This is the second post as part of a series by Steve Cohen, Executive Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, about the importance of sustainability management.
In the first two decades of this century, we will see the creation of Chief Sustainability Officer in our best-run organizations. The needs of organizational management have added another dimension: a physical one. In the old days, water, energy and waste were minor factors in an organization’s cost equation. Those days are gone. In an increasingly crowded planet, the scale of production of everything has grown and with it we see an increased draw on the earth’s finite resources. The costs of water, raw materials and energy are an increasingly important part of the cost calculus for the modern organization. Waste disposal is no longer cheap or free and the organization that figures out a way to reduce and re-use waste has a significant cost advantage over organizations that do not.
A well-managed organization by definition will be one that ensures that physical constraints, resource costs and environmental impacts are inputs to routine decision-making. If pollution is conceptualized as a form of waste, then the best managed operation would be one that produces the least amount of waste, not one that “treats” and decontaminates the most waste. If the product is built with as few raw materials as possible, and those materials are not scarce or finite, the product is likely to be less expensive to make. This will not be true in every instance, but it will be true on average.
Sustainability management provides a means for fostering long-term economic growth while ensuring the Earth remains a productive and viable planet for current and future generations. It is economic production and consumption that minimizes environmental impact and maximizes resource conservation and reuse. The sustainability perspective is that without a healthy and productive ecosystem, wealth is impossible; environmental protection is a prerequisite to wealth. Sustainability management requires that organizations learn how to think about the long-term instead of focusing on weekly, quarterly or daily reports. In a world of global 24-7 electronic media, never ending financial exchange, and low cost information and communication, the pressure for immediate information, accomplishment and gratification is overwhelming. Election cycles have become endless in politics and corporations are no longer managed to the quarter or year, but to the minute. If we are to achieve a sustainable economy and learn how to consume without destroying this planet’s productive capacity, we must figure out a way to slow down the merry-go-round.
Steven Cohen is the Executive Director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute and professor in the practice of public affairs at the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA). He is also Director of the Master’s Program in Sustainability Management at Columbia’s School of Continuing Education. He is the author of Sustainability Management.