Can we engineer sustainability?

January 2011 » Columns » BEYOND WORDS
Eileen Straughan

The word “sustainability” is in common use with a variety of definitions, most relating to providing for society’s current needs while maintaining the integrity of the earth’s natural systems for future generations. The engineering industry can help advance sustainability with our own business practices — the subject of this month’s column — and in project design activities — to be discussed in next month’s column. Leading the way as businesses entails incorporating sustainability planning into a firm’s strategic planning efforts. Likewise, setting the standard for sustainability in project design activities entails incorporating the human and natural environment in project design efforts in a very deliberate way.

Engineering firms, like all businesses, can reduce their impact on the environment by implementing sustainability plans as part of their annual strategic planning process. They start by incorporating the concept of the “triple bottom line” — profit, people, and planet — into the process. In addition to analyzing markets and setting goals for company operations to ensure financial sustainability and profitability, the annual strategic planning exercise includes development of goals around employee health and well-being in the workplace, organizational philanthropic activities, and the environmental impact of company operations in the areas of energy efficiency and greenhouse gas emissions, water efficiency, waste management, recycling, and greening vendor supply chains. Much in the same way that the company’s strategic plan is backed up by a solid marketing plan, a sustainability plan — or environmental management system — provides the framework for its environmental goals.

Sustainability plans begin with a corporate environmental policy or statement about the company’s commitment to improve the environment and take action toward greater sustainability. It’s important that company leadership stand firmly behind the policy, including identifying a company sustainability officer, the key individual who will take responsibility for developing the plan, championing the ongoing activities, and making the company actions toward greater sustainability transparent both internally and externally.

The plan development process should include creating a stakeholder team, including representatives from all divisions within the company, to collaboratively develop the company environmental policy that everyone endorses. That policy can be as narrow or as broad a statement as the organizational leadership is willing to commit. Conducting a first round inventory of the company environmental aspects including operational energy consumption, greenhouse gas emissions, water use, stormwater management, waste generation and disposal, procurement processes, and other activities that have environmental effects, including employee commutes and business-related travel, can help to inform the process of articulating the company policy. Because you can’t manage what you don’t measure, the inventory provides the useful baseline from which the organization can set goals for reductions throughout time, and measure and report its progress toward reductions. Finally, the sustainability plan should be front and center on the organization intranet, communicated throughout the organization, and open for company-wide review, comment, and most importantly, participation.

There are many advantages for sustainability planning at the corporate level, the first being to attract and retain the best and the brightest in the engineering profession. Second, as the organization changes to incorporate greater energy, water, and waste efficiency, company operating costs are reduced, which channels money right to the bottom line. Third, sustainability efforts involve the entire organization and can be a great team-building exercise, sending the message throughout the organization that concern for the environment is a concern for company profitability and employee and family health and well-being.

Perhaps the greatest advantage for a company developing a sustainability plan and being transparent about its actions is in the competitive arena. Federal Executive Orders passed in 2000, 2007 (Executive Order 13423), and 2009 (Executive Order 13514) require federal agencies to implement environmental management systems, develop strategic sustainability plans, and achieve aggressive goals for improved energy and water efficiency, increased use of renewable energy, reduced greenhouse gas emissions, reduced waste generation and diversion of waste from landfills through recycling and re-use, reduced toxicity, and green procurement of products and services. In two recent public forums, Michelle Moore, President Obama’s federal environmental executive, noted that companies doing business with the federal government are expected to have sustainability plans and that it will be a discriminator in contract awards.

Eileen Straughan is president and founder of Straughan Environmental. Tracy Seymour, P.E., is director of environmental design at Straughan Environmental.


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