I can remember when the “S” stood for safety

Frank


Frank Brandauer

A friend at the end of our senior year of college once said, “Four years ago I couldn’t spell engineer… and now I are one.” Lately I have been hearing a similar comment only it goes like this, “Five years ago I’d never heard the word sustainability and now I’m in charge of it.”

Based on experiences at the recent NAEM EHS Management Forum, it seems to me that the current state of understanding in the EHS community about the “practice of sustainability” goes something like this:

10% – Get it, embrace it, know exactly what to do with it, and are racing ahead with it.

10% – Hate it, don’t want anything to do with it, and would prefer that you not bring it up, especially around their management

80% – Are trying to figure it out, wonder what to do about it and contemplate how it’s going to impact their work load and budget.

Not only are companies trying to figure out what sustainability means, they are trying to find the right process owner for it, and often that is EHS. Sustainability, unlike any other new initiative that I have experienced in my EHS career, requires more involvement and buy-in from more parts of the organization.

If you don’t believe that, just ask that EHS Manager that has been given the assignment of reducing their company’s GHG emissions, improving their packaging, eliminating old growth forest products, or for ensuring the working conditions of all it’s suppler employees in China. It takes a whole new set of management skills and relationships with senior management, procurement, investor relations, human resources, and most other functions.

As if that’s not challenging enough, we are supposed to lead this effort during a historic economic downturn. Seems like it’s not, “do more with less;” it feels more like, “do something completely new with nothing at all.”

While we’ve become competent managing the old S, the challenges that come with sustainability make reducing the injury rate look simple.

Time to start thinking and acting very differently.

About Frank Brandauer

Frank Brandauer is the Vice President of Regulatory Affairs at Therapak Corp. and a former member of the NAEM Board of Directors.

View all post by Frank Brandauer »

11 Comments
  1. Linda Childers

    November 19, 2008

    Obviously you get it Frank….enjoyed your comments….

  2. George Loder

    November 19, 2008

    Frank, I hope all is well.

    Good to see your face read some of the same words I’ve heard you say from time-to-time. As you point out, our expectations have shifted from saving our workers to literally saving the world.

    Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family.
    George Loder

  3. Sam Waldo

    November 19, 2008

    Well said.

    I do think, however, we need to approach the word “Sustainability” carefully. It means too many different things to our variable cast of stakeholders. Those stakeholders (most particularly, at least in my case, internal stakeholders) often translate it – incorrectly, I believe – as another EHS-driven program that will only cost money.

    As a component manufacturer, the number of different interpretations of sustainability seems to match up quite well with the number of customers we deal with. In order to find a common phraseology that resonates with our production operations, I’ve settled on “Product Stewardship” for internal and external communications. It may only be a semantic change, but it puts the focus squarely on our reason for being in business and gives our production folks a direct buy-in to the concept. (And it seems to be working.)

  4. Stephen Greene

    November 19, 2008

    Frank,

    You are on the mark. My first experience with sustainability was in writing an annual environmental report to the newly emerging sustainability standard. Polaroid had a long history of many years of environmental reporting, but now I was seaking information from folks I had never met though we worked for the same company!

    Product stewardship was a similar situation. Many new folks who were shocked that they had to change materials or designs to meet country specific restrictions. I hate to tell you how often I heard, “that is stupid, or they will never do that” As the corporate environmental manager I had to partner with design, purchasing, engineering, management and marketing to break the notion that complinace was limited to facility activites and change how products were designed and made.

    Stephen Greene

  5. Melinda Edwards

    November 19, 2008

    Your comments are right on the mark. I gave a talk on “Sustainability Trends in Business” last week at a summit meeting in our state directed toward making the state “more sustainable”. One major challenge is definitional. Expectations are evolving rapidly as to what is included in the “practice of sustainability”. Please keep the conversation going as this is an important topic.

  6. Gillian Foster

    November 19, 2008

    Your article is on the mark. I gave a presentation at a Corporate Social Responsibility conference on Sustainability Reporting a few weeks ago. One of the key points for discussion was how sustainability reporting/mangement requires integrating different areas of the business– and relying on experts in EHS, Production engineers, etc.

