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< Prev   CONTENTS   Next > The Shift Toward the Sustainability Discourse

The Shift in Business

Following the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit of 1992, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), a group consisting of 162 of the world's largest corporations, mainly in the manufacturing, mining, and energy sectors, and some with less than an exemplary environmental record, coauthored Changing Course: A Global Business Perspective on Development and the Environment, along with Stephan Schmidheiny (1992). Between 1992 and 2002, when the World Summit on Sustainable Development was held in Johannesburg, a number of important books were published discussing the role of business including The Ecology of Commerce: A Declaration of Sustainability (Hawken 1994),

The Hungry Spirit: Beyond Capitalism: The Quest for Purpose in the Modern World (Handy 1999), Cannibals with Forks: The Triple Bottom Line of 21st Century Business (Elkington 1999), Open Society: Reforming Global Capitalism (Soros 2000), The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else (De Soto 2000), Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution (Hawken et al. 2000), The Civil Corporation: The New Economy of Corporate Citizenship (Zadek 2001), and When Corporations Rule the World (Korten 2001). In 2002, at the World Summit on Sustainable Development, the world's largest-ever international conference, the corporate leaders present articulated that business must be a major participant in sustainable development, not a source of problems to be overcome. Members of the Chamber of Commerce and the WBCSD argued that economic growth produced by free trade was the only hope for the world's poor and succeeded in positioning business as the dominant tool for pursuing sustainable development.

Such publications and the influence of USA-based groups, such as the WBCSD and the Chamber of Commerce, brought an awareness of sustainability into the boardrooms and management suites in organizations across the USA. For example, the late Ray Anderson, CEO of Interface, the world's largest manufacturer of commercial carpets and floor coverings, which is based in Atlanta, GA, was one of the first to adopt greener business practices after reading Paul Hawken's The Ecology of Commerce (1994). Hawkens wrote about how economics should be designed so that business and natural systems can coexist in balance. Anderson said in a TED talk which aired in February 2009:

In his book Paul charges business and industry as (1) the major culprit in causing the decline of the biosphere, and (2) the only institution that is large enough and pervasive enough and powerful enough to really lead humankind out of this mess. And by the way he convicted me as being a plunderer of the earth. And then I challenged my people at Interface to lead our company and the entire industrialized world to sustainability which we defined as eventually operating a petroleum intensive company in such a way as to take from the earth only what can be renewed by the earth naturally and rapidly. Not another fresh drop of oil, and to do no harm to the biosphere.

At one point, Anderson was described as America's greenest CEO. He said, “From plunderer, to recovering plunderer, to America's greenest CEO in 5 years. That frankly is a sad commentary on American CEOs.” Anderson, who died in August 2011, estimated that after 2001 he gave more than 1,000 speeches making the business case for sustainability.

Ideally, sustainability carries with it a set of assumptions different from the DSP and industrialism as illustrated in the shift at Interface. Increasingly, a wide variety of organizations are finding environmental considerations to be integral to their strategic positioning and are including environmental considerations into their mission and vision statements; integrating environmental concerns into their operations, decision making, and measurement systems; seeking to position their organization as an industry leader in environmental concern; developing innovative services and products for evolving markets; and considering their relationships with external stakeholders.

Elkington (1999) linked corporate sustainability with the idea of the triple bottom line which involves profits, planets, and people. Ten years after Elkington coined the term, Google Scholar, a search engine dedicated to scholarly writing, showed 57,000 references to the term. A year later, there were 206,000 entries (Wexler 2009). The triple bottom line refers to the idea that an organization's economic performance (profits), social performance (valuing and caring for employees, consumers, and communities), and environmental performance (the organization's ecological footprint) are interconnected. The environmental dimension involves activities that do not erode natural resources due to prudent corporate environmental management efforts. The social dimension encourages organizations to consider their impact on society and addresses issues such as community relations, support for education, and charitable contributions. Finally, the economic dimension centers on the value creation and enhanced financial performance of an organization's sustainability-related activities. The triple bottom line is also called the three pillars of sustainability: social, environmental, and economic. Sustainable organizations create goals and initiatives focused around each pillar. Economic value for shareholders is no longer the dominant purpose but rather a balance is sought as the organization admits that it has a role in promoting an ecologically sustainable world. Partnerships are formed with stakeholders (e.g., NGOs) also concerned with sustainability and justice. Products and production pressures are reconsidered, not just with an eye toward eco-efficiency but also toward ecosystem protection. Environmental and human costs are incorporated into accounting systems (i.e., full-cost accounting is utilized).

