A Look Back at the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Mike McGuire

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?

 

About Mike McGuire

Mike McGuire is Manager of Global Environmental Strategy for Deere & Co., where he is responsible for sustainability strategy development, environmental assurance, external reporting and supply management environmental assurance. He served as the President of the NAEM Board of Directors from 2003-2004.

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2 Comments
  1. Rick Lebherz

    March 27, 2012

    Mike,
    Thanks for the thoughts. It’s neat to look back every now and then on where we are now versus the past. It gets so easy to get caught up looking forward and juggling everything that we don’t always take the time to reflect.

    I think the Black Hat White Hat question is a good one. IMHO I don’t think the average citizen is aware of the level of detail and accountability EHS programs have associated with them, nor the impact they have on total operations. And when the EHS world is noticed its usually not to say great job but rather what happened here. I wonder how much of that public perception is grounded in reality vs the media machines out there that drive their agendas through them.
    Maybe companies could figure out where things would be without programs in place.. Speculative I know but could be interesting.

    One thought I’ve had is that perhaps on the whole, there could be more insights into the true environmental workings and program responsibilities vs the typical green washings companies put out through marketing. I think many people are starting to become skeptical of sustainability in general (I am not dismissing the value of it at all) because it is thrown around and used in a lot ways right now. In fact the various standards are having a hard time defining themselves.
    Also, you mentioned a huge piece I see missing in many companies, tying the why and who cares back into the programs in the board meetings from a business perspective. It seems like much of the value and insights EHS can bring to the table here is not always highlighted. The messaging seems to be more targeted to the environmental impacts (or reduction of) which is important, but that only appeals to people already on the bus. If you want to add more people to the cause you have to speak to their world.

    Looking forward at aspects like wastes and byproducts converted into energy for reuse, more accurate production related information from new variables, and other cost savings ideas will be things to help, but its folks like you and the other managers and day to day people that continue to drive the industry forward.

    Basically, keep doing what you’re doing, and know we are all in this together.

  2. Stephen Evanoff

    March 29, 2012

    Mike:

    Thanks for a clear-eyed reflection on how far the EHS function has come within businesss/industry and what business/industry has accomplished in the past several decades.

    The comment in your blog, “it is rather disheartening that there is little or no credit for everything business has accomplished through the years” takes me back to a conversation I had with my mentor 20 years ago. He was prescient in observing that the rapid rate of progress made between 1970 and the early 1990s in reducing pollution and improving the environment in North America was not likely to be sustained, because future improvements would require fundamental changes in the way we all live, rather than continuing to place the burden primarily on business/industry. This seems to have been borne out by the events of the last two decades. Energy is a good example. Business and industry have continued making steady improvements in energy efficiency, but this has not been the case for society overall. Yes, business and industry’s accomplishments tend to be taken for granted today and the level of effort to achieve these improvements tends to be underestimated by the general public. But, as another mentor reminded a group of us during that period of dramatic improvement, leadership is its own reward.

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