Monday, June 04, 2007

Simmons School of Management "Sustainability: Creating a Livable Future"

I jumped on the bus in Waverly Sq. and headed into Boston for a NetImpact event courtesy of the Simmons School of Management chapter. The list of speakers included Ben Anderson of Recycline (one of my favorite local small businessed working to "close the loop"), Ed Costa and Mark Rashid of Hewlett-Packard Financial Services, and Ruksana Mirza of Holcim. Chris Landry of the Sustainable Food Laboratory in Hartland, VT was scheduled to appear as well, but could not make it due to what we could only assume was travel related problems.
There were no anti-capitalist rhetoric from the students (nor was it expected), no hand-wringing apologies about the massive impact of corporations on the planet we all share, just some good ol' matter-of-fact discussion about what these companies are doing to address the needs of their stakeholders and shareholders. Despite all the feel good energy held in the room, the reality is that none of the companies there are doing enough to reverse the current trend of extractive business practices that take carbon from the earth and deposit it in the atmosphere. Don't get me wrong, these companies are making stepwise progress toward restorative business practices, but as Paul Hawken said in the very first section of The Ecology of Commerce, written in 1993 [the book that helped Ray Anderson, CEO of Interface, realize that they have a moral responsibility to preserve the environment]
...but, in the end, the impact on the environment was only marginally different
than if we had done nothing at all. The recycled toner cartridges, the sustainably harvested woods, the replanted trees, the soy-based inks, and the monetary gifts to nonprofits were all well and good, but basically we were in the junk mail business, selling products by catalogue. All the recycling in the world would not change the fact that doing business in the latter part of the twentieth century is an energy intensive endeavor that gulps down resources.
I suppose the meetings and conferences are all part of the process. We have to start somewhere and redefining the very nature of commerce is not something that the establishment will take lying down. There is too much as stake, too much power centrally gathered to just let the masses change the way business is carried out.
Despite my misgivings about what sustainable business is becoming (that it is not enough), I still enjoyed the evening, and especially enjoyed meeting people striving to make a positive impact. These people are working in the trenches on the issues, and I am certain that working to make a global cement manufacturer sustainable (though Mr. Hawken would argue that it cannot be done in our current system) is no easy task. In fact, if we did not have people interested in making some form of change or impact, where would we be?
The question I had for Ms. Mirza, that I did not get to ask; how many people are involved in environmental health & safety, sustainability, and CSR for a global company with 90,000 employees and $18.7 billion in revenue? How about sustainability & CSR? Hundreds? Holcim is a Swiss company, so is Mettler-Toledo, the company I work for. Our revenue is roughly one tenth that of Holcim's. What is the climate change and/or energy volatility risk for MT compared to Holcim? Is it an issue? Certainly the regulatory risks are more immediate for a company in an energy intensive industry like making cement, but it will effect all companies regardless of size eventually. Shouldn't we be ready for it?

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