Lisa Jackson's sustainability vision

The United States Environmental Protection Agency wants to help your company become sustainable.

If that sentence seems curious or quixotic, consider this: Over the past few months, agency executives have had some 500 conversations with companies, nonprofits, community leaders, and others — a series of “listening sessions” — on how the EPA might “improve decision making and further incorporate principles of sustainability into its ongoing work.”

It’s an intriguing, bold and, perhaps, audacious move for an agency chartered 42 years ago to set and enforce standards to ensure environmental protection and public health. As Barack Obama begins his second term, and EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson wraps up the final weeks of her tenure, the notion of whether and how the EPA can embed sustainability into its work will be an intriguing story to watch.

Some background is in order. In 2010, Jackson asked the National Research Council’s Science and Technology for Sustainability Program, part of the National Academy of Science, to provide a framework for integrating sustainability “as a key driver of the agency’s activities.” The resulting 160-page report (download here), delivered in May 2011 and referred to as the “Green Book,” provides recommendations for a sustainability approach that incorporates and goes beyond how the agency has assessed and managed the risks posed by pollutants — the basis of environmental policy since the 1980s.

As the National Academy put it:

Although risk-based methods have led to many successes and remain important tools … they are not adequate to address many of the complex problems that put current and future generations at risk, such as depletion of natural resources, climate change, and loss of biodiversity. Moreover, sophisticated tools are increasingly available to address cross-cutting, complex, and challenging issues that go beyond risk management.

The report recommended that EPA formally adopt as its sustainability paradigm the widely used "three pillars" approach — that is, considering the environmental, social and economic impacts of an agency action or decision.

Last week, two blocks from the White House and less than 48 hours before President Obama took his oath of office, Jackson convened a roundtable of companies for a conversation about the business implications of an EPA focus on sustainability, as well as a more general discussion of what role the EPA should play in supporting the private sector’s sustainability initiatives. Among the 15 companies at the table were executives from Dell, Dow, Dupont, Ford, Intel, International Paper, Johns Manville, LG Electronics, Lockheed Martin, Siemens, Unilever, Weyerhaeuser, and Xerox. I was asked to serve as moderator for the event.

In the run-up to that meeting, I also met with Jackson during her recent visit to California. We discussed her sustainability vision, as well as her thoughts on how the agency could better support the private sector in the years to come. (The full transcript of that conversation, edited for clarity, can be found here.)

Next page: Regulating, but playing nice