Tyson Foods and the Bottom Line The week before we started our journey on the Lewis and Clark Trail, I met Kevin Igli, Senior Vice President and Chief Environmental Health and Safety Officer at Tyson Foods, Inc., in his office at their corporate headquarters in Springdale, AR. Tyson Foods is one of the world's largest processors and marketers of chicken, beef, and pork. Their merger with the Hillshire Brands company in August 2014 created a company with more than $40 billion in annual sales and a portfolio that includes brands such as Tyson®, Wright®, Jimmy Dean®, Ball Park®, State Fair®, and Hillshire Farm®. Following the merger, Tyson Foods employed 124,000 people worldwide. They provide products and services to customers in the U.S. and 130 other countries.

Their sustainability mission statement, which is a direct quote from John Tyson, their Chairman of the Board, reads:

We recognize the importance of being a responsible corporate citizen. Our Core Values— which define who we are, what we do, and how we do it—are the foundation of corporate sustainability at Tyson. We are committed to making our company sustainable—economically, environmentally, and socially. Our progress in this endeavor will be measured by how we develop and market our products, how we care for the animals, land and environment entrusted to us, and how we treat people, including our Team Members, consumers, suppliers, and the communities in which we live and operate.

Kevin, who has worked with environment, health and safety issues throughout his career, explained:

At Tyson Foods we decided a couple of years ago to follow that triple bottom line model. But in so doing we decided to add a fourth p which is products. Because that is really what we do, we make products. So we talk about sustainability as people, planet, profit and products. And we look at it as all four of those have to be managed in a balance in order for your business to be sustainable for the long term.

Responding to Pressures and the Lure of the Business Case for Sustainability

The MIT Sloan Management Review published the findings of a 2010 sustainability and innovation global executive study and research report conducted in conjunction with the Boston Consulting Group entitled Sustainability: The 'Embracers' Seize Advantage (Hannaes et al. 2011). More than 3,000 business executives and managers from organizations located across the world were surveyed. Participant organizations ranged from 500 to 500,000 employees. Many respondents indicated external pressures led them to adopt sustainability-driven management processes. The external pressures came from public policy changes at the local, national, and global levels, customer and potential employee preferences, trends for more measurement and accountability, and pressures from investors and pension funds (e.g., the Carbon Disclosure Project).

Organizations often follow a three-stage model in their sustainability efforts (Jabbour and Santos 2006). First, an organization reacts to pressures such as environmental legislation and product requirements either by complying or by seeking to change the regulatory environment (e.g., lobbying, making political donations, or bringing lawsuits). If an organization decides to augment or abandon those reactions, then it will focus on preventing harm to the environment (e.g., preventing pollution). The final stage some organizations take involves voluntary proactive actions to ensure long-term sustainability. Organizations adopt selfregulation, technological innovation, industry-wide codes, and/or certifications. Among big companies, tools such as triple-bottom-line accounting, a sustainability balanced scorecard, life-cycle assessments, eco-efficiencies, and environmental information and management systems are used. Common sustainability initiatives involve recycling; reducing the use of energy, water, and other natural resources; and switching to the use of more environmentally responsible products and services.

Organizations vary in why they respond. Some are reactive and compliance oriented, while others are more proactive either because their management team believes it is the right thing to do, they see it as presenting a strategic advantage, or both. The business case for sustainability is a set of popular arguments that often appear in the business literature (both scholarly and practitioner oriented). The main argument is there can be a positive relationship between environmental, social, and financial performance. A variety of reasons are given including reduced operating costs, competitive parity, regulatory advantages associated with environmental performance (e.g., lower compliance costs, greater flexibility when adapting to legislative changes, the ability to influence environmental laws and regulations), reduced waste, improved efficiency and productivity, product differentiation, international competitive advantage, greater appeal to consumers, strengthened firm reputation, the ability to sell pollution control technology, creation of entry barriers, development of new market opportunities, better access to markets, and reducing or avoiding legal liabilities (Walker and Wan 2012). Blackburn (2007) provides those who would like to make a case for sustainability with support for seven business case arguments involving increased reputation and brand strength; more competitive, effective, and desirable products and services; new markets; productivity; lessened operational burden and interference; lower supply chain costs; lower cost of capital; and less legal liability. Best Practice: Read Blackburn before pitching sustainability to your organization's leaders.

