Monday, July 20, 2009

Good for the Planet, Good for Business

In the current Fast Company, there is an interesting interview with Patagonia founder, Yvon Chouinard, regarding the general topic of corporate social responsibility. The paradoxical title, "No Such Thing as Sustainability", focuses on his long-term commitment to environmental issues. As Chouinard states, Patagonia's mission is "to use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis" based on three key points: learn the environmental impact of your business; take full responsibility for your product from birth to rebirth; and implement a self-taxing approach for your business-related pollution, similar to One Percent for the Planet, which was co-founded by Patagonia. As to the success of "self-taxing", over 1000 businesses have joined One Percent for the Planet since its inception in 2001, and six of the largest firms to join are having their best year ever. The concept is good for the planet and good for business.

Related to the Chouinard interview is a recent article in Environmental Leader by Kathee Rebernak called "Where Sustainability Lives: A Path to Integration and Innovation". In the article she cites a research study of Fortune 500 companies that looked at the function of sustainability within a firm, how the position is titled and what channels are set up for reporting to the CEO and board. They found a high correlation between well defined firm positions and board reporting structures, and awards or recognition for sustainability performance. Recent research published in the Harvard Business Review also correlates a sustainability structure which is integrated across the firm with the innovation it fosters and the resultant sustainability success. The Director of Sustainability at Symantec observed that, when the CEO drives the sustainability/corporate responsibility agenda, the process is accelerated. Kathee's summary quote caps the discussion well. "For the sustainability effort to drive business value, the CEO must be in the driver's seat".

This corporate sustainability research aligns and reinforces the examples of charismatic sustainability leaders like Patagonia's Yvon Chouinard and Interface Carpet's Ray Anderson. They have proven that personal commitment at the highest corporate levels will lead to more responsible and economically successful business practices.

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Sunday, May 31, 2009

Walking the Talk

On May 23, my tweet and reference to an article from Environmental Leader was oriented towards evidence that links responsible and sustainable corporate actions or Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), with building positive brand reputation, and then market differentiation. The article cites research by Natural Marketing Institute which found that lifestyles of health and sustainability consumers look for proof to back up product or service claims. This demand for product or service evidence of facts, like in medicine or design, must be backed up by some type of third party assurance process, like the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval but at the ‘global house’ scale.

The current understanding of Corporate Social Responsibility recognizes some form of Triple Bottom Line (TBL) reporting, based on UN Global Compact Principles, Ceres Principles and the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) Guidelines, now regarded as the international standard. The TBL measures of organizational success are commonly referred to as environmental or planet, economic or profit and social or people. Since late 2006 and the introduction of the GRI G3 process, international corporations have embraced, at a rapid rate, sustainable principles and the TBL protocol. Ceres has tracked the corporate adoption of GRI from its initiation in 1997, noting a growth to 50 companies in 2000, 400 companies in 2004 and 1500 companies now. That equals a growth rate of 375% in 5 years, but there still remains a long way to go to meet global climate change initiatives.

The need for CSR is present in all corporations, large and small, international and regional, but is particularly appropriate to the design professional service corporations which already have an environmental responsibility by nature of licensing and practice. Clearly TBL should already be embedded in their cultures and vision statements, but the question is are they? And if so, how many actually have adopted the Ceres Principles and GRI and or TBL reporting? A review of the Ceres Companies shows only two architectural, engineering or planning firms listed, yet a review of the Architecture 2030 website would indicate that this type of sustainable commitment is much more common.

But why aren’t more large corporate architecture and engineering firms committing to Ceres Principles and GRI reporting? There are over 100 large, that is greater than 200 person, architectural and engineering firms in the US, so why are so few adopting this approach? Is it time and effort, fear of exposure of confidential information, the lack of true measurable goals, cultures of limited information sharing even within their own organization, or the clash of private firms and issues of public interest? Perhaps a review of one firm, Haley and Aldrich, which is a Ceres Company, would be useful to see what they say and what information they share. On their corporate website they have posted their 2008 sustainability report - People , Planet and Profit. The report is organized, readable and graphically well presented. Their vision is stated, success measures defined, a lean, increased value and decreased waste strategy presented, and a Plan-Do-Check-Adjust (PDCA) process stated to control implementation. The report has a simple four part structure, consisting of goals, recorded progress/metrics, assessment/grade and adjustments for 2009. The format follows the PDCA model and contains an open measurement of performance without the loss of confidential data.

To me it is an example of CSR that provides evidence of sustainable practices and creates differentiation from other peer professional firms - a disciplined, self regulating approach that, as Haley and Aldrich states, is “walking the talk.”


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Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Really Big Sustainable Idea

Today Zerofootprint has launched an innovative International Building Re-Skinning Competition at the Discovery 2009 Exhibition in Toronto. The focus of the competition is the development and advancement of the state of the art in retrofitting thousands of post war buildings, improving their energy efficiency and reducing their carbon footprint. The Z-Prize of $1 million will be awarded to the retrofitted building that achieves the most reduction in energy cost per square foot as measured and audited over a three year period following the retrofit.

The basis or catalyst for the competition is an ongoing project sponsored in 2007 by the Mayor’s Office of the City of Toronto, called Toronto Tower Renewal. This project is an outgrowth of ongoing research by E.R.A. Architects and the University of Toronto Faculty of Architecture, regarding the value and reuse potential of over 1,000 primarily residential high rise buildings. The initial investigations are well presented in the book , Concrete Toronto, and the background on reuse opportunities is described in the article 'A Suburban Future of Concrete and Gardens-Nice. Right?'

The outcomes of the Tower Renewal Project: The Sustainable City and the Re-Skinning Competition are very clear and further demonstrate the point that the most sustainable building is a reuse of an existing one. Here their goals include the reduction of green house gas emission through building and site retrofit (sustainable structures); introduction of mixed use new construction to build complete communities (sustainable lifestyles); and creation of technology, materials and industries to launch an increasingly cost effective approach (sustainable industries).

This is one really big sustainable idea with large scale benefits and major global impact. We in the United States should be following the City of Toronto’s lead in implementing such multifaceted sustainable renewal plans.


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Wednesday, May 6, 2009


Well the forces have finally aligned and the Earth Day message from USGBC President and CEO, Rick Fedrizzi, made to point loud and clear. The economic crisis has forced everyone to reconsider priorities and make decisions that conserve resources, primarily money. The slowdown/stoppage of new construction brings the realization that there are hundreds of thousands of existing buildings and homes in need of energy reconstruction and reuse. USGBC sees the green movement as thriving and migrating toward conservation of resources, the essential sustainable activity, whether money, water, energy or jobs. Restore Media's President, Peter Miller, carried a similar message in his article "Why This Recession is Good for Traditional Building, Part II".

At the same time the preservation movement, which has also had its share of shifts since the first Earth Day in 1970, has reinvented itself from initial focus on landmarks, to adaptive reuse and then to emphasis on social and communal values. In the mid 70’s in the midst of the first sustainable design years, the preservation movement began to push forward the concept of embodied energy which linked the two movements. The studies of BTU value of existing built environments created an understanding that our older buildings were in fact fossil fuel repositories, and if we extended the life of these buildings we wouldn’t have to use the energy again. The January/February 2008 Preservation Magazine, Green Issue, in the article “A Cautionary Tale” ties the two movements together and provides many interesting facts and figures to support the arguments.

So one can say the nexus has occurred. Sustainability begins with preservation, whether social, cultural or economic and many have said the most responsible way to build is to recycle an old building. So per USGBC, more than 120 million buildings and homes await our action. The economic crisis has refocused our attention on these critical issues.

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