Sustainability is hot. Everyone's talking about it. Seminars and conferences galore are dedicated to it. Wal-Mart is even developing a “Sustainability Index” for its products.
It affects every industry and arguably every manager.
But what exactly does it mean? And what, if anything, is your company or trade association doing about it?
Though the idea of sustainability has been around forever, it is so vague that it can mean quite different things to different people and different industries.
Academics and environmentalists who have been promoting the idea for years are part of the problem. They make it sound other-worldly. For example:
“We are committed to meeting the needs of the present without compromising the welfare of future generations.”
This was part of a declaration in 1992 by the Business Council for Sustainable Development, a group of high-minded business leaders.
But what does this mean in real-world terms? No more coal-mining? No more forestry? No more concrete buildings? No more internal combustion engines? No more methane-belching cattle? No more hamburgers? No more plastics? No more of the things our lives have been built around?
For realists, it is easy to make fun of the concept. Easy to make fun of those who want to drive sustainability to its logical — or illogical — conclusion. Easy to deduce — as many businessmen have — that sustainability simply drives up costs for no very obvious benefit.
But things are changing and changing fast. Sustainability now means saving money. Most immediately and directly, it means reducing energy costs. In some cases, the savings can be substantial.
This is particularly noticeable in the building industry, where site selection, use of materials and new design elements maximizing natural light and renewable energy can have a major impact not only on costs, but in enhancing the sustainable or “green” image of the overall project.
Even paint. You may remember that U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu recommended that we all paint our roofs white to reflect the sun's rays and keep our homes cool. What he presumably meant was not paint, which will flake off a roof in no time, but specially formulated white roof coatings. As any contractor will tell you, these are fine if you live in warmer parts of the country and your house faces south, but are less practical in cooler climates.
Then there are matters of water-use efficiency, renewable energy, insulation and weatherproofing, recycling of construction and demolition waste, indoor environmental quality, the use of regional materials, and a building's overall impact on the environment.
Many of these considerations are now being incorporated in proposed standards by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air Conditioning Engineers, the ASTM, and other professional bodies such as the American Institute of Architects. Several are working together to develop the first international green construction code, where sustainability will meet enforcement.
Common to several of these proposed standards is an antipathy to fossil fuels and the promotion of taxpayer-subsidized renewable energy technologies. Missing from many of them is an adequate knowledge of real-world applications (for example, the proven health benefits of using vinyl in hospital settings).
The fact is that environmental organizations and their allies tend to let their political and social agendas influence their recommendations.
And sustainability can be tricky. For example, a comprehensive study of sustainability factors in the manufacturing, maintenance and disposal of automobiles by CNW Marketing Research found that overall, sport utility vehicles were considerably more sustainable than hybrids.
So one has to be careful in assessing the new standards being proposed. But they cannot be ignored. One way or another, they are going to affect all of us. And the pace is quickening.
I urge every company and every trade association to waste no time in getting involved and keeping abreast of sustainability measures being proposed for your industry. Without your input, some of the proposals being hastily put forward by academics, consultants and regulators could prove impractical, unnecessarily costly and ultimately counterproductive.
Put another way, sustainability can be a wonderful thing, but you cannot afford to let it blindside you. Above all, you need to understand how new sustainability guidelines are likely to affect you and your industry — and protect yourself against their misuse.
Allen Weidman is Washington-based chief sustainability executive at Kellen Co., a professional services and association management firm.