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Norman Christopher

Sustaining Sustainability – An Easy or Difficult Task?

Over the recent past many companies, institutions, and organizations alike across the private, public, and academic sectors have been on a sustainability journey. This journey has taken everyone through the stages of creating awareness, developing understanding, applying best practices, tracking progress, determining value creation, and providing leadership and vision regarding sustainability initiatives, programs, and activities. One of the in-depth aspects of sustainability deals with the “triple bottom line” parameters and criteria for generating positive environmental, social, and economic impact.

Since sustainability is a journey and not a destination point, the challenge is to obtain the required financial and support resources necessary to build momentum and achieve progress. Key performance metrics (KPIs) are critically important to monitor and track baseline and annual progress. However, requesting required support resources through traditional budget cycles is a difficult task and may fall short of expectations and aspirations.  On the other hand, many successful sustainability initiatives are created, developed, and implemented by a “self-raising of the bar” and are not necessarily just focused on compliance and regulations.

Given sustainability is a new “business development” platform for many, that is inspired by new innovative and creative models and technologies, what steps can be taken to sustain these sustainability projects and programs?

  • Utilize all available capital resources: Financial, asset, and human capital sources are always good options to pursue first. However, there are many other capital resources that should be evaluated including natural, social, shared, and community capital sources that can offer direct and complementary support and benefits as well.
  • Leverage existing assets: Before requesting additional funding resources, ensure that all available assets are first leveraged for sustainability programs and projects including buildings, technologies, equipment, and manpower.
  • Go for the “low hanging” fruit: To get a foothold and establish credibility for sustainability programs, implement sustainability projects with as short a payback period as possible e.g. less than 4 years for example that will generate radical, not incremental, productivity and costs savings of 10%-20%.
  • Ensure cost avoidance: Clearly identify cost savings areas and then track and monitor results through the establishment of baseline information that can be measured for current project performance against previously established baseline data and information. These identified cost savings can then be quantified as cost avoidance for future or similar sustainability programs and projects.
  • Reinvest cost savings: This strategy is a critical success factor for sustainability projects and programs to climb over the investment hurdle. Once program and project results are determined and cost savings are validated, these quantified cost savings should be reinvested into future projects. By reinvesting cost savings in future programs and projects, true sustainability growth can be established. Many times this type of funding is available through company, institution, or enterprise “green” or sustainability reinvestment funds that are available to help support these activities, such as the Sustainability Reinvestment Fund at Grand Valley State University (gvsu.edu/sustainability).
  • Consider cost sharing: Many times breakthrough sustainability projects require the assistance of other organizations and enterprises including their knowledge and expertise. These organizations often have similar values and sustainability interests. Examples include sustainability events or conferences that may start with a “passing of the hat” among partnering organizations that equally cost share and pursue sponsorships for support and assistance.
  • Seek shared knowledge and resources: Today, the most successful and significant sustainability programs and projects are usually implemented through cross sector partnerships that engage the public, private, and academic sectors. Mutual knowledge and expertise is shared, along with the contribution of direct and indirect resources to ensure success. Many of these highly innovative sustainability projects utilize disruptive clean technologies that require trustful working relationships and true partnerships to implement best practices and transfer knowledge and expertise. One example is the Grand Rapids 2030 Energy District (2030districts.org/grandrapids) that seeks to reduce energy and water consumption and transportation emissions by 50% by 2030 among buildings and infrastructure within the downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan area. Currently, there are ~ 40 partners including ~ 10MM square feet of building space.

Sustainability itself is a journey and so is the pursuit of options to sustain sustainability. Sustainability, for many organizations and enterprises, is a new paradigm that will require innovative and creative models for implementation and funding. Sustainability projects such as waste minimization, energy efficiency, and water conservation are all areas to gain a foothold. These projects, when successfully executed, will enable future sustainability programs and activities to gain traction and momentum by reinvesting the cost savings and avoiding future costs.

I wish you the best on your sustainability journey!

Norman Christopher

Director, Office of Sustainability Practices

Grand Valley State University

Author, Sustainability Demystified