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Mary F. McDonald

Quality Insider

Integrating Sustainability Into Your Management System

And ensuring a better future

Published: Wednesday, July 22, 2009 - 03:00

I remember reading a book when I was younger, about a girl who was separated from her family during the Westward Migration, and forced to live on her own in the wilderness of early spring in 1860s America (unfortunately I don’t remember the name of the book). At one point in the adventure, the young heroine came upon an abandoned Indian settlement, where she was able to find some place to live (torn and tattered but protection from the elements), as well as meager amounts of grains left behind in the food storage cave (enough to make a few meals). She found corn, wheat, etc. and proceeded to make herself some gruel; after she finished eating her fill, she realized in dismay that she had used the entire supply of corn, and therefore would not be able to set aside any seed to plant for the upcoming growing season. She discovered the hard way that without planning, sustainability is endangered.

Organizations are not as short-sighted as the heroine; hopefully we all realize that if we continue to use resources at a greater rate than they can be regenerated, then we will be in for a very rude, and possibly irreversible, surprise… and are taking steps to ensure that we are responsible stewards of our planet.

Let’s define sustainability as we refer to it in this article, to make sure we’re all on the same page:

  • Global sustainability (World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987): "[[to meet]… the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs…]”1
  • Organizational sustainability: Long-term survival of the organization to enable the achievement of its goals.

Well heck—that’s just good business (and common) sense—let’s make sure that what we are doing can be continued in the future without using up everything in the process. But aren’t we doing that already?

In March 2009, the Copenhagen Climate Council, an international team of leading climate scientists, issued six key messages. In the message on climatic trends:
"[… the climate system is already moving beyond the patterns of natural variability within which our society and economy have developed and thrived. These parameters include global mean surface temperature, sea-level rise, ocean and ice sheet dynamics, ocean acidification, and extreme climatic events. There is a significant risk that many of the trends will accelerate, leading to an increasing risk of abrupt or irreversible climatic shifts.]"2

This is a sobering statement. It’s obvious that we need to change the way we do things. Albert Einstein's quotation comes to mind here, "Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."

What are the consequences if we don’t become better stewards of the environment? Will we be forced to find alternatives for virtually everything that we source? In the “In Death” series of fiction books, author J.D. Robb gives us a glimpse of what the not-too-distant future food chain may look like—the menu is "soy dogs, soy fries, soy burgers, soy coffee"—and she notes that food made from beans, wheat, dairy, animals, etc. can only be afforded by the very wealthy. (Although there may be some readers who feel that this direction may be good for us all in any event, this particular picture of the future lets us glimpse what it might be like if choice is taken away through scarcity.) So what steps might we be taking now, to ensure that this stays as pure fiction?

We can take a sustainable approach in many different ways—and integrate with our current management systems at the same time.

In the international standard on quality management systems, ISO 9001, we are tasked to minimize waste through higher initial quality, continual improvement of our processes, repurposing (repair, rework, recategorize), and advance planning. If we take this concept a bit further, we can see that sustainability integrates into a system in areas of continual improvement, opportunities for improvement, and preventive actions. We can focus on what we can do to minimize our footprint that will also result in benefits to our materials stream.

In the environmental management systems standard, ISO 14001, we are tasked, in addition to many of the same clauses as noted above, to have a commitment to prevention of pollution. This concept is much broader than simply trying not to pollute—prevention of pollution goes much further, asking us to consider, in the design phase, whether we can make choices that will minimize our impact on the environment. As defined in ISO 14001:

"Prevention of pollution: use of processes, practices, techniques, materials, products, services or energy to avoid, reduce, or control (separately or in combination) the creation, emission, or discharge of any type of pollutant or waste, in order to reduce adverse environmental impacts.

NOTE: Prevention of pollution can include source reduction or elimination, process, product or service changes, efficient use of resources, material and energy substitution, reuse, recovery, recycling, reclamation, and treatment."

This is linked hand-in-glove with sustainability—ensuring that we have the resources necessary to continue our work in the future, by wisely using our current resources. In fact, we are tasked with considering this while our design is still on paper—researching alternatives, selecting renewable resources that are not in danger of disappearing, etc.

Okay, we see how we might be able to involve sustainability in our management systems theoretically. How can this be applied to our businesses today—how can we help to assure that the trends noted in the Copenhagen Climate Council report decelerate, or better yet, neutralize and reverse?

1. We can be aware of our effect on the environment. Where are our raw materials coming from, and are they sourced sustainably? Are they of sufficient quality to allow us to manufacture parts of high quality without rework or waste? How about our equipment—is it energy efficient? Are we running as efficiently as we can, at a system level (we are optimized for overall rather than at sub-system levels)? Are we increasing the temperature of the water that we’re discharging, even if the waste stream has been neutralized?

2. We can encourage our employees to participate in our initiatives. One company I have a lot of respect for is Silicon Laboratories in Austin, Texas. They looked at their environmental impact and made significant changes to the way that they operate, including:

  1. Moving their facility to a less environmentally-sensitive part of town instead of expanding in their old facility, near an aquifer,

  2. Buying renewable energy,

  3. Eliminating plastic bottles (300,000 annually!) from their facility vending machines–and providing reusable nalgene bottles to their employees for filtered water instead,

  4. Cutting the electrical costs in half by smartly heating and cooling their facilities and turning off most lights during off hours,

  5. Using environmentally-friendly materials to build out their new office infrastructure,

  6. Providing recycling stations throughout the building, including in every meeting room,

  7. Sponsoring green programs within their city.

  8. Replacing stationery and other paper materials with recycled equivalents

  9. Giving employees a reusable grocery sack and a coffee mug made from recycled materials to get them thinking about reuse instead of one time use

  10. Creating a Green Team of employee volunteers whose goal is to continue to identify earth friendly business practices

3. We can change at the personal level. Three years ago, it was a rarity to see people walking out of our local grocery store with anything except white plastic bags provided by the store. Now our car has reusable mesh, canvas, and plastic bags in the trunk, which we regularly bring into the store with us. We recycle (our city makes it easy by providing curbside recycling, but at our prior home, I’d happily collect/sort our recyclables—paper, plastics, and glass—in the garage and make a recycling run about once a month to the collection facility). We set the temperature a bit higher in the summer, and lower in the winter; turn off running water; unplug electrical chargers/converters when not in use (those big "bricks" attached to electronics, as well as the smaller phone charger plugs, use electricity even when not charging—if it’s bigger than a three-prong plug, unplug it when not in use); and a dozen other things—all without affecting our lifestyle significantly. In my new neighborhood, I’ve encouraged those in our cul-de-sac to recycle more and we’ve been able to reduce our trash significantly. Will this make a difference on a global level? I don’t know, but it won’t be a negative impact, and that’s a step in the right direction.

Next month: Sustainability—the triple bottom line.

References
1. http://www.un.org/documents/ga/res/42/ares42-187.htm
"Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development" (A/RES/42/187)
United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs
2. http://climatecongress.ku.dk/newsroom/congress_key_messages
"Key Messages from the Congress"

 

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About The Author

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Mary F. McDonald