However, strategies that protect the Earth do not always result in corporate savings nor do markets always embrace green products. Not all scholars agree there is a strong positive causal relationship between financial and environmental performance. Salzmann et al. (2005) review the theoretical frameworks, instrumental studies testing the hypothesized positive relationship, descriptive studies examining managers' perceptions, and tools used to test the relationships. Some of the theoretical arguments (e.g., the trade-off hypothesis, managerial opportunism hypothesis, and negative synergy) argue for a negative link, whereas others (e.g., social impact hypothesis, slack resources hypothesis, and the idea of positive synergy or a virtuous cycle) argue for a positive relationship. They conclude that the research fails to show a strong causal relationship between the variables, but they provided no information supporting the basis for this conclusion. A lack of unified findings is not surprising since so much depends on organizational dynamics, industry sector, environmental challenges faced, and tools used to measure environmental, social, and financial performance.

The Shift in Cities

Concerned with the implications of environmental issues such as global warming on their communities, local governments are developing their own climate action plans. Some cities joined ICLEI which was formed in 1990 at UN headquarters. ICLEI is regarded as a paragon of Agenda 21 implementation. Five years after the Brundtland Commission's report, at the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development's Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, the 171 national delegates endorsed Agenda 21 and it was reaffirmed at the 2012 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development. Agenda 21 is a nonbinding voluntarily implemented action plan developed by the UN to guide sustainable development.

I provide an overview here so you can see what it covers because, as you will read later, it is part of an artificially created controversy. The report consists of 300 pages with 40 chapters grouped into four sections: Section I: Social and Economic Dimensions—combat poverty, especially in developing countries, change consumption patterns, promote health, achieve a more sustainable population, and utilize sustainable settlements in decision making. Section II: Conservation and Management of Resources for Development—provide atmospheric protection, combat deforestation, protect fragile environments, conserve biodiversity, control pollution, and manage biotechnology and radioactive wastes. Section III: Strengthen the Role of Major Groups—protect children and youth; empower men, women, NGOs, local authorities, business, and workers; and strengthen the role of indigenous peoples, their communities, and farmers. Section IV: Means of Implementation—use science, technology transfer, education, international institutions, and financial mechanisms.

Other groups exist to help towns and cities manage resources wisely while creating more livable cities. The Urban Sustainability Director's Network (USDN) is a peer-to-peer professional network which develops and shares solutions to challenges faced when designing and constructing buildings and neighborhoods, transporting people and goods, managing resource use, and fueling growth and development. The Sustainable City Network is a business-to-government media and publishing operation based in Dubuque, IA, that provides information on sustainability products, services, and best practices. They provide excellent webinars, many of which are archived, informative online content, and useful collaboration tools. Their primary audiences are city and county government professionals, elected officials, academicians, business leaders, and federal officials. Action Plan: If you are interested in working on cityand regional-level sustainability initiatives, check out their webinar archives. Cities seeking assistance with implementing sustainability initiatives will find ample resources to assist them. Blackburn (2007) provides a checklist for action for those considering implementing sustainability within their city.

Creating Sustainable Cities: Boulder and Portland For cities, the triple bottom line focuses more on people than profits. As I drove to an interview in Boulder, CO, I passed through some of Boulder County's 97,000 acres of open space. For decades, area citizens have worked to conserve the area's natural, cultural, and agricultural resources, provide land for public use, and design a good quality of life within their city. Meeting in his second story office overlooking the tree canopy sheltering a public gathering space, David Driskell, Boulder's Executive Director of Community Planning and Sustainability, told me:

About 25 years ago there was a lot of analysis done and they said if we keep widening the roads, it isn't going to solve the problem. People are just going to drive more and the roads will be just as congested. So you need to find ways for people to get out of their cars and on their bikes or the bus or walking. So we've have 25 years of creating the multi-mobile transportation network. But if you look at it, it has had huge economic benefits for our community. Companies are here because their employees love to bike to work. And we know that there is value in being close to the bike path system. Every employee who works downtown gets a free bus pass. They love it. So there are economic benefits, there's obviously environmental benefits, and there are social benefits. We know it makes people happier. They are happier. They are more productive. They are physically fit. It is a more active lifestyle. All these things have come together in terms of what was driven initially by reducing congestion. But if you think about it holistically, about all the different things that you can advance that are around social, economic and environmental sustainability, it all leads you to it is worth investing in the multi-mobile transportation network.

