June 20, 2011


Question: Phillip from Phoenix, Arizona asks: Just what is sustainability and why is it important? Phillip follows up with a series of related questions.

For a response to the question and follow-up inquiries we called upon a colleague, Molly Coskran, and asked her to respond.

Molly Coskran is the Principal and Owner at Heed Environmental Health. Molly has over 20 years of environmental health, safety, and product stewardship experience in corporate and consulting environments. Most recently she was a director with a specialty chemicals corporation. Molly is a certified industrial hygienist, with extensive experience in sustainability & product stewardship, project management, strategic planning, and chemical regulatory compliance strategies.

Question:  Just what is sustainability and why is it important?

Molly Coskran: I have heard it defined many ways. For some it is an environmental initiative, others talk about “going green.” Still others discuss the idea of living well and in a healthy way as though tomorrow mattered. Personally, I like the following definition. The 1987 Brundtland Commission report “Our Common Future” – coined the term “sustainable development” as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Why are businesses increasingly focusing on sustainability?

Molly Coskran:  Businesses and organizations come to the decision to focus on sustainability from many paths. Organizations may choose to set up a sustainability program for altruistic reasons. Some are driven by public demand after an environmental, financial, or workplace incident. Others may be part of the supply chain for big box retailers. These retailers often demand compliance with sustainability scorecards, and thus it becomes a requirement of doing business within that market. And finally, keeping up with the competition is another reason why companies participate in sustainability.

How is sustainability viewed worldwide?

Molly Coskran:  The concept of sustainability is not new, although the word “sustainability” has come into its own in the last 10 years. Human development and environmental protection have been part of the United Nations conferences since the 1972 conference in Stockholm. Over the years, these initiatives became better defined and culminated in the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg with the plan of implementation called Strategies to End Unsustainable Patterns of Production & Consumption.

There are countries in Europe that require sustainability initiatives as part of the regulatory framework for that country. Denmark is one such country. Multi-national organizations sometimes embark on sustainability programs to help secure good will to proceed with business in some countries or municipalities.

There are, of course, those who do not embrace sustainability or conversely believe that the World Summit did not go far enough.

Can a sustainability initiative affect the bottom line?

Molly Coskran:  Sustainability, at its core, is about the triple bottom line of Economic (profit), Social (people), and Environment (planet). A solid sustainability program that is tailored to meet the needs of the business can impact the bottom line in the reduction of energy use, reduction of waste, and improved employee engagement. And if the market a company is selling in begins to require it, it can be a means for differentiating a company from the rest of the competition.

Another approach that organizations take is to define those areas that are crucial to their successful future. For example, a food company that is reliant on water as a raw material for their product, should have a keen interest in the health and future viability of the watershed in the areas they manufacture that product. Likewise, specialty chemical companies might engage in research to allow them to change from petroleum based to bio-based chemicals. Another example is highly energy intensive manufacturing processes that are redesigned to improve energy efficiencies and the use of alternative energy sources.

In closing, sustainability programs are as different from each other as the organizations themselves. Efforts and accomplishments related to sustainability fall along a continuum, with the expectation that the organization show continuous improvement. A policy, management oversight, and measurable goals are a start. Implementation of the Global Reporting Initiative metrics and fully transparent reports with third party verification is the end goal to strive for. Organizations may define where they wish to fall on the continuum. However, conversations with stakeholders may push organizations further along. In the end, the decision to implement sustainability and how far to take it is a decision that must be made in the context of an organization’s culture, structure, and strategy.

For additional resources on sustainability, please see:

World Business Council for Sustainable Development, http://www.wbcsd.org

Global Reporting Initiative, http://www.globalreporting.org

At Hessian & McKasy, we regularly consult and collaborate with environmental professionals to serve the needs of our clients.  We thank Molly Coskran for taking the time to respond in such a thoughtful manner. Molly Coskran can be reached at: heed@earthlink.net.


The views here are my own and those of Molly Coskran and do not reflect those of my employer, Hessian & McKasy, a Professional Association.

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