Stephanie Whittaker, Montreal Gazette, September 19, 2006
Melissa Garcia-Lamarca, coordinator of Concordia University’s sustainability program, checks the enviro-composters atop the Hall Building.
Photograph by : GORDON BECK, THE GAZETTE
Corporate leaders say they’re responding to demands that businesses operate in a more environmentally responsible way. From now until Dec. 12, a weekly series of stories will put the claim to the test.
Hindsight will tell you that most trends that reshape the social, economic or political landscape often start with a pivotal event. Or several.
Ask people in the environmental field about the origins of sustainable development and they will cite several major environmental disasters in 1970s and ’80s: the Love Canal toxic waste dump in upstate New York and the Union Carbide disaster in Bhopal, India, for instance, as events that awakened the world to the need for change.
It has been two decades since the UN’s Brundtland Commission coined the term “sustainable development” to describe the concept of maintaining a balance between human activity and protection of the environment. Since then, the term has entered common parlance and the practice of conducting business in a sustainable way is being increasingly knit into the very fabric of corporate operations and cultures.
“Industry hit the bottom of the barrel when these disasters occurred” said Michael Clog- hesy, president of the Quebec Business Council on the Environment.
“Twenty or 30 years ago, companies viewed the environment as a cost. They came to the realization that they couldn’t continue this way,” said Cloghesy, whose organization was founded in 1993 by 40 Quebec companies and associations representing various sectors of the economy.
Now, Cloghesy said, there is an understanding throughout the corporate milieu that being green is as good for the bottom line as it is for the environment. It’s a matter of optics and of meeting the demands of consumers.
In fact, said Brenda Plant, co-founder and director of Ethiquette, a firm that consults to small and medium businesses on sustainability, a growing number of consumers are using their clout to demand “socially responsible” goods and services. And business is responding.
“Although we don’t have numbers for Canada, we know that in the U.S. about 30 per cent of the population is in a demographic called LOHAS, which stands for Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability,” Plant said. ”These are consumers who are concerned with sustainable business and they buy goods and services worth $227 billion U.S. per year.”
Whether business is motivated to go green by altruism or profit is largely moot, say environmental experts. The end result is positive.
“The first wave of sustainable business was driven by founders who had those values,” Plant said. “Two examples of that would be Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream and the Body Shop. And in small and medium-sized businesses, the founder’s personal passion continues to be the motivation. In larger companies, regulatory pressure and public image are the main drivers.”
Another push toward corporate responsibility has been a series of public-relations crises that have hurt various brand images, Plant said. “Shell, Nike and Gap come to mind. Companies have learned that it’s much harder to clean up your image than to start out on the right foot from the beginning,” she said.
(During the 1990s, shoe and clothing manufacturer Nike and clothing retailer The Gap both faced global censure because of their overseas sweatshops. Shell faced censure for its work in Nigeria after the trial and execution of KenSaro-Wiwa and eight other activists.)
“It takes four years for a company to repair its image. It’s easier to do preventative work than to do crisis management.”
Business-to-business companies are also facing pressure from suppliers and clients, Cloghesy said. “When your client says: ‘I want 50 per cent recycled material in my product and if I don’t get it, I’ll go elsewhere,’ you’re dealing with market forces that go beyond government regulation.”
His organization now boasts 180 members. “Our purpose is to get a unified position on draft regulations,” he said. “I’ve lobbied for regulations for hazardous waste in Quebec. The province’s regulations in this area were 20 years out of date and it was causing problems for the private sector. When the government comes out with regulations, we urge them to set emissions limits and we deal with how we’ll attain them.”
For all the good intentions, the move to more sustainable practice is in its infancy, and there’s a long way to go, said Steven Guilbeault, director of Greenpeace Quebec.
“One can only salute the fact that more companies and governments are talking about sustainable development. But is there less pollution out there? Are we tackling climate change?” Guilbeault said.
The automotive industry is a dinosaur, a pocket of resistance, Guilbeault said. “There are roughly 100,000 new vehicles on Quebec roads every year. Can we sustain that?
“And in the oil and gas sector, a few companies are willing to tackle the problem, but there are others that couldn’t care less.”
Plant said the corporate milieu knows there’s a business case for sustainability. “It makes good business sense,” she said. “You save money by integrating energy-efficiency techniques. It might cost more initially, but companies recoup that cost over the long term.”
Marc Duchesne, director of corporate responsibility and environment at Bell Canada, said social responsibility in his company is “tied into global performance.”
“We think that being corporately responsible makes us accountable to our stakeholders,” he said. “To thrive, we have to respond to shareholders, clients and the community at large.”
He said the company recycles 1,000 tons of paper and cardboard yearly, 1,300 tonnes of hazardous waste, 277 tons of parts from its fleet of vehicles and 745 tonnes of telephone poles that are removed from use. “About 33 per cent of our waste goes to landfill and 67 per cent is diverted,” he said. “We want to raise that by five per cent by 2008.”
He said the company is also working on reducing greenhouse gas emissions from its fleet of 8,000 vehicles and 3,000 buildings across Canada.
“We don’t call this sustainable development. We call it corporate responsibility,” he said.
Other institutions, especially universities, are proving to be incubators of the new thinking, which is spreading into the corporate realm. Concordia, for one, has a program called R4 (rethink, reduce, reuse, recycle) that is saving the university money.
The program was created by students Melissa Garcia-Lamarca and Geneva Guerin for course credit. The two conducted, with the help of 100 student volunteers, a sustainability assessment of the university, based on a 171-indicator program created by another student at Royal Roads University in Victoria, B.C. They produced a 400-page document from which they have since implemented the university’s sustainability program. R4 has since spread to 35 other universities across North America.
One example of how the program has benefited the university and the environment simultaneously is the change in paper consumption. Concordia bought $500,000 worth of paper in the 2002-2003 school year. By 2005-2006, the cost of paper consumption was down to $76,000.
There have also been changes in how the institution handles its waste through recycling and the composting of cafeteria food, among other programs.
“Companies and institutions are waking up and seeing that this is not only good for the environment but also for the bottom line,” Beaudoin said. “Consumers are now looking at companies and expecting them to have more values and to act upon them. And businesses want to know what consumers want. What consumers want is no human rights violations in the products they buy and a respect for the environment.”
Garcia-Lamarca said organizations are waking up to the fact “the more efficiently they use resources, the more they reduce operating costs and boost profitability. We’re starting to see a lot of leadership in this area,” she said.