Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Grappling with Sustainability

Subtitle: "Why should I care about future generations? What have they ever done for me?" — Groucho Marx

In the posting on July 17th we started to address this issue of "what is sustainability." The Brundtland Commission, 1983, of the United Nations defined sustainable development as
"development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It contains within it two key concepts:
• the concept of 'needs', in particular the essential needs of the world's poor, to which overriding priority should be given; and
• the idea of limitations imposed by the state of technology and social organization on the environment's ability to meet present and future needs."

The full report is available at http://www.worldinbalance.net/agreements/1987-brundtland.php.

We may disagree with the approach or conclusions reached by the report but the topic is worthy of consideration and, increasingly, the term is being used to promote action (legislative, business, social/consumer) that will affect how we do business. We'd better be comfortable with how we fit into this discussion and know where it is heading.

The Brundtland Commission report points out the need for recognizing the social, as well as economic and environmental, aspects of sustainability. This has been one of the problems with understanding what sustainability is and how is applies to our particular area of interest - manufacturing.

I referred a few blogs ago to a simple definition that has been offered by the Japanese copier company Ricoh (http://www.ricoh.com/environment/policy/5.html). Ricoh has defined sustainability, in terms of development and progress, as follows: "We are aiming to create a society whose environmental impact is below the level that the self-recovery capability of the natural environment can deal with." They gave a simple example: "... the reduction target of CO2 emissions is generally based on the 1990 emission level, but in the future we need to limit emissions based on the estimated emission level that the self-recovery capability of the Earth could deal with.” This example is what Brundtland Commission report was referring to with respect to "limitations imposed by the state of technology and social organization on the environment's ability to meet present and future needs." Ricoh addresses technology. Social organization is more complex.

Ricoh have started to bring this definition closer to earth for manufacturing practitioners. How to define, measure, react/modify - that is, how to tell whether or not you are "sustainable" or on a road to sustainability - is a big challenge. This is specially acute with respect to social aspects.

We need to first define a metric for assessing our level of activity with respect to any of the critical elements (from energy and resource consumption to social impact). Once having that, we can determine where we are and, over time, assess or rate of change and the "slope" of our actions. The term "changing the curve" is used more and more these days to indicate that we need to take action to, first, reduce the movement away from a desirable outcome (for example growing deficits moves us away from a balanced budget), then reduce our impact so that we approach a more sustainable level of operation (to continue the budget analogy, reduce spending so that our outflow is appropriate for our income to balance our budget). That's what Ricoh was referring to.

I was preparing a lecture for my graduate class this fall on "Sustainable Manufacturing" and came upon the corporate sustainability report of United Parcel Service (or UPS). Companies issue these reports annually, for UPS see http://www.sustainability.ups.com/sustainability/index.html. The content varies depending on how seriously the company, and its management, take sustainability as a critical element of their business. UPS does a pretty good job and I was impressed with their definitions, or characterization, of three legs of sustainability.

They define economic prosperity with respect to "strengthen[ing] the enterprise," social responsibility with respect to "improv[ing] the human condition," and environmental stewardship with respect to "protect[ing] the environment." They give details:
  • environmental stewardship includes conserving energy, protecting natural resources, reducing, reusing and recycling, delivering green services and operating efficiently (these last two are shown overlapping with economic and social aspects.
  • economic prosperity includes growing the business profitably, focusing on customers, building the brand, providing value added solutions, supporting global trade and acting responsibly (this last one overlapping with social and environmental aspects.)
  • social responsibility includes supporting communities, embracing diversity and human rights, providing competitive compensation, promoting wellness and safety, developing people and leading by example (these last two overlapping with the other aspects).
So this is a good start. Some of the terms are still a bit fuzzy and, maybe, "buzz wordy" but they are on the right track. There is more on the UPS site. And, of course, many other examples from other companies.

When reading these keep in mind our prior discussion about greenwashing (posting of July 30th) and think about how you would measure your current level and rate of change in any one of these elements if you were tasked with doing the "balance sheet" on sustainability for your company. Then, another challenge, how to report it to the public (so some professor writing a blog doesn't find it on line and quote from it and make critical comments!)

Next time we'll start on defining metrics with a special emphasis on our "footprint."

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