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Greenville Business Magazine

Sustainability Redefined

Aug 31, 2017 08:15AM ● By Emily Stevenson
By Brad Bechtold and John Meindl
Photography by Amy Randall Photography

Corporate sustainability was initially positioned as a call to address environmental concerns as well as limitations.  The basic construct was to encourage organizations to measure and reduce their environmental impacts, or their “footprint.” Therefore, reducing the size of the footprint hinged on corporations’ ability to both measure and better manage environmental impacts in terms of waste, energy, water and emissions. 

Though this concept has had a positive impact in many ways, sustainability was being couched in terms of limitations, which can be antithetical to capitalism, and by extension, contrary to promoting economic growth.

While many organizations committed to the idea of sustainability in theory, actual practices were usually bound to areas where an immediate financial return could be rationalized: achieving energy and water efficiencies and adopting waste-reduction practices. 

Now, after a few years of experimentation and learning, organizations are redefining their sustainability practices based on a much broader, growth-driven perspective. Sustainability is evolving from a limits or negative perspective—the concept of the environmental footprint of an organization—to a positive growth-through-values perspective—the concept of the broader “handprint” of an organization. Rather than limiting their mindset to managing an environmental footprint, organizations are widening their definition of sustainability to also improving economic and societal outcomes—their handprints.

Organizations that have adopted the handprint perspective have expanded their value propositions from benefiting only stockholders to benefiting all stakeholders: customers, employees, suppliers, and local communities, as well as their stockholders. Organizations are introducing innovations as well as undertaking multiple types of initiatives that provide a positive impact on the environmental, economic and social sustainability of these stakeholders. Organizations are moving from simply reporting on Corporate Social Responsibility to actually measuring Corporate Social Impact.

Like footprints, an organization’s handprint can be defined, measured, managed and compared to determine its actual net positive value. The Dow Jones has several Index Funds (e.g., DJ Industrial Index) that are centuries old. A relatively new fund, the DJ Sustainability Index, includes an annual listing of firms recognized as providing best-in-class sustainable business practices in their industries. Care to guess which DJ Fund has outperformed the DJ Industrial Index over the past 10 years?

Companies like BMW North America, Cox Industries, Bon Secours St. Francis, Michelin, Greenville Water, Sealed Air, Greenville Technical College, ScanSource and GE are demonstrating a much broader definition and approach to sustainability. Accordingly, they have redefined their business practices, resulting not just in cost savings, but also positively impacting the health and viability of their many stakeholders.

These companies have also taken part in the Postgraduate Diploma in corporate sustainability, which is offered through Furman University’s Center for Corporate and Professional Development.  Since 2010, more than 150 participants and 60 organizations have evolved their thinking and implementation of sustainability from one based on managing environmental impacts to one based upon also improving economic and societal outcomes.

Incorporating sustainability in support of an organization’s business strategy, therefore, is proving to be good business for everyone. Furman has been at the cutting edge of sustainability education with its corporate sustainability program, the David E. Shi Center for Sustainability, and its undergraduate major in sustainability science.

For more information, visit Furman’s Corporate Sustainability website and the David E. Shi Center for Sustainability.

Brad Bechtold is the Executive Director of Continuing Education and John Meindl is an Executive in Residence with the Center for Corporate and Professional Development at Furman University