The Hard Work of Making Sustainability Management Real

01/16/2018 07:55 am ET

In a world dominated by media images and symbolism, the difficult work of sustainably managing our organizations can take a back seat to the easier job of looking like we are accomplishing something. The operational reality of organizational behavior requires that we really understand the tasks being performed. Who does what, when, and why? How does the organization obtain the resources needed to survive and thrive? My focus here is on managing what I call the “physical dimensions” of environmental sustainability: the use of energy; the source of energy, water and materials; the reduction of waste and the environmental impact of an organization’s production; and the impact of the consumption of whatever the organization produces. The key question to be addressed is: How does an organization learn to reduce its negative impact on the environment?

Sustainability management is the future of management, and is the next phase of management innovation. Sustainability must be integrated into the heart of what organizations do. In the 20th century organizations constantly evolved, adding international operations, supply chains, information technology, sophisticated marketing, strategy, finance, accounting and new forms of group processes. Today, organizations throughout the globe are attempting to reduce their carbon footprint, minimize climate and environmental risk, enhance resiliency, and incorporate sustainability into their operations. The problem is they do not know how to do it. Companies, governments and nonprofits are recognizing they need to take these actions, but their expertise lies in their own core functions, not in developing sustainability plans and assessing operational risk within this context. To have meaningful change on sustainability, corporations, nonprofits and governments must bring it into the regular fabric of organizational life. In the long run we should not need a “sustainability office”; every office should become a sustainability office. Managing the physical dimensions of sustainability must now be added to standard operating procedures so that all managers become sustainability managers. Big ideas, ambitious goals and beautiful policies don’t translate into on-the-ground change until organizations change.

The bigger picture problem we are seeking to address ultimately comes down to the challenge of global sustainability: how can we create a high throughput economy without destroying the planet? We are, quite literally, talking about saving the planet for our children. The issues at the heart of the sustainability problem are complex, global, and systemic, and cannot be easily solved. These challenges require action by stakeholders at all levels – federal and local governments, multi-national corporations, small businesses, quasi-government entities, and non-governmental organizations and non-profits. But translating these ideas into action requires far greater organizational capacity than we currently have. We may know how to build a LEED-certified, energy efficient building, but do we know how to maintain it? Often, we don’t.

This organizational challenge is not widely acknowledged; it is not the flashiest problem that environmental advocates are calling attention to. However, organizations are beginning to understand that they cannot simply create a sustainability office and expect the problem to be solved. Many of our best leaders know they need to manage the physical dimensions of sustainability. There is ever broader acceptance of why sustainability is needed, but there is not yet a deep understanding of how to do it. What we need to do is learn how to build that capacity. As an academic, you will not be surprised to read that I believe the knowledge we need must come from academically rigorous but applied research.

When I end my day-to-day work of managing Columbia’s Earth Institute at the end of this academic year, my plan is to work on research that focuses on both successful and failed efforts to add environmental sustainability into organizational routines. As a student of management, I know that each organization and organizational environment is unique, but there are patterns and practices that can be identified and understood. Under what conditions do organizations tend to do better at reducing their use of energy and changing their source of energy from high carbon to low? When do investments in closed-systems engineering get made and when are they shunned? What type of managers take environmental factors seriously and what type think it’s a joke? In organizations heavily dependent on an extended supply chain, what strategies have succeeded and failed when trying to influence the behavior of suppliers?

As we learn more from the “front lines” of sustainability management, I will also be interested in the training and education needs that we identify. This will be added to our curriculum in undergraduate and graduate studies in sustainability. Current courses will need to be modified and new courses will need to be developed. I also expect that traditional fields, such as engineering, business, law, public administration, and public health, will need to add sustainability issues to their courses as well.

There has been a tendency for some environmental advocates to focus their attention on symbolic political battles, in part as a way of gaining attention and educating the public. The attraction to symbolism dates back to the start of the modern environmental movement. According to Sam Whiting of SF Gate:

“Before there was Earth Day, there was the Survival Faire, an ecology extravaganza that did not survive for even one year. But its signature action is still remembered by those who were at San Jose State College in early 1970. That was when a bunch of students bought a brand-new, never-started Ford Maverick, then pushed it from the dealer's lot into the center of campus, where it was ceremoniously buried in a pit, 12 feet deep. The elaborate funeral procession was conceived of as an anti-internal combustion, anti-smog statement to cap off the weeklong fair, which itself resulted in one of the first environmental studies departments to be established at any university in the nation.”

Today’s far more sophisticated version of car burying gestures include efforts to divest pension funds from fossil fuel companies and suing energy companies for the environmental damage they’ve caused. It worked with the tobacco companies; why not the oil companies? It might work in some sense, and it certainly plays a role in public education. But the real work is convincing people to stop smoking and to use renewable sources of energy. Walking on the streets of New York, or cities anywhere in the world, I see plenty of people smoking. The tobacco companies seem to be doing OK. Driving down those same streets are plenty of vehicles powered by fossil fuels. We’re all addicted to fossil fuels and fossil fuel-based energy is central to our daily lives. I agree that investing in fossil fuel companies is a bad idea, but I still fill my tank with gasoline. Those companies get our money one way or the other. The real work is getting electric vehicle infrastructure built, advancing battery and renewable energy technology, and implementing these new technologies once they arrive. I am interested in learning how to encourage and accelerate real change. Symbolic gestures have a role to play, but we should not confuse symbolic gestures with operational reality.

Organizations and societies can be very slow to change, but over time they do evolve. In the past century much of the change has been in response to the development of new technologies. We need to learn much more about our planet’s ecosystems and much more about the impact of our technology on our planet. I believe that with intelligence, care, creativity, and new technology, we can accomplish a form of economic development that achieves both growth and environmental quality. But it will be difficult work, and it will not be achieved quickly.

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