Ian Portsmouth: Welcome to the Business Coach Podcast, an advice-oriented series that tackles the top issues and opportunities facing Canada’s small businesses. I’m your host, Ian Portsmouth, the editor of Profit Magazine, and we’ve developed this podcast in cooperation with BMO, Bank of Montreal.
What is sustainability? According to a Canadian Sustainability Specialist, Robert Spence, it’s a corporate commitment to keeping our planet habitable while confronting growing populations and environmental stress and making money in the process. It sounds like a tall order, which is why I’ve asked Robert Spence to join me for this episode of the Business Coach Podcast. For the past 28 years Robert has been a Bay Street lawyer working with business managers to solve their problems. He also has a Master’s degree in environmental studies and is a lead, accredited professional. He has just published two books, “The Sustainability Officer’s Handbook,” and “Seven Perspectives on Sustainability.” Robert, welcome to the Business Coach Podcast.
Robert Spence: Hello. How are you?
Ian Portsmouth: Great, thanks. So your new book is “The Sustainability Officer’s Handbook.” What is the purpose of a sustainability officer?
Robert Spence: A sustainability officer’s really the manager in any company whose role is to keep an eye on the triple bottom lines: The need to make a profit, obviously, and the need to respect nature while we’re doing it and the need to respect the community that’s supporting us while we do it. So looking at management in this way is really a view to creating a company that’s more likely to prosper than one that doesn’t.
Ian Portsmouth: It used to be that companies were engaged in environmentally friendly business practices and now we talk about sustainable business practices. Has this been an accidental transition in language? Or is there some sort of reason behind it?
Robert Spence: Well, I think sustainability, it obviously encompasses environmental friendliness, but it’s really a bigger idea. When we used to talk about environmentally friendly we tended to mean that the corporation carried on with its business as normal but with less pollution, really, to get to the bottom line, you know, less pollution going up the chimney that would cause acid rain, less pollution going down the sewer that would pollute lakes or rivers. Sustainability encompasses that. You can’t be sustainable without being environmentally friendly, but sustainability really is, I guess it’s bigger because it’s trying to respect the whole of ecosystems. The things that support us, give us fresh air, fresh water, fresh soil. So respect all of that and the whole working of the ecosystem, not just the pollution aspect. You know, so it means, for example, how do we get energy and where do we get it from? And how do we get raw materials and where do they come from? This really isn’t pollution so much as seeing how the impact we’re making on our ecosystem.
Ian Portsmouth: So, tell me Robert, a lot of people are cynical about this. What are the benefits of being a more sustainable business? Certainly there must be some costs attached to this and of course we’re in a recession and, perhaps, this isn’t the right time to become more sustainable.
Robert Spence: The better way of looking at it is it’s a critical time to become sustainable because the way we’re carrying on business as usual, we’re building up problems for ourselves, and the benefit is really dealing with the problems that scientists are telling us about, climate change, and that if we keep putting fossil fuels in the air that, you know, it’s going to be a serious problem for society down the road, and down the road may be as little as 10, 15, 20 years, and if we degrade ecosystems it’s going to stop us having the benefits we’ve got now. And, so, the benefit is really that we can carry on with our lifestyle, we can carry on earning money and getting what we want, and we can do it in a way that doesn’t degrade the ecosystems and doesn’t change our climate, or at least doesn’t change it to the extent that it will change if we don’t change our ways now.
Ian Portsmouth: Now, all of that’s fine and dandy if all of my competitors were to go along with our sustainability efforts, but I, as an entrepreneur, might think that I’m alone and that if I try to become more sustainable I’m going to lose some sort of competitive advantage or profitability related to my competitors. So are there some more immediate benefits to becoming sustainable?
Robert Spence: There’s no doubt that people can save money in the short run. I mean sustainability, by virtue of its name alone, is interested in the long run, too, but even in the short run the studies have shown that saving energy, better insulation, putting building sensors in your building to turn off lights, turn off air conditioning, turn off heating when it’s not needed, using less materials, you know, if you’re making some product, just saving materials, all of these things assist in environmental sustainability and they have very short payback terms. You know, sustainability in some ways is just another way of saying, you know, very high efficiency, high performance. And people who think that they have to pay some money sometimes to get high performance, there are some upfront costs; many of them pay off very quickly. Many of them take longer. I mean there’s no point beating around the bush. Some are long-term investments, but if you’re in business for the long run you need to make those sorts of investments, too, and it’s just getting the balance right. Short term, long term, what do I need to do now? You know, what’s better for the longer run and balancing between the two?
Ian Portsmouth: Now we’ve all heard of the concept of green washing, so do words like sustainable, green, eco friendly still pack a lot of punch as marketing tools?
Robert Spence: Well, sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t. You know, green washing is like brain washing. It’s making you think something’s good when it’s really not. It’s just a word or misleading you. And I think, you know, in this area, like all areas, you need to have some scepticism. You need to hear what business is telling you. You need to see if what they say corresponds to what they actually do, and I’m all in favour of people being sceptical and asking that question. And the ones who do perform the way they say they’re performing, they’re the ones that are going to do well. But that’s another way of saying that they’re the ones that are always going to do well because you match up with what you tell your customers you can do and you show them you’re doing it.
Ian Portsmouth: So, finally Robert in the little time we have left, what are some of the key steps to becoming more sustainable in your business?
Robert Spence: Well, from an environmental point of view, it’s really becoming more efficient in the use of energy and materials. Some people talk about a factor ten economy that we need to get what we want ten times more efficiently – ten times less energy, ten times fewer materials – and still give people what they want. And I shouldn’t overlook that from a social sustainability it means being open with customers, honest with your claims, honest with your performance specifications and, you know, economically, sustainability means making a profit and so when you put them all together you can see that the benefit is by keeping your eye firmly on all three areas and becoming a very high-performance company in all three areas.
Ian Portsmouth: And what will entrepreneurs find in your book, and where can they get it?
Robert Spence: What they’ll find is checklists of things to think about. It’s not the sort of book that tries to reorganize businesses or give them organizational charts. It lays out in very simple terms, here’s about energy. Here’s what you can think of: Your insulation, your building sensors. Here’s for materials: Think about this; think about using renewable inputs; think about making products that have recyclable parts when they’re finished with it at the end. So a person who buys it will see these checklists and just have his or her mind drawn to all of the different things that they can think about when they’re trying to make their business prosper. And in terms of where they can get it, they can go to my website at www.sustainabilitymanagement.ca and order it from there. It’s just like Amazon. You just click on and it’s yours.
Ian Portsmouth: Terrific, Robert, thanks for joining the Business Coach Podcast.
Robert Spence: Thank you, Ian.
Ian Portsmouth: Robert Spence is the Toronto-based author of “The Sustainability Officer’s Handbook,” and its companion tome, “Seven Perspectives on Sustainability.”
That’s it for another episode of the Business Coach Podcast. Be sure to check out other episodes, which you can download from BMO.com, profitguide.com and iTunes. If you have any comments or suggestions about the podcast, then please send them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Until next time, I’m Ian Portsmouth, the editor of Profit Magazine, wishing you continued success.