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Thursday, June 9, 2011

Sustainability: Where to Start

by K. Beth O'Donnell (Boston)

For those of you aware of the increasingly loud buzz of sustainability-related activity but not quite sure how it applies to you and/or where to start, here are a few ideas.

We are all harnessing and paying for natural resources, such as oil, gas and water, as vital inputs in our businesses. In fact, without these ingredients our endeavors would abruptly cease. Therefore, our bottom lines are impacted as the prices of these inputs gyrate and our dependence remains constant. Sustainability activity is also focused on these ingredients since the extraction, processing, transport and use of natural resources impact our environment. A focus on sustainability, then, can reduce dependence on natural resources and also associated business costs and risk.

Where to Start

I suggest an incremental approach.

1. Scope: Examine the scope of your company's use of natural resources - non-renewable energy, metals, wood, water, paper, etc. In the real estate business, we use energy, wood, metals and paper products intensively in our administration, operating and construction activities. Some of our clients are heavily dependent on water in their industrial processes.

2. Measure: Document your company's current usage for the resources identified above. This is your baseline. You might ask, for example: How much paper product does my company use in a year? How much electricity did we consume over the same 12-month period?

3. Compare or Benchmark: Understand how your usage compares to that of your peers. Seek industry resources to guide you. In the real estate industry, the Greenprint Carbon Index and the 2003 Commercial Buildings Energy Consumption Survey provide two benchmarking tools.

4. Goals: Consider ways you can simultaneously reduce your usage of natural resources and, hence, costs, cost-fluctuation exposure and environmental impact.

Sounds simple, right? Unfortunately, creating a thoughtful and effective sustainability plan will be challenging. It will take focus and execution. However, whether for competitive necessity or competitive advantage, many companies are discovering that the rewards substantially outweigh the effort.

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