed mountains and landscapes can all be observed and can’t be denied. They create a reality that policy and politics either acknowledges or is consumed by. Some environmental policy and regulation may no longer be needed, but most is needed and changing technology brings about new threats requiring new rules. We live on a more crowded and resource stressed planet. Deep down, everyone knows that that, even if they choose to pretend it’s a hoax or fabrication. They all know that hill they used to hike on is now a strip mall, and the ride that once took 15 minutes now takes 45 due to traffic. Reality, not ideology, fuels the drive for sustainability.


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