03/28/2011 08:23 am ET Updated May 28, 2011

The Profession of Sustainability Management: Source for Optimism in a Scary World

Many recent events around the world have made it easy to be discouraged about the future. Japan's continued nuclear woes, the persistence of extreme poverty, the perils of Middle East politics and America's inability to figure out a way to generate enough tax revenue to fund education and infrastructure are all legitimate sources of pessimism. Still, there are bright spots in the otherwise bleak horizon. One bright spot is the students I work with who are training to become sustainability professionals. Another source of optimism is the growing ranks of experienced sustainability professionals working hard to improve organizations throughout the world.

This past December I wrote on this site about two Columbia Masters programs that are educating the next generation of sustainability professionals. It will certainly be an advantage to have these newly trained professionals helping to run our organizations in the coming years. Fortunately, we don't have to wait for these students to move up through the ranks to benefit from the work of sustainability experts. Recently I moderated a panel discussion featuring four extraordinary sustainability professionals who today are pioneering this new field. These folks are working within our organizations to reduce the use of energy and other resources, reduce waste generation and reduce environmental impacts. The full panel discussion can be seen on the Earth Institute's web site. The panelists were:

  • Dan Bena, the Director of Sustainable Development for PepsiCo who supervises sustainability efforts across beverage and food operations in nearly 200 countries. Mr. Bena serves as Chair of the American Beverage Association's Water Resources Committee and is a member of the International Society of Beverage Technologists and of the Public Health Committee of the Safe Water Network. He also serves on the Water Planning Board of the World Economic Forum and the Steering Committee of the United Nations CEO Water Mandate.
  • Eliza Eubank, the Vice President of Environmental and Social Risk Management for Citigroup. In this capacity, she evaluates global environmental and social risks of financial products prior to Citigroup's commitment. She also works with bankers and clients to properly mitigate and manage those risks.
  • Nilda Mesa, the Director of Environmental Stewardship and my colleague at Columbia University, leads the effort to lessen the University's environmental footprint by promoting energy efficiency, greenhouse gas emission reductions, LEED certification, recycling, and many other campus initiatives.
  • Katie Wilson, a senior manager with Willdan Financial Services, a company that provides public agencies with consulting services with expertise in resource use, engineering, finance, homeland security, and energy. Ms. Wilson has more than 20 years of management experience contracting with cities and understanding governmental agency operations

Our discussion focused on these questions:

1. How are the concepts of sustainability and sustainability management defined and used within your organization? How do principles of sustainability management manifest themselves in your organization's routine management practices?

2. Do the leaders of your organization and your colleagues understand sustainability as a management concept?

3. How does your organization use sustainability management principles to address:
  • Use of resources such as water, energy and other raw materials?
  • Waste and other production outputs?
  • The environmental impact of your organization's activities and initiatives?

4. What is the biggest success you have seen in bringing sustainability principles into your organization?

5. How can public policy play a role in how sustainability is incorporated into your organization's routine management?

The panelists provided some vivid examples of sustainability principles at work. Pepsi, one of the world's largest food companies, understands the importance of ensuring a safe and healthy environment. With more and more people living in cities and fewer and fewer of us involved in the production of food, we depend on industrial agriculture for our daily bread (and soft drinks). We need for these companies to take a leadership role in efforts to clean water and preserve the healthy productivity of the biosphere. Dan Bena is among the first generation of sustainability professionals and is in the forefront of this new field.

Citigroup now uses environmental risk and exposure as an indicator of a company's credit worthiness. Eliza Eubanks explained the use of sustainability principles in bottom line dominated financial decisions. She quickly dispelled any doubts about the reality of these issues in the world of capital finance.

Columbia, the quintessential urban university, features beautiful but old and energy intensive structures. Under Nilda Mesa's persistent prodding, energy audits and improved recycling efforts have become part of the campus landscape. Our students were the original force for these changes, but now, many of our facility staff (perhaps prodded by their children) are also pushing sustainability principles from within.

Before becoming a consultant, Katie Wilson was a senior manager for several California cities including Bradbury, Beverly Hills and Cerritos. What was once simply compliance with environmental rules has evolved into a management consulting practice that includes energy, water and waste management as well as developing local incentives for private investments in renewable energy.

The current generation of sustainability professionals have not had the advantage of formal education in environment and sustainability management. Most are self-taught. Of the panelists, only Ms. Eubank had the benefit of sustainability training with an MBA and a Master of Environmental Management from Yale along with a BA in Biology from the University of Colorado at Boulder. The number of formally trained sustainability professionals will grow dramatically in the coming decade. Here at Columbia University's Earth Institute, we have partnered with a number of schools to develop undergraduate, masters and PhD programs on a range of sustainability issues. The overarching goal of these innovative educational programs is to develop problem solving sustainability professionals who are able to manage and coordinate the work of disciplinary based professionals working to enhance the environmental sustainability of organizations, cities and nations. We need a generation of professionals who understand enough economics, finance, management, public policy and sustainability science to integrate, translate and implement the sustainability work of engineers, scientists, lawyers, managers and policy experts.

These new professionals will have the advantage of learning their craft from wonderful, experienced sustainability managers like the ones that spoke at our panel discussion. The growth of this field indicates that environmental stewardship is no longer a fringe issue, but is increasingly a core issue in routine organizational decision making. That is a source for optimism in a scary world.