Why engineers see sustainability differently

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Why engineers see sustainability differently

I am completing a few searches right now for sustainability professionals with engineering backgrounds. It got me to thinking about what makes an engineer a good sustainability professional.

Last year, while researching chief sustainability officers, I noticed a number of CSOs who come from engineering backgrounds. For example, Albemarle CSO David Clary, Dow Chemical CSO David Kepler, and Jarden Corp. CSO Jim Bennet are chemical engineers. Owens-Corning’s Frank O’Brien-Bernini is a mechanical engineer while YUM Brands’ Roger McClendon is an electrical and computer engineer.

Why so many engineers in a role that primarily involves communications and external affairs — with change management, behavioral learning and constant innovation thrown in for good measure? How does an intensive and concentrated education track like engineering become a prerequisite for sustainability chiefs?

Data, Data, Data

First, engineers tend to be more methodical and detail-oriented. They improve current systems and develop new ones using hard data. This scientific, deductive approach to sustainability differs from a more social and intuitive one. Though both types of professionals are valuable, a scientific process tends to be more effective at improving things like energy efficiency and calculating environmental costs.

In trying to reduce their carbon footprint and environmental impact, companies consider every contributory factor and how their systems can be altered and improved upon. Engineering skills then become valuable assets.

Gears illustration by vectomart via Shutterstock. Photocollage by GreenBiz Group.

UPS, for example, has significantly reduced its fuel consumption by using the most efficient driving routes. UPS CSO Scott Wicker, an electrical engineer, attributes UPS’s successes partly to an engineering approach. “You can’t mitigate your impact — or even acknowledge it — without measurement,” he says. Grounding a sustainability program in facts rather than feelings may be the most powerful and effective path to success.

Idealism vs. Realism

Without overruling the effectiveness of CSOs who aren’t engineers, or those who drive change in their companies through sheer passion and drive, there is a real danger of sustainability being relegated to an idealistic set of phrases to which we become desensitized.

As Wicker put it, “In this era of greenwashing and spin, nothing will inoculate companies better against attack than credible, verifiable facts.” Transparency keeps sustainability efforts grounded in reality and aligns company goals with those of other stakeholders. An engineering — or systemic — approach means straightforward plans that are backed by reason, not vague goals addressed by speculation and fed by reputational concerns.

Creativity is important in sustainability, but an emotional relation to sustainability is not enough to have positive change. An effective sustainability strategy is developed with predetermined and measurable goals and a clear understanding of the process. A straightforward program prevents sustainability from becoming a public relations move that doesn’t really change the way a company does business.

With no clear guidance available on what makes the ideal CSO, sustainability chiefs today represent a diverse palette of backgrounds, including journalism, marketing, and human resources. It is a boon for the field that engineers are bringing their valuable skills to sustainability efforts because their commitment to understanding and improving systems makes them highly effective at setting tangible goals — and making tangible progress.

Gears illustration by vectomart via Shutterstock. Photocollage by GreenBiz Group.

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