  7. Jim Leemann

    November 20, 2008

    Frank,

    Indeed, “Time to start thinking and acting very differently” has certainly arrived, but not because of so called “sustainability,” whatever that means. Although your column title is provocative, the “S” in EHS still stands for Safety. As with so many business fads of the past and present, EHS pros and managers continue to be the dumping ground of the latest fad that no one else wants to deal with or be responsible for out of fear their career’s might be damaged if they fail. For example, post-9/11 it was security and emergency response. Based on this historical trend, I might suggest a slightly different title of your column, “I CAN REMEMBER WHEN THERE WAS ONLY ONE ‘S’ IN EHS, NOW THERE ARE TWO OR THREE,” – Sustainability and Security.

    So much ink and pixels have been devoted to “sustainability” that it has become a cottage industry and we still do not have a legitimate definition for what it means. Frankly, this is probably a good thing due to the variety of industries and activities that are taking credit for “acts-of-sustainability.” For me, too many of these supposed “acts-of-sustainability” have more to do with reducing unsustainable acts versus increasing sustainable activities. Even the term “sustainability” has morphed in recent years to “social responsibility,” an even fuzzier rubric.

    As far as “thinking and acting very differently,” there is no question about it; in the past six months American enterprises have entered an overwhelming economic time, the likes of which none of us have ever experienced. Although your percentages of individuals who “get it” and “are trying to figure it out” seem high, I would postulate many of these individuals see “sustainability” as the lifeline for the future of their careers. Certainly, many have fallen into this current fad trap because their management has thrust it upon them. My concern centers on the fact that the time spent by EHS professionals on any one traditional EHS issue is continuously being stretched thinner and thinner to the point that EHS professionals are losing their fundamental expertise because they simply do not have the time to focus and maintain their EHS skills.

    Ultimately, the success of any “act-of-sustainability” will be measured by either its reduction in costs or its contribution to profits. Regardless of what any corporate business executive says about sustainability, she or he is measured by their business’ contribution to corporate profits. We are a long way from “acts-of-sustainability” making any significant profit contribution to the bottom-line. Even though we are in a deep economic recession, industry is more than likely going to be forced by regulation and social pressure to undertake “acts-of-sustainability” regardless of their economic benefit. In the long-term, this is a recipe for a total economic collapse. Companies may become “Green,” but the green won’t have any faces of presidents.

    There is no doubt, EHS professionals are in difficult times, but hopefully they will not be “totally” swept up by the “acts-of-sustainability” wave at the expense of traditional EHS arenas. With respect to the “S” in EHS, remember no American enterprise will become sustainable if its employees are going home with bloody hands in their pockets.

  8. Mario

    November 21, 2008

    Well I agree with everyone, your comments are right on the money and the feeling is mutual. Added to all that, we may want to throw in the development of Crisis Management & Emergency Preparedness Plan, which yes, normally an EHS function should prepare such a plan for crises and emergencies having an impact to EHS, only that we are now seen as the leaders to plan it for all other functions, such as IT, Operations, Supply Chain, HR, et al. In other words, we in EHS are “da man”.

  9. Dennis Cornish

    November 24, 2008

    For the last number of years, as Director of Environmental Services, I have been pointing towards sustainability and the team effort that it will entail to get us there. I am still pointing, there is still no real team as there is no real interest in signing up for “something that will cost money and we don’t want to get involved in”. We’re in the second 10% grouping that you mention.

  10. David Williams

    December 1, 2008

    Very good string of thoughts here. On the definition front I saw a very similar thing happen early in my career – waste minimization became pollution prevention and then P2 continued to morph into sustainability (my assertion). There was a lot of energetic dialogue around what waste minimization meant, what P2 meant, etc. The thinking around definitions was good and maybe required when talking about the subject in a broad context – e.g., at the government policy level. My experience though was that defining the terms for use internal to my company was the key for then driving understanding and ultimately action. We acknowledged the definitions in the broader context just to demonstrate that we understood what was going on in the world outside our walls, but for our purposes of creating a strategic direction and then acting against it we had clearly defined terms for our use. Probably the same deal with sustainability. In a way what you call it doesn’t much matter – what matters is moving in a positive direction.

  11. Frank Brandauer

    December 10, 2008

    A very very interesting string of thoughts. I would be very interested in hearing more from those who work in organizations that are in the lower 60% of the curve. One of my concerns is the growing divide between the leading and the lagging companies. What do you think will get traction for this group? Have you seen anything that works?

Leave your comment