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In closing our series on sustainable business practices, I felt it wouldn’t be conclusive without a look into the triple bottom line. You can refer to these three ket points as Socially Responsiblity, Environmental Soundness, and Economic Viability or simply: People, Planet, and Profit. These three pillars of business effort are the core of what makes a business sustainable.

Impacts to people are huge for businesses. It starts with its employees at number one, then the people who live near its operations, the people who purchase their goods or services, the people who sell them goods and services, the people who come into contact with any byproducts from their goods or services, the people who are impacted by any changes their operations cause to the environment, etc.

Protecting our planet may be regulated by local municipalities, states and the U.S. EPA – but policing actions are not the same as preventing damage. Consider the environmental hierarchy: reduce, reduce, and recycle. Recycling has the lowest benefit. Reducing wastes and impacts – by not creating them at all – has the most far reaching effect.

Profit is not a four letter word. Profit is a very good thing for the growth of our economy and the improvement of job markets. And it is a proven fact that doing the right thing for our environment can also be lucrative for business. For example, reducing energy usage reduces costs which can drop straight to the bottom line. Innovations in existing products and the development of new products and services to enter the marketplace with an added green benefit or selling point also contribute to increased profitability.

At Heritage, we added a fourth pillar in our sustainable efforts – patrons. Our Patrons are the consumers, people and businesses who engage with our services. Going full circle to assure we consider the ripple effect of all our actions, we believe it is “material” for our business to focus on impacts to our patrons.

If you do your sustainability homework on many other large businesses, you will see that many adjust their focus points as well to complement their business. But no matter what you call them, principles of the triple bottom line are covered.

The upcoming 2013 GRI Global Conference on Sustainability and Reporting has the theme of “Information – Integration – Innovation.” Will this be the set of buzz words for sustainability in the years to come? Freely given information is certainly easier to understand than making sense of company transparency. To me, Integration in this context means making sustainability a part of every aspect of your business – management, employee, and consumer engagement. And again Innovation: seeking new ideas and redesigned old ideas that will change our impacts on the world.

If I’m right about this new wave of understanding, remember you read it here first. 

In today’s technology biased world, people readily search the internet from home, from work, or on the go from their cell phone for answers to all of life’s questions. But do you question the backstory of the answers you find before making a buying decision? 

It feels great to make the healthy decision to pick fresh fruit for a snack. But do you know if the fruit you select is grown and transported locally, from another state, or another country?

Do you select bottled water simply on cost; or do you pay any attention to where it was bottled, how much packaging surrounds the bottles or if the bottle itself has been light weighted to use less plastic? 

Considering there are no mandated sustainability labels for products and services today, what should you question and what should you look for when you do your sustainable homework to check out a business? If you are checking out the sustainability practices of a business from their corporate web-site, look for these major components:

      • Transparency
      • Materiality
      • Reporting
      • Innovation

Transparency: Businesses that wish to be sustainable make a serious commitment to choices that impact more factors than just profit. They commit to noble actions to protect future generations. Companies that want to prove their sustainability commit to being “transparent” in their business actions. This doesn’t mean that private companies have to disclose detailed financials or that any business would openly share trade secrets or intellectual property. It does mean they will publically share their goals and actions (positive and negative) that relate to their impact on our earth.

Materiality: When a business decides it is time to publically talk about their sustainability efforts, they have many decisions to make. But all of those decisions should come back to “material” (physical, relevant) business impacts. For example, a business that manufactures a car is responsible for the complete life cycle of their product from raw material to end of life destruction. All of the impacts to employees and land from the physical manufacture of each part and the assembly of the car, to the impacts of emissions from fossil fuels needed to operate the vehicle and safety of passengers are included in that life cycle and should be addressed by the business in their sustainability efforts.

Reporting:  There are no laws that require businesses to report their sustainability efforts. And there are hundreds of voluntary programs a business can choose – or completely do their own thing (even it that is nothing). The most popular are the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) and the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP). The impetus to start reporting is to satisfy the consumers who may spend their money on your product or service and the financial investment community (including stockholders) that may well help a business to expand and grow. Reporting needs to be timely, include a baseline for comparing current activities, include improvement goals and share the positive and negative aspects of their most recent efforts.

Innovation: Some consumers wait for new technologies to become mainstream and comparably priced to its predecessor before buying something new. But, aren’t we all impressed with those technology companies that are always on the cutting edge? Who are the companies that are on the cutting edge with new green products or improved products? Have you paid any attention to the changes in laundry detergent – that could be a blog of its own! How do you pick the right light bulb, dishwasher, or thermostat? As with buying a hybrid or electric car, you need to compare way more than the sticker price in your decision process.

When you hear the word “sustainability” what do you think? Most people think “green” or “protecting our earth.” On a personal level though, it comes down how these thoughts are turned into the actions we take at home, at play, and at work. Do you shut off the lights when you leave a room? Do you pay attention to lawn watering bans in the summertime? Are you both recycling and looking for ways to reduce?

You also react to the obstacles business puts in front of you – layers of packaging for food products (a bag inside a box), understanding the chemical composition of products (VOCs in paint), and trying to guess if the latest marketing tactic is real or green washing. How you react to these obstacles is how you embrace your sustainable power!

It is the consumer who decides if a product or service is successful – simply by choosing to buy or walk on by… Do you consider the full impact in your buying decisions? For example, did you know that the transportation and distribution of some products can represent a larger carbon footprint than the manufacture and end of life disposition? That slogan “think global, buy local” has real merit. Yet, some people will still pay more money for specialty water from a tropical island – a product that is transported thousands of miles by boat, truck, and car before it makes it to your refrigerator. Have you considered these high carbon emitting steps it must go through before you can have a cool refreshing drink to carry with you? Will you still choose that option or will you purchase a filter for your tap and some reusable containers? Much of sustainability truly is your decision.

The power is truly yours; you decide what to buy and perhaps where to invest. The public awakening to sustainable business practices is beginning to level the playing field. Just as products become obsolete and new businesses grow rapidly due to new technology development, similar business decline and growth opportunities are happening as consumers use their sustainable buying power. The businesses that are engaging in sustainable practices are moving up while those that don’t remain stagnant or fall behind. Think about it; what products do you choose? What companies do you support or avoid?

People in this newly emerging sustainability field are working to standardize the calculation and publication of product LCAs (life cycle analysis) and carbon labels, similar to nutrition information you see now, may soon show up on the products you use. But until those are standard practice, what options do you have to educate yourself today? Of course, after “use your common sense,” the next answer is the Internet. Many businesses now report all of their sustainable efforts on-line and in annual reports. Just remember, it is a voluntary practice, so if you can’t find sustainability prominently shared on a business web-site… that tells you something as well.