Stephen Jordan is the CEO of the Institute for Sustainable Development, an organization that works with communities and businesses to recover from past disasters and to anticipate and prepare for future threats and opportunities. Stephen is an internationally recognized expert in sustainability, community and economic development, critical infrastructure protection, disaster recovery, international trade and investment, and public-private relations.
Why do you care about sustainability?
The emotional answer is because of my children. You want to be able to leave the world a little bit better than you found it. Rationally, what’s the alternative? Carpe diem? Short-term thinking? Life isn’t just one transaction. It’s not a single sprint and then you’re done. It’s not just what’s happening today. It’s about relationships, it’s about thinking ahead. Sustainability is a lot like capitalism properly understood — deploy your resources wisely today, and you will get a better return in the future.
How do you think about Corporate Social Responsibility?
I’ve been studying and thinking about CSR for a long time. Responsibility has a connotation of obligation — you owe certain duties to others. Initially, CSR was a critique of capitalism, it was oriented around calling attention to the failures of businesses. It’s now become a catch-all phrase encompassing a management discipline.
How do you define risk?
Great question. Risk is the possibility that one or more bad outcomes may arise from an action or set of actions. But risk is not always a bad thing. It can also lead to very satisfying rewards as well.
What is your approach energy efficiency?
I’m for it. Seriously, solar and wind and alternative forms of clean energy may be more trendy, but energy efficiency is one of the best things we can do to conserve resources, enhance productivity, and generate high returns on investment.
What is your approach water conservation?
I’m deeply concerned about water management in the U.S. We have had four or five five hundred year flood events in the last decade — Minot, Colorado, Cedar Rapids, Nashville, I’m sure there have been a couple more that I can’t recall off the top of my head — the 2013 Alberta floods were enormous too. Meanwhile, drought conditions in California, Texas, and the southeast have been terrible. Then you have situations like Flint, Michigan, subsidence in some places, sea level rise in others. Meanwhile the American Society of Civil Engineers gives our national water infrastructure a D. The whole system is deeply dysfunctional — shaped by 19th century laws, with multiple federal agencies exercising competing and sometimes contradictory authorities. If I had my druthers, we’d start over with a clean slate. You know how proud we are of the national interstate highway system? We need a similar vision for our water infrastructure.
What is your approach green design and construction?
I think that the interface between the built and natural environment is under-studied, and another area where decisions made 40, 50, 100 years ago are affecting us today. Zoning, buffers, natural defenses, are all very important at the community level. At the unit level, there’s never been a more exciting time. Technology, materials, creative architecture, paints, you name it…we’re witnessing an explosion in creativity. For people who can afford it, you owe it to yourself to investigate the opportunities. That being said, more needs to be done to make green design affordable. It needs to be a realistic option for low and moderate income residents to access.For environmentally sensitive places like the Florida Keys or Hawai’i better, cheaper solutions have to be found.
What is your approach waste management?
The Institute for Sustainable Development does a lot of work on long-term recovery after disasters, and one of the under-appreciated disciplines is waste management. People tend to focus on the obvious environmental health benefits, but there are important psychological, mental health benefits too.Cleaning up is such an important act of community recovery. I’m a huge fan of the folks who are bringing innovation to this space, particularly the folks who are developing better solutions for toxic spills, oil and gas and plastics.
How do you think about emissions reduction goals?
Have to think about the life cycle and the aggregate impact, not just one aspect of the value chain.
What are the challenges associated with sustainability, and how do you overcome those challenges?
You have to have the right mind-set and you have to have a long-term perspective, but you also have to have support. After disasters, too often there are repetitive losses. Some places in California, Texas, Florida, and North Carolina have been hit two or even three times seriously in the past few years. They don’t want to just patch and repair the damages, they want to get after root causes and get more protection, but these things cost money, and particularly for small towns doing more than a patch job can be financially out of reach. Disasters also tend to cross political boundaries. So we need coalitions and networks, and not just of public officials, but also civil society and businesses too. We need buy-in from different parts of society. We also need to develop new planning, data, finance, and operational solutions. The way you get there is by promoting enlightened self-interest. $1 invested in resilience can save $4–7 in post-disaster costs.
What trends are you seeing in your industry related to sustainability?
When I first started in this field, I think something like 9 companies issued CSR or sustainability reports. Now almost every company in the Fortune 1000 has one. Most of the focus has tended to be on operations. Are we more fuel efficient, have we cut down on accidents, what’s our supply chain look like, but increasingly companies are starting to get that they don’t operate in a vacuum. They are starting to invest more in community health and K-12 schools and engaging more with different stakeholders. You may have the best business continuity plan, but if a disaster happens and the school is closed, your employee is staying home with the kids. If the roads are broken or the power is down, your business isn’t running. If there’s a flu in the community, it will affect your business. A fancy word for this is interdependency…and businesses are increasingly starting to map out what these are and what to do about them.
What do you see on the horizon related to sustainable initiatives?
I’m very pessimistic that the carbon reduction movement will be successful in the short-term. One to two billion people in advanced economies are not going to off-set six billion people in emerging markets coming up the development curve. Climate change, human failures, earthquakes and volcanoes, pandemics, war, opioids — the risks to development are numerous and grave. This is why deep sustainability is going to increasingly be linked to innovation, adaptation, and contingency plan development. I also think sustainability is going to be less government-centric, and you are going to see an increasing number of civil society and even corporate initiatives. Sustainability is going to become more diverse, differentiated, and specialized, and managing the downside risk — resilience, is going to be an increasingly large focus area. Of course, what I’d love to see is more programming on the positive side of the ledger — education, biomimetics, regeneration, but I think the downside risks will get most of the attention in the short-term.