Will Sustainability become the Feared Equalizer?

Why is the price of oil still hovering around $100 per barrel, if global demand has fallen and the supply of alternative energy sources, including shale and renewables, are increasing? Could it be that commodity traders are reacting to a new series of less visible market forces? 

We know that whenever Iran talks up their nuclear energy aspirations or Israel fires missiles into Syria, oil prices tend to rise or as of late, not drop by much. There is also US Congress’ lack of a comprehensive long term energy policy that has kept a tight rein on infrastructure investments such as charging stations for electric vehicles. However, as I discovered recently, there is yet another force at play, one that is far more complex than society is prepared to confront today and which will surely cause the price of oil and similar fossil fuels to double, if not triple in price, in the coming decades. This invisible force is referred to as sustainability.

What exactly is sustainability? In simple terms, sustainability is about replacing a resource so it can be used again and again. Terms like ‘recycling’ trash or producing ‘renewable energy’ are commonly associated with the practice of sustainability or the act of sustaining an activity in perpetuity with minimal environmental damage. Perhaps the best example of sustainability are e-books because they never wear out from one user to another and can be reproduced millions of times from one stored copy. Nevertheless, sustainability is more than just a repeatable process. It is also a culture, an attitude, a way of thinking that inspires inherent behavioral changes on socially-acceptable consumption practices.

MIT’s Sustainability Summit
At MIT’s Sustainability Summit last month, I came away with a deeper appreciation for what sustainability can mean to different people, especially how it can motivate them to change their habits and the habits of others, and yet, I could not help feel discouraged by the global indifference and the immense size of the problem. What set me over the edge was a powerful video called, ‘The Art & Science of Chasing Ice’ produced by James Balog on how our north and south polar ice caps are melting away from the amount of black soot dispersed into the atmosphere from our factories and automobiles. If this visual does not do if for you then perhaps a TED video by Charles Moore on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch may bring it home. The visuals are truly stunning, rude awakenings of what a planet with 7 billion individuals are capable of doing wrong.

With the UN’s projected 9.1 billion people by 2050, one can be absolutely certain that issues of sustainability will be front and center in the daily livelihood of every individual and entity. Why? …for the simple reason that our planet resources are limited and our current lifestyles and diverse cultures have yet to align and adapt to a sustainably-friendly behavior.

After attending the MIT Summit, I concluded that the efforts to align sustainable priorities are not only a discombobulated entanglement of disparate, self-appointed initiatives but also an odd assortment of potentially conflicting outcomes. To get an idea,  take a look at two opposing car ownership attitudes by city dwellers.  While the new normal has shifted favorably to shared auto usage among urbanites in developed countries (i.e. US – zipcar.com), in emerging countries (i.e. Brazil, China), new consumers expect to own their own car as soon as they move into a city!

Walmart vs WholeFoods
Another similar example of conflicting outcomes was visible at The Atlantic Magazine press conference in Washington DC on December 4, 2012. A forum of experts showcased the sustainability policies of two retail food companies, Walmart and WholeFoods.  While both companies work closely with their suppliers to recycle waste and introduce biodegradable packaging, Walmart’s Beth Keck, Senior Director of Sustainability, explained that Walmart provides their tight-fisted consumers with environmentally friendly products and chooses not to educate them on how they should change their consumption attitudes toward a more wholesome sustainable lifestyle.

In curious contrast, WholeFoods’ counterpart, Kathy Loftus, Global Leader, Sustainable Engineering & Energy Management, stated that with one-tenth the number of retail outlets as Walmart, WholeFoods is deeply committed to educating its employees and the communities they serve. The company teaches sustainability as a shared problem that begins with each and every consumer. WholeFoods believes that the improved knowledge on how one’s food is handled and prepared can help consumers make better choices and therefore lead healthier lives that will result in fewer medical issues. The money saved from fewer doctor’s visits and drugs, for instance, could justify WholeFood’s higher prices, …which explains in part why Walmart with its cadre of low-priced, branded, processed food suppliers has avoided engaging directly with their consumers.

Will the term ‘sustainability’ just become another commonly used marketing term such as ‘green’, ‘organic’, and ‘hormone-free’ that companies can push at will to meet their own corporate business agendas?  …maybe not this time.

A Key Driver – Shareholders
Fortunately the investment community is making meaningful strides with shareholders and CEOs. According to Sustainalytics, a Boston-based firm, companies are eager to disclose their annual ESG scores (Environmental Social and Governance), a metric used to measure best practices.  A total of 3,600 corporations globally have signed on since 1992, but as Annie White, their Research Products Manager noted, they have only scratched the surface with over 40,000 public companies still remaining.

Driving the increasing interest for ESG scores are concerned shareholders who fear that unmanaged risks or ‘blind spots’ could unexpectedly pull a global company down to its knees as has happened with BP’s Gulf oil spill of 2006, Foxconn’s child labor practice that affected Apple earlier this year and the five garment factories for European and American branded clothing that collapsed in Bangladesh this month. With good reason, shareholders are concerned that similar disasters will become more commonplace and that reactionary foreign government retaliation could put them out of business.