In 2012, Boulder's population was 101,808, while the Boulder Metropolitan Statistical Area population was over 310,000. The Boulder Valley Comprehensive Plan is a joint plan between the City of Boulder and Boulder County which informs and guides the shared planning and development of Boulder Valley. Sustainability is a unifying framework as they seek to create a welcoming and inclusive community, a culture of creativity and innovation, strong city and county cooperation, a unique community identity and sense of place, compact and contiguous development and infill to create a more sustainable urban form, open space preservation, great neighborhoods and public spaces, environmental stewardship and climate action, a vibrant economy based on quality of life and economic strengths, a diversity of housing in multiple price ranges, an all-mode transportation system, and physical health and well-being among residents. It has been identified as one of the Five Happiest Cities in America, Top 100 Best Places to Live, America's Most Productive Metros, Best Urban Green Spaces in North America, Most Popular City for Tech Startups, The Best Places for Business and Careers, and Best Places for Work-Life Balance. David commented:

I am not a big fan of the three-legged stool [the triple bottom line]. I feel like it implies that if you have too much environmental sustainability you have to cut off the leg to make it equal with the others. They are not separate. My whole thing here has been we need to think about them [people, planet, profit] but sustainability is at the core where they intersect. So we now draw more interlocking circles and talk a lot about the sweet spot in the middle. That is sustainability. There is environmental quality, there is economic vitality, there is social equity but the sweet spot is sustainability where you are advancing all of those at the same time.. .. We talk about how do we challenge ourselves regardless of the initiative we are working on to think really comprehensively, strategically, about how we advance all areas at the same time.

Portland is located is near the confluence of the Willamette and Columbia rivers. In 2012, it had 600,106 residents, making it the 28th most populous city in the USA. With 2,289,800 people in the Portland metropolitan area, it is the 19th most populous metropolitan statistical area in the USA. The city has a commissionbased government headed by a mayor and four commissioners as well as Metro, their regional government. The city is noted for its superior land-use planning and investment in light rail. Because of its public transportation networks and efficient land-use planning, it has been referred to as one of the greenest cities in the USA. Like Boulder, Portland offers lessons useful in other cities. Susan Anderson, Director of Portland's Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, described how cities have a large footprint, internal purchasing power, numerous city employees, and influence through zoning and building codes. She said, “I think the impact of purchasing power is something that cities can use better, as a tool for change.” She described a city ordinance Portland passed more than 10 years ago that said if developers want to build affordable housing projects or commercial projects that include city funds or receive a city tax incentive, they must build to LEED standards. Today they must build to LEED Silver and all city facilities are LEED Gold. This one action shifted everything. Now Portland has 300 LEED-certified buildings and they are exporting the expertise of their planners, architects, builders,

and product developers across the globe.

In planning for their future, Portland integrated more than 20,000 resident comments into their Portland Plan, a guiding text which articulates their 25-year goals and 5-year action plans for community prosperity, business success, and equity; education and skill development; sustainability and the natural environment; human health, food, and public safety; design, planning, and public spaces; neighborhoods and housing; transportation, technology, and access; quality of life and civic engagement; and arts, culture, and innovation. In a document summarizing the highlights of the Portland Plan, the authors write:

Sustainability means more than environmental stewardship; it is also about caring for our economy and for each other. It means recognizing that our actions matter and that each individual choice makes a difference to our health and to the health of our community. When pursuing our vision for a sustainable city, equity matters. If we are going to thrive, we need to ensure all Portlanders have access to the jobs, quality housing, education, art, nature, recreation and other services and amenities we need to live full and enriching lives. We value our diverse communities, so it is important to ensure that we have the social networks and built environment that helps us stay connected.

