Seminar Examines New Trends in Corporate Sustainability

September 19, 2012

Ellie Peters (BA, ’13), 2012 Nicholas School Undergraduate Communications Intern

DURHAM, NC-- Jay Golden, associate professor of the practice for sustainable systems analysis, spoke to a group of Nicholas School of the Environment alumni about the future of corporate sustainability on Friday, September 14th.

His presentation was part of “Back to School,” a new series of in-person and online opportunities for alums to learn from some of the school’s leading faculty experts about the latest environmental research, policy, trends, and tools. 

According to Golden, who also serves as director of the Duke Center for Sustainability and Commerce at the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, the drive for increased corporate sustainability in recent years is being fueled, in large part, by two types of forces.  

The first type, he explained, are “socio-metabolic drivers” linked to rapid urbanization and population growth.  Much as physical activity increases an individual’s metabolism and causes his body to burn more calories, socio-metabolic drivers cause us, as a species, to use more resources.  
The problem, Golden said, is that even as demand for Earth’s limited resources increases, we continue to waste them.  

He provided the example of British retailer Marks & Spencer, which insists that its in-store sandwich makers throw out the first two slices on either end of every loaf of bread they use.  This practice results in 13,000 slices of bread being thrown out daily – even as an estimated one billion people in the world go hungry. 

Bottom-Line Benefits
Focusing on increased sustainability would help reduce this waste, and could increase public goodwill toward the retailer and ultimately help boost its profits.   More and more, Golden said, companies are recognizing the value in this type of approach.  

Increased corporation resourcefulness and frugality could also help reduce our reliance on foreign sources for key manufacturing materials, he suggested. In many cases, solutions might exist right under our noses.

The United States currently imports 95 percent of the rare earth materials used in manufacturing from China.  Golden noted that rather than import such a high percentage of these materials, we could turn to an overlooked domestic source – landfills – to meet our needs.   High-grade ores are recoverable from personal computers and iPads, tens of thousands of which are thrown away in the United States each year.  

These discards could become a gold mine for the company that recognizes the opportunity and makes it a priority to buy old electronics from landfills and extract and recycle their valuable rare-earth components.   

Government Drivers
As big cities continue to get bigger and their populations need more resources, governments are starting to realize that they need to take action to spur corporate and social sustainability.  

One initiative now being used to achieve this is President Barack Obama’s mandate, issued in 2009, that required U.S. agencies to certify that 95 percent of contracted products and services are bio-based, energy-efficient, water-efficient, non-ozone-depleting, nontoxic or otherwise environmentally friendly.

In February of this year, Obama expanded that mandate to increase by 50 percent the number of products that are classified as bio-based and qualify for “bio-preferred” federal procurement standards.

Additionally, in January 2013, the founders of Wiki plan to launch a database with extensive information providing life-cycle assessments of the sustainability of products manufactured in the United States.  The database will determine a sustainability rating that companies can use as a marketing technique. 

“A standardized sustainability label for products is the ultimate goal,” said Golden. 

Sustainability ratings listed on the label would force companies to take a closer look at their supply chain.   One rating would evaluate the eco-friendly practices of the manufacturer’s suppliers, and the suppliers’ suppliers.  Until now, many companies have failed to look as far back as the original supplier of their materials, Golden explained. 

Mattel, for instance, uses packaging materials that come from Indonesian rainforest fibers.  The company – famous worldwide for its Barbie and Ken dolls and other toys – either chose not to disclose the original source, or didn’t know it.  But using forensics, Greenpeace was able to identify the fiber and trace it back to Asia Pulp and Paper, a company that has been widely cited as one of the biggest destroyers of the Indonesian rainforest.  

To increase public awareness of this “supplier’s supplier” problem, Greenpeace has produced a YouTube video and posters saying that Ken dumped Barbie because she was killing endangered Sumatran tigers and orangutans.   

Sharing this type of information with the public through a standardized sustainability label would be a better solution, Golden emphasized, because it would encourage corporations like Mattel to proactively solve supply- chain problems before they became YouTube fodder.