As I get older, the memories seem harder to come by, but I still remember very vividly attending what I think was the second EHS Management Forum in San Diego. Who could forget cocktails by the bay watching the sun go down? What was really memorable, though, was the information we shared, the ideas we generated and relationships we formed over those three days. It has only gotten better over the last 20 years. But much has changed.
For the better, environmental management is now more strategic and more visible in the organization. I remember my first meeting with the Chief Executive Officer — 20 years after I started with the company. We now meet with the Board of Directors annually.
I am also impressed with the quality of the younger environmental professionals that I work with and those that I interact with through NAEM. They are enthusiastic, dedicated and want to make a difference. They are smart, they have a global view and good business sense. I have no doubt they will continue to make improvements in the global environment.
Unfortunately, with the added visibility comes more stress and pressure to perform. Even as government enforcement has increased over the years, so too has the business pressure to do more with less. More challenging still, is that there are fewer black-and-white issues and more with shades of gray. We are not doing things because the government requires it, but because our shareholders expect it, NGOs are demanding it or the public thinks we should. But what is the impact on the bottom line? Sustainability provides an opportunity to be even more integrated with business processes and to become more strategic. But that requires environmental professionals to be more cognizant of business issues and to provide environmental leadership tempered by business reality.
As I look back, I am a little disappointed in my generation, despite the progress we’ve made. Yes, the environmental movement took hold and blossomed during our tenure, and the environment in the U.S. is cleaner today than it has been possibly since before the turn of the century. However, the choices still seemed to be framed as “black hats versus white hats” and many in the public believe the environment is dirtier than ever.
Having spent more than 35 years toiling for “big business” it is rather disheartening that there is little or no credit for everything business has accomplished through the years. Still, I’m an optimist. I think the environmental profession can continue to drive progress if we can develop a more nuanced understanding of environmental issues. What do you think?
How can we help people understand the true state of the environment? How can we better frame the environmental problems that do exist to develop better solutions? How can we educate the public better on environmental issues? And how do I get rid of this black hat?