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Pittsburgh flexes its sustainability muscle

Pittsburgh is one city focusing on building regional sustainability capacity by bringing together businesses, nonprofits and government agencies.

Back in 2011, one of the world's largest certified Global Reporting Initiative trainings to date took place in Cleveland, drawing nearly 200 business students and college seniors from 14 colleges in Ohio.

The event, held at Cleveland State University and hosted by consultancy BrownFlynn, revolved around a theme that has grown in importance since then: Developing sustainability capacity within a geographic region.

Around the country, cohorts of cities and various regional allies are tackling sustainability through a variety of mechanisms.

The Pittsburgh region exemplifies one strategic approach to regionally tackling sustainability issues.

Putting regionalism to work

Southwestern Pennsylvania has united its sustainability efforts behind the nonprofit Sustainable Pittsburgh. A central collaborative body, Sustainable Pittsburgh unites stakeholders from government, nonprofits and business to educate and address hot-button topics in regional sustainability.

Participants include the Pittsburgh Office of Sustainability; Allegheny Green, the county’s sustainability arm; and corporations such as Bayer and Highmark. Each of these stakeholders, in return, brings expertise and perspective to the table.

The Pittsburgh Office of Sustainability works with city departments to ensure sustainability is integrated into all city operations. It is also tasked with implementing the Pittsburgh Climate Action Plan. Allegheny Green promotes sustainable practices through policies, programs and green projects.

Sustainable Pittsburgh then links these partners with local businesses and nonprofits — both big and small — through programs such as the Southwestern Pennsylvania Sustainable Business Compact and Green Workplace Challenge.

Eleven months ago, Sustainable Pittsburgh held a workshop through its SWPA Sustainable Business Compact for local businesses addressing the evolution of corporate sustainability focused on materiality. BrownFlynn and Bloomberg were invited to set the stage by providing perspective on how frameworks and standards around the world are driving the concept of materiality.

Local institutions like Calgon Carbon, PITT OHIO, and UPMC also shared first-hand experiences and best practices around materiality reporting. BrownFlynn and Bloomberg led a second workshop, featuring Alcoa, BNY Mellon, and UPMC, which dove deeper into identifying and managing material issues through sustainability initiatives.

Mainstreaming materiality

Beyond these kinds of high-level materiality conversations, it is imperative to connect key topics to the everyday work of executives pursuing various sustainability goals.

BrownFlynn has led executive session for participating companies in the Pittsburgh area with a goal of solidifying the business case for sustainability reporting and tools to help navigate the web of GRI G4 guidelines and associated frameworks produced by the Sustainability Accounting and Standards Board and Dow Jones Sustainability Index.

Establishing management systems and practices, and then reporting publicly to key stakeholders, are key tenets of the process. Ultimately, a company should be able to align its sustainability strategy to its corporate strategy, as well as to its stakeholders’ concerns.

The same approach can be used by a region to identify and prioritize sustainability issues, and then develop and implement initiatives to address them.

Sustainable Pittsburgh and Southwest Pennsylvania are well on their way to achieving this regional level of coordination and execution. As a region, SWPA can tackle material environmental issues such as waste, carbon emissions and water use.

Challenging the workplace

One example of how that might look in action: Sustainable Pittsburgh’s Green Workplace Challenge, which provides businesses, nonprofits, schools and municipalities with tools and guidance to reduce their footprints. Additionally, the challenge is able to collect aggregated reductions across all participants, enabling the public reporting of the region’s footprint.

As part of the Green Workplace Challenge, Sustainable Pittsburgh offers several workshops a year to educate participants on sustainability.

Last month, companies including BrownFlynn and Waste Management particpated in a workshop on integrating sustainability into purchasing and supply chain decisions, with an emphasis on waste reduction. Value chain impact mapping was the basis of another session, which focused on mapping Southwest Pennsylvania’s waste from raw material to disposal.

These concepts are also by no means limited to Pittsburgh or the mid-Atlantic region. Every region has a part to play in focusing on sustainability issues material to the local community and integrating solutions throughout the regional value chain.

By bringing together governmental stakeholders, nonprofits such as the local chamber of commerce, businesses and anchor institutions, cities around the world can achieve a sustainable future.

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