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Scrapbook: Sustainability Pays

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April 24, 2011

Sustainability Pays

Photo by Natalia Korobova, courtesy of CORE Colorado

By Becky English, Energy Committee Chair for the Sierra Club's Rocky Mountain Chapter

Each spring, Connected Organizations for a Responsible Economy — CORE Colorado — hosts its premier annual conference, the Sustainable Opportunities Summit in Denver. 

At this year's gathering of people from business, education, financial institutions and nonprofits, there was one overriding message: Sustainability Pays. No longer is sustainable business behavior something to be relegated to an annual gesture of philanthropy, or a token recycling program. Instead, sustainability is merging into mainstream business best practices, and is reflected in a number of benefits, including improved profitability. 

Auden Schendler, below, Vice President of Sustainability for the Aspen Skiing Company and author of the book Getting Green Done, emphasized climate change urgency in his keynote speech. The ski industry is clearly more sensitive and vulnerable to global warming than other businesses may be. Schendler's plea for widespread adoption of sustainable strategies carries considerable weight, in part because Colorado's tourism and recreation sectors are very important in the state's economy.

Photo by Natalia Korobova, courtesy of CORE Colorado

This year's summit reflected that convergence of sustainable values. A number of speakers identified places in their corporate operations where doing the right thing for the earth and its systems was also exactly the right thing for optimizing business profit, creating loyal customers and employees, and building strong brands.


In the Strategy track, panelists from large companies elaborated on their chosen ways of embedding sustainability into their business plans and operating protocols. A strong theme was that genuine leadership from top management is essential. Many companies engage in lifecycle analysis not only in their own companies, but also upstream in their supply chains and downstream with customers.

Speakers in the Tools track shared their experiences with energy management systems, carbon footprint analysis, water auditing, community and staff engagement tools, and otherwise analyzing the sustainability of various business practices. Jeff Yorzyk of Five Winds Consulting noted, "It's very important to quantify every input and output in technical lifecycle analysis at every stage," noting that there are a number of software tools to help meet standards for various industries. It's now possible to minimize consumer confusion by providing scores for emissions, waste, and use of various resources in products and packaging.

Fast Track presenters profiled cases in sustainability for Colorado-based mostly small and medium-sized businesses. These companies disclosed how they pursue more sustainable standards than their competitors do, based on adopting imaginative ways to improve efficiencies and incorporate clean energy. The firms often chose their sustainable practices out of personal conviction rather than by being satisfied with meeting regulatory imperatives.

A second keynote speaker, Hunter Lovins, below, co-author of the books Natural Capitalism and Climate Capitalism noted, "If all that you care about is maximizing profit, you would do exactly what you would do if you were scared to death about climate," a point made by several of the Summit's speakers. In a resource-and carbon-constrained world, doing the profitable thing and doing the right thing often represent best practices that are one and the same. Waste is no longer seen as a admirable signal of wealth; it has become the badge of fools and a consumer turnoff.

Photo by Natalia Korobova, courtesy of CORE Colorado

Organizers of this year's Summit took care to group the sessions for conceptual integrity.  For example, Virginia Winter, CEO of Equinox Consultancy, moderated a session on a systems thinking approach for integrating sustainability, at which David Miller of the cooperative Alpine Bank spoke. "We began by walking the talk and earning our ISO 14001 certification" said Miller. "Then we reached out to our customer-owners to learn their sustainability priorities. Third, we decided to do the right thing, even if it cost us."  As it turns out, though, doing things like giving consumers a break on loan rates for residential solar photovoltaic systems has ended up earning the bank new customers who share Alpine's values, so the bank makes up for the discounted loan rate in growth of the number of customer-members.

Gerard Spicer of Denver's Frito-Lay production, packaging, and distribution facility is proud of the company's fully integrated environmental management system, and of achieving a zero-landfill production process in Denver. "We think we've successfully integrated our operations with the company's mission statement," he said. "And we're working to continually improve all aspects of the world in which we operate."

An audience member, citing sustainability principles of simple and healthful living, challenged Spicer, asking, "Yes, but do we really need more junk food?" Spicer responded that Frito-Lay foods are not intended as dietary staples but as occasional snacks.

Scott McGinty, CEO of Aurora Organic Dairy, emphasized the difficulty of creating truly sustainable operations in his business sector. "Livestock's long shadow is definitely a factor," he said. "Our tasks are to optimize our operations for environmental performance, employee welfare, and animal welfare." The dairy performs its metrics according to a corporate social responsibility (CSR) framework, integrating two entirely different types of operations: the agricultural side, and the bottling side.

Below, Spicer, Miller, and McGinty discuss systematic infusion of sustainability into their corporate operations and cultures.

Photo by Natalia Korobova, courtesy of CORE Colorado

In addition to providing two keynote speeches, Colorado's new Governor, popular former Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, delivered the locknote address, noting the great diversity of people and businesses in the state, and the need to integrate efforts across industry sectors in order to optimize quality of life and preservation of Colorado's clean air and water, factors so important to Colorado's sustainable well-being.

CORE Colorado executive director Pete Dignan, along with Director of Environmental Programs at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment Martha Rudolph recognized the winners of this year's Sustainability Champion Awards. The winner in the Large category was Xcel Energy, for the work of its Green Facilities Team on reducing the impact of the company's own buildings on the environment. The Medium category winner was the Fruita 8/9 School in Mesa County, for its comprehensive energy efficiency project that grew out of a challenge to gifted eighth and ninth graders. The winner in the Small category was Aircraft Service International Group for its Denver Fuel System Energy Savings Project.

There is often still, unfortunately, reluctance in the business environment to come right out with the reason we bother to work so hard to develop alternatives to fossil fuels and nuclear power: climate change. Several of the sponsors of the Summit are producers or consumers of fossil fuels. Let us be kind and say: they're thinking about climate change, they're improving their internal operations, and they comply with their legal and regulatory mandates. However, it's clear from bills brought before the Colorado legislature in the current session, and a recent lawsuit challenging Colorado's renewable energy standard, that fossil fuel companies will not happily usher in the post-fossil-fuel age. It's up to those whose personal conviction and business models are sustainable to help these old energy economy companies become part of the new energy economy.


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