Sustainable business can be taught: 4 pillars for success

Sustainable business can be taught: 4 pillars for success

Universities around the world are unveiling new course offerings in sustainable business aimed at both college students and working professionals.

Where there's a market opening, there's a rush for qualified talent — and the field of sustainable business is no different.

More universities are offering undergraduate and graduate degrees with a focus on sustainability, but there remains a shortage (PDF) of qualified professionals to lead and implement strategic sustainability initiatives.

To help working professionals already in the field put all of the pieces together on sustainability strategy, management and organization, Colorado State University's Institute for the Built Environment has created a series of credentialed online courses in a new Integrated Sustainability Management Program.

The goal of the program, which will launch in February and costs $625 per course or $2,400 for a four-course package, is bolstering the sustainable business management pipeline by encouraging interdisciplinary approaches.

"People that work in sustainability often come at it from one angle," said Jeni Cross, Ph.D., associate professor of sociology, Colorado State University, and expert instructor for the Integrated Sustainability Management Certificate program. "They may ask, 'How do we best engage occupants for sustainability?' or 'How do we retrofit our facility to get the biggest bang for our buck?'"

While niche expertise in green building or corporate energy efficiency, for example, are valuable skillsets in and of themselves, Cross contended that a more integrated approach focused on people, resources, facilities and organization is increasingly demanded by companies trying to infuse sustainability into multiple departments — if not their core business operations.

More specifically, these four approaches can help move toward an integrated, more sustainable business.

1. Draw a roadmap

The path toward organizational sustainability will look a little different for every business. A good first step is to make a plan that includes sustainability goals and activities that will support the organization's becoming more sustainable over time. It’s a journey.

“There are four primary areas that you should consider when developing a sustainability investment plan: management infrastructure; eco-efficiency programs; strategic initiatives; and marketing programs,” explained Geoffrey Barneby of the FairRidge Group.

Barneby added that those goals aren't mutually exclusive. You can't successfully market sustainability initiatives  before making strategic changes, for example. And you can't develop strategic initiatives without already having an appropriate management infrastructure in place. 

This type of intergrated approach is especially important as companies shift sustainability to their core priorities.

"We've gone through a paradigm shift on sustainable development in the last year," noted one sustainability consultant in a recent GreenBiz article. "It's no longer seen as an environmental thing. It's fully integrated into the way we think and plan around economic growth."

2. Pick a point person

Sometimes titles — or at least their symbolic significance — really do matter.

Sustainability efforts are most successful when companies elect and empower someone to spearhead sustainability efforts and make sure goals remain on track.

Such positions are a 21st-century invention that has created jobs in the leadership ranks of many large companies, including Fortune 500 companies and political and economic powerhouses.

Depending on rank, authority and responsibility, titles range from chief sustainability officer to sustainability director or sustainability analyst. The public sector, too, is adding CSOs or even chief resilience officers focused on building cities that can withstand climate volatility.

3. Turn lofty plans into new programs

Once a company has a sustainability plan and has designated someone to implement it, the next question becomes how to move ahead.

Much of the "how" relies on people adopting more sustainable behaviors, which veers into the social sciences.

Colorado State's Cross has explained that we all think we know how to encourage people to adopt sustainable behaviors. However, most of our encouragement actually does nothing to change anyone else's behavior.

Luckily, there are proven techniques for engaging occupants and employees in organizational sustainability goals — some of them related to workplace culture, human resources and even financial incentives — that should not be overlooked.

4. Organize accordingly

Business leaders worldwide see sustainability as an opportunity for growth and innovation, according to a 2013 report on CEOs’ views on building a more sustainable economy.

Organizational sustainability is one of the fastest-developing sectors of business as distinct industries develop a heightened awareness on the importance of global issues such as social justice, climate change, energy independence and water scarcity. Moreover, businesses are finding competitive advantage through sustainability and corporate responsibility.

As an organization or a business, taking sustainable strides will help you keep up with the market and its increasing demand for transparency and responsibility. In the process, employees and customers can look forward to better products.