Sustainability saves money

Recently, when one of the candidates running for office in my county was asked what she would cut from the budget, she said, "I would not have created an office of environmental sustainability." I find this comment amusing and disheartening. Doesn't she want to lower the cost of government? Doesn't she want to reduce our dependence on foreign oil? Doesn't she want to reduce our waste-management costs? I have to conclude that the concept of sustainability is not clear to this politician, and probably many other people — and therefore runs the risk, like so many good ideas, of being condemned and politicized.

This politician may not realize that adopting sustainability as a goal is not pie-in-the-sky idealism but is, in fact, the rational businessperson's response to the increasing number of societal and environmental challenges that businesses and governments face as a result of our increasing population. Creating and adopting a sustainability plan has become the prudent way to address these challenges while managing costs. It is erroneous to think of incorporating sustainability planning into a management process as a costly line item; it is just good business and a way to reduce risks and manage costs today and in the future.

Many counties (and businesses) throughout the state have lowered their costs and created a more efficient operation specifically because they created an office or champion of sustainability. The specific office that this politician would not have created has already helped to reduce costs to Howard County of more than $800,000 in waste reduction, recycling, transportation fuel reductions and electrical energy reductions. Beyond our county, the Maryland Green Registry lists hundreds of members (http://www.mde.state.md.us/marylandgreen/Pages/ListofMembers.aspx) who are making strides at reducing their impacts and their costs. The state Department of Natural Resources maintains a list of offices of sustainability throughout the state (http://www.dnr.maryland.gov/sustainability/network.asp#howard). The Chesapeake Sustainable Business Alliance (http://www.csballiance.org/) is another source of firms focusing their efforts on sustainability initiatives within and outside their organizations.

The goal of sustainability efforts is to take a critical look at operational costs and impacts, energy and material supply options, and waste streams. Most big organizations know this. Over the past 15 years, almost all of the Fortune 100 firms in America have adopted the concept of long-term sustainability into their strategic planning operations. These bastions of good business practice and common sense have hired directors of sustainability and have created annual sustainability reports. Yes, they want to show off all of their efforts as good corporate citizens and demonstrate that they are leading the way into a more sustainable future. But even more, they want to lower their costs, find new opportunities and improve their bottom lines.

To fully appreciate how incorporating sustainability goals into strategic planning helps the bottom line, take a good look at the costs and risks of doing business. Stakeholder issues and energy/environmental issues are critical to supply chain costs and to product acceptance and liability. Good sustainability practices offer a way to balance stakeholder, environmental and economic issues at every step of the process, from procurement to disposal. If good sustainability practices are not incorporated into every step of operations, increased costs and problems are much more likely in the future. That is why most if not all business schools recommend incorporating sustainability initiatives as a best management practice in this age of increasing accountability.

To learn more about corporate sustainability I suggest reading "Green to Gold" and "The Triple Bottom Line." These best sellers summarize the successes of American businesses that have turned to sustainability to improve their bottom lines. Even the Department of Defense has been pursuing sustainability planning for over a decade as the most prudent way to conduct warfare in the future. Military leaders don't want to be reliant on vulnerable flows of fossil fuels, and they don't want to leave any waste behind that can be used by their enemies. They want to win, and they are going to win by being more sustainable than their foes.

This is not new. Business has always been about sustainability. Corporate sustainability planning just happens to be a logical way to deal with all the increasing demands of doing business on an increasingly crowded planet. Instead of having to respond to a random barrage of issues in an ad hoc and therefore very costly manner, modern businesses have responded by adopting a systematic approach for dealing with these issues.

We should applaud our local governments that have adopted such good business practices. It is great that local governments and many businesses are starting to deal with these challenges in a rational and sustainable way. Maybe, someday, everyone will.

Ned Tillman, author of "The Chesapeake Watershed: A sense of place and a call to action," is chairman of the Howard County Environmental Sustainability Board. His e-mail is nedtillman@growthadventures.org.

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