Making Sustainability Work In Today's Society

The growing movement focused on managing our environmental, economic and social resources for the long term

The correlation between age and the perception of time is an interesting study. When a teenager is 15, the sixteenth birthday seems to take forever to arrive. The flip side of this situation is that when you are 55, time seems to flash by at an incredibly faster rate.

Regardless of the age or time factor, one fact is crystal clear: planning for the future is pertinent to all generations and especially critical when working to sustain our natural resources.

Much phrasing for the 20th century centered around the term "green." Green reminded society to leave our natural resources in as good of condition as we found them to be upon entering this world.

Societal change for the 21st century takes on a much stronger tone. The term "blue" is being tossed around in certain circles, relating to the statement that we should leave the environment better than when we encountered it. "Blue" refers to the blueness of the sky and water. There is also a strong trend toward awareness and education as it pertains to sustainability.

We are not suggesting a quantum leap on the part of corporate America is occurring on sustainability, but certainly there is increased movement by some. For example, the Shell Oil Co. in the United States currently is funding the first center for sustainable development. The Shell Oil Co. Foundation established the Shell Center for Sustainability at Houston's Rice University with a $3.5 million endowment in July 2002.

There are other indications of advancements in societal sustainable development. In the areas of renewables, the pressure of finding new sources of energy is pushing sources such as wind energy and solar energy. Also prominent is the movement to utilize coal reserves by developing technology to create a cleaner burning coal. According to an article in REFOCUS, an international renewable energy magazine, three quarters of U.S. utilities will offer a mass-market green power program by the end of 2003. This article plans not to debate "green" or "blue," but to put forward some common-sense suggestions on sustainable development's national and international societal role.

National Movement
Sustainability can be an awkward term to understand when first heard. Quite simply it means to maintain and improve societal and environmental conditions. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has defined it as "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." This can be accomplished by raising awareness, fostering understanding and encouraging implementation of sustainable development principles in sound economic and environmental decisions.

Since around 1988, we have witnessed a great amount of growth concerning sustainable programs. The last few years have brought on many more developing technologies and processes; but equally as important is the proactive stance taken by utilities. In 2002, the percentage of utilities offering, or in the planning stage of offering, a green power program had risen to 46 percent from 30 percent one year earlier.

Then, of course there is the tremendous forecasted growth surrounding natural gas. Power plants worldwide are increasing their energy source to natural gas. Natural gas is also a main feedstock for petrochemical refineries in the making of plastics and has a large economic impact on industrial areas based on current pricing.

On the educational front, a multitude of seminars, conferences and individual classes spotlight a variety of topics. For example, a green city tradeshow and conference took place in Austin, Texas, last year. It was the first year of the event, but had approximately 300 vendors and 3,000 attendees, an impressive number for a startup tradeshow. This year the tradeshow will be in Pittsburgh, and next year in Portland, Ore. Also on the Texas scene, the third annual Green Living Sustainability Fair took place in Fredericksburg, Texas. Attendance has been growing in the Sustainability Fair circuit and a diverse number of topics are presented at each fair.

Environmental Educational Services was asked to develop an environmental educational program for kindergarten classes at a private school named Southminster School. As we progressed through the school year, more resources came to the forefront, illustrating an increased desire by school officials, teachers and students to learn more about their ecoystem and how to protect it.

International Movement
Certainly, in the domestic market, sustainability has two distinct components -- political and environmental. This is often clearly seen in discussions of the topic, since rarely does any one person see both aspects of the issue. Many heated debates seem to hinge squarely on the fact that each side is arguing from these two totally different bases. And, trying to merge the two concepts into one is a real recipe for a headache. Thus, the most successful view, in our opinion, is to consider the politics and the environmental issues of sustainability separately but simultaneously.

Internationally, things take a different turn and can be initially even more confusing. Using the separate but simultaneous method of consideration while simply adding a few critical issues can allay much of the confusion. In the international arena, and particularly in Lesser Developed In the international arena, and particularly in Lesser Developed Countries (LDCs), sociology, economics and repeatability are key facets of sustainability. These aspects are as important as the political and environmental components, perhaps even more so. While the first two components are somewhat familiar, the concept of repeatability may be a bit new to those who have not taken this approach before.

Repeatability is a commonly used technique in machine construction, software design, and other business activities. It allows you to create a jig, data structure, or other template that can be used to ensure that all future constructions follow a similar pattern. Internationally it is vital that each country's program looks and performs the same, especially in the face of disparate regulatory and legal environments. The last thing a CEO wants to hear from a host government is, "Why is your program for our country different than that for your country?" By using repeatable programs and templates this problem can be largely eliminated.

