Corporate Sustainability For A Healthier, Longer Life

With the earth in mind, corporate sustainable initiatives reduce negative environmental impact. But it also allows for us, humans, to live better on earth. And so when a business employs sustainable initiatives, people — as humans or as pure consumers — should care. People should care because everyone cares about and wants quality: Sustainability, it turns out, is part of what defines quality.

Sustainability is a numbers game: The more that are to be supported, the more sustainable growth needs to be.

There are currently 7 billion people in the world and by the year 2050, world population is expected to reach 9.7 billion. The world population projections reflect an average population increase of about 80 million people a year, or about a 1.13% growth rate.

The discussion around population growth often goes hand in hand with concept of the earth’s carrying capacity, that is, the amount of humans that earth can support without inflicting long-term damage to the environment. In fact, avoiding the long-term damage of the environment was the basis of the global (and national) environmental movement; of which a classic example that one can recall, is Rachel Carson’s 1962 Silent Spring, one of the first environmental books that documented the detrimental effects of the indiscriminate use of pesticides.

The environmental initiatives that followed, such as the creation of the United State’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1970, were focused on matters such as earth and nature preservation. But today, earth’s sustainable protection goes hand in hand with human sustainability.

“Eventually we realized that it (environmental protection) had to do with our own survival and our own health,” said Professor Steven A. Cohen, Executive Director of Columbia’s Earth Institute.

Let’s talk about air quality.

Smoke stacks, 1960s. EPA archives.

Aggregate emissions of six common pollutants dropped 69% between 1970 and 2014 and corporations have and continue to play a critical role in the reduction of air pollution.

In the United States from the 1940s to the 1970s, the gross domestic product (GDP) was growing and the global pollution was growing as well: In the 1970s, the EPA passed the era of water acts, toxic waste laws, and by the 1980s the absolute level began to go down; it has been going down ever since.

A comparison of growth areas and emissions, 1970–2014. Figure adapted from the Environmental Protection Agency, 2014

“The economy is growing,” said Cohen. “We have over 100 million more people here (in the U.S.) than in 1970; so the size of the GDP is much larger, but the absolute size of pollution is much smaller,” he said.

Once government enacts public policy, such as the fuel or energy efficiency standards, companies have been able to cut down on emissions with the use of technology.

“Engineers are very creative: you give them a design parameter and they start working on it,” remarked Cohen. “Sustainability became a design parameter, and in turn, production costs less,” said Cohen.

Pollution, whether it is effluence of air pollution or wasted energy in the form of green house gases (GHGs), is a form of waste. So an organization that figures out how to use everything becomes more efficient and can globally compete.

“What we have learned,” added Cohen, “is that we can consume a lot more without making the planet ‘dirty.’”

In an example of corporate sustainability that directly impacts human’s clean air availability, a 2014 initiative by Delta Airlines aimed improved its plane fuel efficiency, which resulted absolute emissions reductions. The total carbon emissions (CO2) that were saved are equivalent to what would be emitted by 121, 726 drives across the United States (about 3,000 miles).

Delta Airlines cost and environmental implications

It has been noted that the everyday consumer, and the everyday person for that matter, has an inherent stake in the corporate sustainability performance as such efforts lead to cleaner air and healthier living.

“Sustainability is part of living longer, healthier lives,” said Cohen. “We are more self conscious about our consumption; so sustainability is about sustaining ourselves and our own health,” added Cohen.

The importance of sustainability to societal living standards reflects the importance of environmentalism to a generation who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, around the burgeoning of environmental consciousness in America.

“I think what has happened is that the people running the corporations are the people that were in their 20s when the environmental movement started,” said Cohen. “What has happened is that the people on the inside of corporations have more of an environmental ethos and it is becoming part of how companies are thinking about themselves: Overall, it is a society that has changed.” Cohen also noted that “corporations are not external entities that end from outer space; they are populated by the same people that populate everything else. And their values have changed.”

The sustainable values of this era has prompted new developments in higher education programs, in order to prepare and align those going into the business sector with the focus of business in today’s world.

The Masters in Sustainability Management program at Columbia University requires people to take three courses on the physical dimensions of sustainability: the use of water, the use of materials, the use of energy and environmental pollution impacts.

“In the 21st century, one of the core competencies of a manager is going to be sustainability management,” submits Cohen. “

We built the whole master’s program at on this reality,” said Cohen. “So sustainability is not some outside thing you do to be nice, its something you are doing to be more competitive,” added Cohen.

Next Steps for Corporate Driven Sustainability

Consumption itself is changing. Streaming music, for example, compared to a record wrapped in plastic or a CD in a plastic case, requires much less physical consumption. Instead, humans are consuming more and more energy. And so, renewable energy — or naturally replenished energy sources — is the future of our energy-driven world.

A solar panel covered roof a Walmart store, 2014.

A big company like Walmart has made a business from its energy efficient buildings. The company essentially leases their space to other companies that sell their products in the Walmart stores. And as a result, if their space costs less to run, the company will make more money. In short, putting solar cells on top of their stores is something they want.

In December, the government solar tax credit — the 30% Investment Tax Credit (ITC) for residential and commercial solar systems, almost expired. This federal tax policy is credited for dramatically lowering solar costs and accelerating solar adoption in the United States. The policy would have been replaced by at 10% ITC credit, only for commercial systems.

“Big companies like it [ITC credit] because it reduces the cost of their investment,” said Cohen. “So it wasn’t just passed because it was green; it was passed because a lot of companies wanted to keep getting that tax expenditure,” added Cohen.

The flow of political influence and causality is not one way; it is pretty circular. Public policy promotes something, companies try it out, and if business makes money on it as a result, they want it more.

“Companies like Walmart are not in the business of saving energy because they love nature, they love money,” noted Cohen.

The energy companies will (or have already started to) develop renewables are companies in the energy business.

“These companies are in the energy business and they will get out of the fossil fuel business because it is a dying business,” submits Cohen.

“Besides,” added Cohen, “transporting oil costs a lot of money; the sun is right here.”