According to Katie Grace, a Program Manager involved with the ‘Initiative for Responsible Investing’ at the Harvard Kennedy School, local governments do not have to wait for a catastrophe to legislate changes but rather can take a proactive role by setting project specific policies. Regionally, for example, they can rezone areas to attract private sector investments. They can also set standards such as LEED, which is used for certifying eco-buildings. For social projects, governments can issue ‘green bonds’ or payment guarantees for investment funds (i.e. Social Impact Bonds).  Some mayors like Philadelphia’s Michael Nutter have adopted these proactive recommendations with their sustainability efforts and are starting to see positive results.

The City of Philadelphia
Katherine Gajewski, Philadelphia’s Sustainability Director, a new position also held at over 115 municipalities across the US, spoke of her challenges working within an entrenched bureaucracy of over 22,000 public employees, most of whom are reluctant to change. Her reprieve has been her frequent conference calls with her 115 peers who openly share their best and worst practices. Their collective list of ideas has grown as the group continues to innovate together, while making most of their ideas up as they go along.

Some interesting cases that have already crossed Gajewski’s desk might surprise you. For example, an Enterprise Car Rental operation in an industrial section of Philadelphia was paying $400 per month for their water bill but was costing the City millions of dollars to purify their share of dirty runoff from their car lots. Eventually, the situation was rectified but not until Gajewski ran the numbers to show the disproportionality between what Enterprise was paying for their office water usage and the cost to clean up its runoff.

Just how many other industrial installations are out there in a typical city like Philadelphia where a company unwittingly gets away with paying a small fee to use a common service but whose operations account for a substantial cost of clean up? …probably a lot!

Gajewski’s job as a Sustainability Director requires more people skills than know-how. She must craft alignments of interest among internal groups to achieve meaningful consensus. Perhaps most important, her role as director and facilitator is to refrain from becoming too preachy and be willing to dole out credit to each participant. Easier said than done, Gajewksi knows that sustainability is a shared task that succeeds when everyone is on board.

As more Sustainability Directors like Gajewski identify similar imbalances in their respective cities, the idea of charging the same consumer for both usage and their share of the cost of cleanup will become more widely accepted. …and herein lies the reason why fossil fuel prices will continue to rise for years to come.

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Below is a summary of Best Practices that were shared during MIT’s Sustainability Summit.

Best Practices

  1. At a university-run, trash audit, MIT students sieved through a months worth of the university’s garbage to discover that of the 2.5 tons of trash collected, 500 pounds was food waste while the remaining 90% could be recycled! The visual impact of over $11.4 billion of trash that could be recycled in the US alone inspired one student to launch a 30-day waste challenge on https://www.facebook.com/30DayWasteChallenge where Facebook friends could commit to ‘be inconvenienced by their trash’ by carrying the trash they personally generate throughout their day for a 30-day period.
  2. Offering consumers a list of prices for the same product but packaged with different levels of biodegradable materials would help bring to light the importance of recycling.
  3. Wirelessly integrating a soda vending machine with a recycle bin located nearby could encourage consumers to recycle their containers.  Consumers would pay, say two dollars and fifty cents, for a soda and receive a one-dollar refund on their university credit card once the soda can was disposed of in the appropriate recycle bin within the allotted time.
  4. ‘Rewire’ individuals at opportune times so their behavioral changes continue well after a recycling program or contest. For example, students can be impacted for behavioral change during a time of transition such as the beginning of a semester.  Recycling contest rules would be established at the start of the semester and monitored throughout the year.
  5. The crop of graduating students who enter the workforce concerned about sustainability issues will inspire a new set of hiring qualifications. Already companies like WholeFoods have changed their hiring criteria to reflect their corporate goals for sustainability.
  6. Teaching children in lower school to become advocates for a sustainable future is the most effective use of funds for behavioral change. Not only will these youngsters represent the future of our planet but their unbound audacity to correct adults who forget to recycle would deliver a priceless message with an impactful and lasting effect.
  7. A practical solution launched this year in California involves a utility tax on a consumer’s bill that is merely collected by the utility company and paid directly into a Global Educational Fund for educational initiatives. The tax removes the utility’s burden of financing similar programs for its sector and uses the utilities billing capacity as a pass-through.
  8. WholeFoods spends time in Washington DC convincing lawmakers that refrigeration codes need upgrading.  Currently stores are allowed to have open refrigeration, which according to a WholeFoods spokesperson, Kathy Loftus, spends considerably more energy than if the same refrigerator had a door.  Another sustainable tip from WholeFoods is the wider use of ships to transport goods rather than trucks. According to Loftus, ships have a lesser impact on the environment than trucks.

© 2013 Tom Kadala

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