Sustainability is the new buzzword at businesses big and small

Article originally posted in the Worcester Telegram & Gazette

A Big Y supermarket customer takes his order from store employee Jonathan Gomez. In the foreground is a display of haddock, pollock and cod from sustainable fisheries. (T&G Staff/PAUL KAPTEYN)

By Priyanka Dayal TELEGRAM & GAZETTE STAFF

Luz Gonzalez recently put a brick in her office toilet.

She did it with two goals in mind: cut costs and help protect the planet.

The brick sits in the tank of the old toilet. Its presence means a little less water is wasted with every flush.

Ms. Gonzalez, a broker who owns Community Realty in Worcester, also replaced her printer paper with recycled paper, started switching the old ceiling lights with more efficient LEDs, and got rid of the plastic cups that used to sit next to the water cooler. Instead, a sign on the water cooler directs thirsty visitors to ask for a reusable mug.

Jen Solin, left, and Luz Gonzalez use mugs instead of disposable cups at Community Realty in Worcester. (T&G Staff/RICK CINCLAIR)

More and more, businesses of all sizes are taking steps like these under the banner of sustainability. For some, the primary goal is to be kinder to the planet. But most companies are addressing sustainability in an effort to save costs and gain business.

“Because of the economy, people are looking everywhere they can to save money,” said Robert A. Rio, senior vice president of Associated Industries of Massachusetts. “They're embracing this new concept of sustainability.”

Loosely defined, sustainability means preserving resources for future generations. That includes green, or environmentally friendly, practices. But sustainability is also about long-term economics and social issues.

In the business world, it means adhering to the triple bottom line — people, planet and profit, said Bill Bean, a consultant from Tyringham who advises businesses in green and sustainability issues.

“A sustainable business looks at every strategic decision they make through a lens of sustainability,” said Mr. Bean, president of Green Planning & Coaching.

The concept of sustainability isn't new. What is new is the level to which companies are embracing the concept.

According to a study from MIT Sloan Management Review and the Boston Consulting Group, there are two types of businesses: “embracers” and “cautious adopters.” Embracers, the study argues, believe sustainability is core to their business. They also happen to be the highest performing of the businesses interviewed for the study.

In Worcester, businesses such as Community Realty are embracing sustainability with small steps.

Seven local businesses, including Community Realty, were recognized as leaders last month in the first year of the Worcester Sustainable Business Leader Program. The program encourages local businesses to address seven categories, including energy efficiency, pollution control and local purchasing. After paying $400 to participate, businesses receive an audit from Mr. Bean; he drafts sustainability action plans tailored to each business.

Most businesses, in Worcester and elsewhere, start with cutting waste and cutting use of electricity, water and fuel. When businesses use less resources, they also cut their costs.

Mr. Rio, of the employer association AIM, said cost savings are the top reason businesses are embracing sustainability, especially during and after a tough recession.

But the benefits extend beyond lower costs, sustainability advocates say.

“If you become a sustainable business leader, you can enhance yourself and sustain your brand,” said Will O'Brien, director of the Worcester Sustainable Business Leader Program and executive in residence at Clark University. “If you differentiate yourself and attract more customers, you'll increase your revenue.” Brand identity was the reason most businesses in the Sloan/BCG study named as the greatest benefit of addressing sustainability.

Sustainability can come with costs. A company that decides to install solar panels, for example, must be willing to put down some money. But advocates say the long-term savings of such practices outweigh the short-term costs.

The University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester is embracing sustainability in a big way. The school hired Melissa Lucas as its first manager of sustainability and energy two years ago. Along with taking other steps, the school has installed a software program that automatically shuts down most of its computers every night. That change alone will cut an estimated $175,000 from the school's annual electric bill, Ms. Lucas said.

“We're trying to maximize resources,” said James R. Fessendon, a medical school spokesman. “That is in tandem with our mission of enhancing care for the commonwealth.”

Increasingly, multinational corporations are also citing sustainability as part of their missions — partly because that's what they're expected to do.

“Most of the big companies are into this because their stockholders are into it,” said Mr. Bean, the sustainability consultant. “There's starting to be more pressure from stockholders.”

Retail giant Wal-Mart Stores Inc., for example, has three broad sustainability goals: to be supplied 100 percent by renewable energy, to create zero waste and to sell products that sustain people and the environment.

Sustainable practices come in many forms. At Big Y Foods Inc. of Springfield, which operates 61 supermarkets, sustainability is about the source of seafood. Big Y now offers fish certified by the Marine Stewardship Council, an international organization that certifies seafood that comes from sustainable fisheries.

Sustainable fisheries operate in a way that maintains fish populations and maintains the integrity of ocean ecosystems.

“If we, as a country, plan to have seafood in the future, sustainable seafood is extremely important,” said Gary Bolduc, Big Y's director of meat and seafood.

Big Y's costs — and, therefore, customers' costs — did not change when the grocery chain decided to offer MSC-certified seafood, Mr. Bolduc said.

So why offer it? In Big Y's case, the benefit was less tangible than cost savings.

“We felt it was important to get into this before other companies do,” Mr. Bolduc said. “It's important to be on the forefront. We think it gives us a very big competitive edge.”

Worcester Airport Limousine is cutting costs by cutting its use of power, water and paper. But office administrator Maureen Raillo also alluded to less tangible benefits.

“It's part of running a business based on good values,” she said. “Many people look to do business with people that care.”

The fact that sustainability is a term now commonly heard in offices big and small doesn't mean it's always used correctly. Last year, Advertising Age put sustainability on its list of “words we wish you'd stop saying.” It's a good concept gone bad, by misuse and overuse, Advertising Age said.

Still, experts say sustainability is here to stay. A Harvard Business Review report called sustainability a “megatrend,” something that forces fundamental shifts in how companies compete.

“Megatrends require businesses to adapt and innovate,” the article says, “or be swept aside.”


email: sblp@sbnmass.org    |    phone: (617) 395-0250

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