The Role of the Environmental Manager in the Age of Sustainability

Carol Singer Neuvelt

What often gets lost in the buzz and excitement around corporate sustainability is that at a certain point, someone has to sit down and figure out how to turn this big idea into a reality. For the past thirty years, that person has been the environmental manager.

Corporate environmental managers have come a long way from the early days, when they were the go-to guys (and gals) for scrubbers and filters, and the lone advocates for environmental process changes.

But in the ‘Age of Sustainability’, when everyone from shareholders to public relations departments are talking about going green, some EHS managers are wondering if their role within a company still has value.

I believe that it does and that we need it now more than ever.

In addition to their technical knowledge and innovative problem-solving skills, environmental managers also have decades of knowledge about how to translate scientific objectives into corporate policies and programs that advance environmental stewardship. And that’s a cool thing.

With the advent of sustainability, the community of practitioners thinking about environmental impact has expanded to include product designers, research and development departments and plant managers. But the next step is for a company to develop actual programs with measurable results and to evaluate whether those initiatives can actually advance sustainability within the framework of their business.

That’s why you still need environmental managers.

When you ask companies about their initiatives aimed at sustainability, the majority remain the responsibility of the environmental manager. What chemicals have least long-term risk? Should we develop an on-site solar project or purchase renewable energy from an outside source? How do we reduce our solid waste? What is the inherent water footprint of our products?

As sustainability continues to evolve, we will still need people who are focused on creative, engineering-driven solutions to today’s corporate environmental challenges. The same people and skills that were required yesterday, therefore, will drive corporate stewardship tomorrow and into the future. On the eve of the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, I believe it’s time for us to acknowledge the progress we have made and to more importantly recognize the ones who helped get us this far.

About Carol Singer Neuvelt

Carol Singer Neuvelt is Executive Director of NAEM. Her long-term perspective and insights into corporate EHS and sustainability best practices also have been featured in a variety of publications, including The Chicago Tribune, the Bureau of National Affairs, Environmental Leader, the National Safety Council’s Safety+Health magazine and Sustainable Life Media. She is the former Deputy Director for the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Office of Public Liaison, where she managed the agency’s interaction with external stakeholders. Follow her on Twitter at @carol_neuvelt.

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7 Comments
  1. Zack Mansdorf

    April 19, 2010

    Carol:

    Sustainability and the increasing interest in this aspect in the USA are a great boon to the EHS professional. While commonly managed by non-technical managers (commonly external relations or communications in many companies), they must absolutely rely on and involve the EHS professional. Environment is only one leg of the three legged stool, but the one most associated with Sustainability by the Public. Hence, in my opinion, it represents great opportunities for the EHS professional.

    On the progress aspect of your comments, one only has to look at the explosive growth in reporting (and the results) to see the tremendous progress that is being made in conservation and reducing environmental footprints. Personally, I think this is really a good news story.

  2. DS Dumond

    April 19, 2010

    I concur that in the Age of Susttainability, the corporate/facility environmental manager has a highly critical/central role. They have been at the for-front in the management, control and elimination of site/corporate environmental vulnerabilities for years. Who better to be a significant team member in furthering Sustainability. They have been highly ¨in tune¨ with regulatory requirements, available technologies, waste elimination/source reduction techniques, environmental foot-print issues…for years. The board-room is now focused on Sustainability as a result of branding concerns, ISO…and should insure that the environmental manager is a key member of the Sustainability Initiative.

  3. There are of course companies that are much in need of the knowledge that a seasoned environmental/safety professional offers, but attempt to muddle through without. It is quite possible that they will get by for the most part. But for better or for worse, the regulatory world is becoming increasingly complex all the time. It is difficult at times even for companies with appropriate resources in place to avoid the pitfalls (yes, even a Du Pont gets tangled up in fines). Failure can be very painful. Yes, we have made good progress. But there is a long way to go. We are all still quite challenged to undertake what is possible to advance a healthier world.

  4. Kathleen Hurley

    April 20, 2010

    Great post. I like the title “Environmental Manager” — it suits the role of EH&S. Well done!

  5. Dave Crowley

    April 27, 2010

    Carol – I whole heartedly agree. Sustainability, energy management, call is green or anything else you want – – I think it it is a tremendous opportunity for any EHS professional.

    I am a career dedicated EHS professional that works in the food processing industry.

    Sustainability is a term that has a “catch phrase” connotation to it – one that is in vogue lately, especially seeing increased interest in climate change, etc. The true focus is exactly as you have described – control waste, reduce it by identifying efficiencies. Yes, sustainability is a movement that is clearly underway in my world…I work in the dairy processing business and the dairy industry is mustering up various teams and projects to reduce their carbon footprint, GHGs, etc. One can use this term as described – – it is a subject that involves the traditional TQM/TQA techniques plus use the know how of modern day (1) energy management techniques, (2) water conservation and (2) recycling…best described as the “three legged stool” in sustainability.

    In the dairy world…sustainability means providing consumers with the nutritious dairy products they want in a way that makes the industry, people and the earth economically,
    environmentally and socially better – now and for future generations.

    Sustainability can be boiled down to common sense from a business standpoint. Reduce energy consumption by being as efficient as you can. Reduce water use. Carbon footprint? Heck, how about a creating a water footprint! Recycle, reuse, etc…we’ll see more of this as time goes on.

    I am one of many other EHS professionals that have been tapped to contribute to the sustainability movement. I was asked to take on responsibilities about two years ago. I have used similar skills that I have used in my safety and environmental duties…collaborating with key staff, using problems solving skills, passionately driving for results and continuous improvement and issuing communications (emails, newsletter articles, etc.) about those results.

    I know that EHS pros in the pharmaceutical industry have also gotten drawn into sustainability and I predict that EHS professionals in other industries will see doors open up to this opportunity down the road.

    If you live in the US, take a look at what energy costs and fuel costs look like in the EU. Sustainability will become more and more, a bigger concern as time goes on. I say, contribute to this movement in a positive way. Get on the bandwagon and participate where ever you consider “your world”. As Zack already stated, the sustainability movement it is a great boon (boom?)to the traditional EHS support services we’ve offered our customers in the past…THE TIME IS NOW!

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