Our recommendation is to approach sustainability through emphasis on these components (sociology, economics, and repeatability) rather than as an altruistic environmental concept. While sustainability is a commendable goal in itself, it is not likely to be accomplished at all if it cannot be shown to be of immediate benefit to its implementers. By focusing on positive sociological and economic impacts, immediate gains can be shown and the sustainability programs will be far more likely to be implemented -- both internationally and domestically.

A composite example will serve to demonstrate this thesis. We have actually witnessed all components of this example, but in the interest of brevity and clarity we have merged them into a typical scenario (with the occasional example).

In this case, a company begins a development project in an LDC. As is common in many countries, the host government is mandated to be a major partner in the project; and while the operating company can fund its piece of the project, the host government requires funding for its portion. The government authorizes its agency to seek funding support from one of the major sources, such as the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund. This global funding source requires an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) or Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) prior to participating in the project. Since the host government does not have the staff or experience to deal with this technical requirement, it passes the responsibility through to the operating company.

The operating company then finds that one requirement of the EIA is an analysis of the sociological impact of the project. At this point the company has two options: a) continue with the study as a stand-alone analysis, or b) view this portion of the analysis as a component of a total sustainability approach. By taking the first option the company can finish the study and will have an acceptable, but not likely repeatable, approach for the EIA. For example, if building a pipeline in the desert is the current project the EIA could consider only the impact on nomadic desert dwellers. But, this narrow view does not lend itself to having similarities repeated in a pipeline through a tropical jungle.

However, if the company looks at this as a part of an overall sustainability plan, everyone wins. A clearly thought-out sustainable development plan for operations will certainly have many reusable components for future projects, thus lowering total costs. In the pipeline example this would mean analyzing the sociological impacts of construction crews, local employment, road building, and security as repeatable pieces of any pipeline project. The data used in such an analysis might change, but the effects and interactions with indigenous people would have identical bases.

So, if the analysis of the sociological impact comes from a sustainability perspective focused on the previously described foundations there will be a "built-in" business approach for the start-up. That is because when the project commences, the interface with the local economy and personnel will be consistently defined and a clear strategy for interactions will be in place.

By having a consistent, and therefore sustainable, approach the operating company will have a program that answers questions about the economic and social interactions with both the people and the environment. This program would, therefore, provide the business managers with information needed to protect the environment and the people. It would also give an economic measure of their results in doing do. For example, if one of the measures of sociologic impact were the formation of local jobs then the number of direct and support related jobs created and filled by locals could be easily quantified annually as a measure of performance toward this goal.

Additionally, a well-designed program ensures the host government will have all needed documentation to speed internal approvals and to be able to answer critical questions from its constituencies. Almost without fail, host governments will require information about how many jobs will be created, how much the local and federal economies will be impacted and how the environment will be benefited. By using cohesive sustainability strategy, all of these questions will have rapid, consistent and positive responses.

A good way to develop such a program is to build a structured program outline using various checklists for each component. Sources for such checklists might be the various world financial organizations, international standards organizations, and governmental guidance documents from well developed countries. This initial structuring is also a good place to have outside consulting support. But, it is critical that your consultants really do have "Been there, Done that" credentials -- be sure to check their field level experience before putting your hard earned dollars on the line.

One thing that is often overlooked by companies in the situation of program development, until it is too late, is the double standard that exists on environmental matters in many countries. When a company realizes at the last minute that it has difficult environmental hurdles to overcome and locals are not aware of these difficulties, animosity and frustration usually result. For example, local companies may not be demonstrating any obvious environmental protection activities. But at the same time, a global operating company may be asked to adhere to regulations that are more stringent than those in many well-developed countries. Just because there is no apparent enforcement of regulations is not sufficient justification to ignore them. Doing so will be at your own financial peril.

A well thought-out sustainable development plan will help to avoid this pitfall. By performing detailed and investigatory planning, the actual regulations can be uncovered and reconciled against your sustainability program structure. Remember, double standards are not usually created to be punitive, but exist as such planning, double standards are not usually created to be punitive, but exist as rudimentary components to improve the quality of life and the environment from a position of limited resources.

In conclusion, we believe that a good sustainability plan will include a balanced approach to sociology, culture, economics, politics, archeology and the environment. By combining each of these pieces into one consistent strategic plan, a result greater than the components will emerge; just as the beauty of a diamond emerges from its many polished facets. And as with a diamond, the owner will obtain increased value both immediately and in the future.

This article originally appeared in the 06/01/2004 issue of Environmental Protection.

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