Aware of the importance of strategically communicating about sustainability, Susan said:

We really worked at making sure the message was, it's not about the environment. It's about the environment and its connections to all these other things. Sustainability is not just about the environmental movement. It's much broader. It's a jobs movement. It's a social movement. It's a personal health movement and one of the things that came out of it [the community input sessions] was the issue of equity.

Movement Across Universities

The operations side of a college or university is similar to that of a town or city. There are streets to maintain, buildings to heat, grounds to keep, and utilities to pay. Some have large staffs or own substantial acreage. All impact the economic, social, and environmental aspects of the communities within which they are located. In 2006 the American College and University Presidents' Climate Commitment (ACUPCC) was introduced. This is a long-term commitment at the presidential and chancellor level to achieve carbon neutrality and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by making changes related to electricity, heating, and travel. As of October 2013, over 677 institutions representing over 30 % of the total US higher education enrollment were participating.

In 2010, the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) launched STARS, a program which rates organizations in terms of the campus operations, education, research, and administrative components of campus sustainability. By 2011, 289 institutions from the USA and Canada were participating. Participants can create a climate action plan, conduct a greenhouse gas inventory, develop a climate neutrality plan, take greenhouse gas reduction measures, and/or incorporate sustainability into the curriculum. Collectively, in 2013, ACUPCC institutions offered 12,482 sustainability-focused courses and 358 sustainability-related undergraduate or graduate degrees. Although I discuss AASHE and the ACUPCC here, other organizations exist to help colleges and universities pursue sustainability. Blackburn (2007) devotes a chapter to colleges and universities and provides a checklist for action for those considering implementing sustainability at their college or university.

Higher education enrollment accounts for nearly 2 % of the total annual US greenhouse gas emissions and ACUPCC signatories represent approximately 0.6 % of the US total, equivalent to about a quarter of the State of California's emissions. Thus, the long-term commitment to carbon neutrality by ACUPCC signatories may result in measurable reduction emissions (Sinha et al. 2010). Between 2007 and 2012, signatories had already achieved a 25 % (10.2 million MtCO2e) reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. MtCO2e stands for million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent. Based on current projections, they are expected to reach a 93 % reduction by 2050 (Mulla 2013).

Sustainability Efforts at the University of Arkansas My university, the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, was one of the first 100 institutions to sign the ACUPCC in 2007. In 2007, we established our aspirational goal to achieve climate neutrality by 2040 and set two strategic goals: reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 2005 levels by 2014 and scale down to 1990 levels (approximately 121,000 MtCO2e) by 2021. Short-term plans involve increasing energy conservation and efficiency measures in our building and transportation systems while creating campus policies to facilitate energy and water savings and promote solid waste recycling. By 2013, the short-term goals were achieved by a 3.31 % decrease in greenhouse gas emissions despite an increase in students, staff, and faculty of 33 % and a gross square feet building increase of 21 % since 2002. But we need to reduce our current emissions by 121,000 MtCO2e in 19 years if we are to meet our aspirational 2040 goal. Increasing efficiencies is the low-hanging fruit and more transformational changes are needed. Many other organizations of all types, having increased efficiencies, are now facing the need to make transformational changes.

But eco-efficiencies are not the only things happening on my campus. The ACUPCC provided campuses with other actions to consider. Our campus hired its first Director of Campus Sustainability in 2007 and formed a Sustainability Council which includes campus and community representatives. Our Applied Sustainability Center, the precursor of the Sustainability Consortium, was developed following a grant from Walmart. We have a sustainability minor, a Graduate Certificate in Sustainability, and a BS in Sustainability is developed but awaiting funding. Numerous student groups and researchers are thinking about, researching, and/or working toward sustainability. Our organizational structure promotes closer dialogue among top administrators about sustainability-related issues. Mike Johnson, Associate Vice Chancellor for Facilities, reflected on our campus' journey saying:

Are we at the point where we have reached critical mass, and it's starting to be selfsustaining for lack of a better word? I don't know. I think we are, but I think we are still up on that crest and we need to keep pushing it and getting it on to the other side.

Sustainability is a process rather than an end point. Different things spark the process for different organizations.

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