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No More Piecemeal Approach to Sustainability

March 07, 2013 By Timothy Nolan, Guest Commentary

The following commentary is the latest installment of Minnesota 2020's ongoing series featuring long-time state industrial development planner Timothy Nolan, which describes how Minnesota should design and engage in a strategic, comprehensive, and integrated approach to advance the clean, green, sustainable regional economy. Click here for a more detailed explanation of the terms and concepts used in this series.

Despite the public and private sectors’ growing attention and action on sustainability, most are still taking a piecemeal approach to creating a cleaner, greener environment and economy. In the meantime, a growing body of evidence indicates that globally, nationally, and regionally many environmental challenges are escalating while integrated, comprehensive, long-term solutions seem far off.

While it can be overwhelming to address all of the factors comprising our ecological footprint, we must consider how our behavior as individuals, businesses and communities impact the following prime issues on the whole: water quality and scarcity, energy security and clean energy systems, sustainable food production, ecosystems decline, and climate change adaptation.

While upfront costs might seem prohibitive, future costs of inaction for businesses, communities and the economy as a whole will impede prosperity.

One of the main barriers in addressing an integrated sustainability system is the need to upgrade the infrastructure supporting our industries and communities. Much of our national infrastructure is antiquated and reinvestment is necessary, which transcends conventional institutional boundaries and business models.

As Minnesota 2020’s Wasting Away report highlights, most infrastructure upgrades fall on to local governments. That’s why it’s critical that business and policy leaders recognized that such investments will take a universal approach.

On the up side, the growing urgency to address these vast challenges presents vast opportunities, and is driving an array of public policy, research, and commercial endeavors. It’s not a stretch to call it the “next industrial revolution,” as integrated sustainability becomes the foundation for long-term global competitiveness.

“Our company needed to provide a whole host of products and more fully recognize that the whole sustainability movement was not going away, that it was a megatrend,” said Minnesota-based Tennant Company’s CEO in a 2011 Star Tribune interview.

Arguments are moving away from the common perception—that higher environmental performance will hurt competitiveness—to the realization that such performance will be fundamental to competitiveness. The Triple Bottom Line (TBL) concept is increasingly being recognized as a new framework for measuring business performance in the context of long-term sustainability. It expands the criteria for success beyond just financial outcomes to a new measure that evaluates economic, environmental and social performance.

Global businesses are taking the lead embedding sustainability into overall business strategies. Many forces are coming to bear on companies, making green a profitable (not optional) path. Resource issues—energy, carbon, and water—are a growing concern for industries. How companies manage resources is a strategic issue and reason to embrace sustainability. Doing so can reduce waste (direct and supply chain operations), create or destroy brand value, and impact a company’s license to operate. Business-to-business industries are paying attention to the value sustainability creates, with some execs certainly seeing the need to do more than what the government is asking. Other executives, especially those who rail against government regulations should implement sustainability systems that best fit their business structure before public officials mandate such directives.

When more companies start paying attention to TBL performance, there’s potential to drive commercialization of new technologies, products, and services, resulting in business growth. For example, traditional technologies used for pollution control and remediation, are evolving to next generation clean-green-sustainable technologies. Businesses that internalize the full life-cycle costs of their products and services, and ensure their products are designed, and manufactured in the safest, ecologically responsible, and economically efficient manner, will gain a competitive advantage.

Businesses will be more competitive in the global economy when they optimize resource productivity throughout their value-chains by adopting clean production methods and technologies, offer environmentally preferable products and services as a primary choice, use low impact renewable resources, and contribute solutions to environmental and social challenges.

Timothy Nolan is Principal Planner of Sustainable Industrial Development at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. He's spent more than 25 years at the forefront of Minnesota’s efforts to implement progressive public and private sector sustainable development initiatives.

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