The Evolving Field of Sustainable Businesses

Posted by Lauren Hertel on Monday, June 17 2013


Editor's Note: The following interview was originally published on TriplePundit.com in April 2013.  Tim was also recently featured on The Nature of Business podcast discussing his work in building environmental and social integrity into products, brands, and businesses.  For more information about Tim's work and recent press about, please visit his Switzer profile.

By Bart King

New scientific knowledge combined with increasing demand for more responsible products and services are the main drivers of change in the field of sustainability, according to Tim Greiner, Managing Partner and Co-founder of sustainability consulting firm Pure Strategies.

The firm marks its 15-year anniversary this month, and I spoke with Greiner about the practitioner’s evolving role as businesses move from a narrow focus on improving the processes within their four walls, to broader, industry-wide transformations.

Bart King: How have the hot-button issues in sustainability changed since you and co-founder Bob Kerr started Pure Strategies 15 years ago?

Tim Greiner: Fifteen years ago, companies were being pressed to clean up their factory emissions. New regulatory requirements forced a focus on managing and disposing of hazardous waste, and associated cost and liability issues were getting management’s attention. The Clean Air Act also was placing constraints on business expansion, and this paved the way for new conversations about how companies could change their materials and operations.

At the time, we did a lot of plant walk-throughs, looking for opportunities. It was clear that workers could be harmed by the chemicals in use, and the existing solution was to give them more protective gear. We didn’t buy that approach. Instead, we pushed plant managers to think about substituting different materials—to design away from hazardous chemicals using green chemistry. One very successful approach was to put together teams of workers to find better solutions. This approach caught on and we saw whole industries shifting from end-of-pipe management to preventing pollution in the first place.

BK: What is the focus today?

TG: With companies recognizing that 80-90 percent of the environmental impact occurs in the supply chain—the focus has moved beyond the four walls of the factory to leverage opportunities in the supply chain and in product innovation. Problems such as carbon, water scarcity and biodiversity have become more global than ever before. As Thomas Friedman says, “the world is flat.” We live in an era where consumers, NGOs, stakeholders, and competitors can uncover previously opaque details about a company’s operations, supply chain and sourcing practices. One thing that has been constant over the last decade and a half is the flow of capital to countries with less stringent environmental and worker safeguards.

BK: How have the methods and tools changed in the field over the past 15 years?

TG: The field has really progressed in three areas. First, we’ve gotten much better about identifying the really big issues we need to focus on – from biodiversity, to climate change and water scarcity, and land use. We’ve also gotten much smarter in turning these insights into corporate priorities. More companies are incorporating standards such as the WBCSD/WRI protocol on greenhouse gas reporting and commodity standards like FSC and RSPO for forest products and palm oil. Thirdly, we are starting to make progress on how we manage chemicals in products and in supply chains. Companies are embracing an alternatives assessment approach to hazardous materials. NGOs like Clean Production Action and U.S. EPA’s Design for the Environment are leading the policy and science innovation in this area. 

BK: How has the concept of what is cutting edge changed?

TG: Carbon footprints are a great example. We did our first one with Stonyfield back in 1999. At the time, footprinting standards were just emerging, so we had no choice but to pioneer a cradle-to-grave estimate based on a review of available data. For Stonyfield, it was the first time they had a comprehensive perspective on the impacts in their supply chain versus facilities, and it was eye-opening. Today it’s well-known that the majority of impacts occur in the supply chain, and that is where we’re engaged with companies like Annie’s Homegrown, assessing climate impacts deep in the value chain.

BK: How have client needs changed?

TG: Our clients need much more sophisticated data management support than ever before. The number of critical metrics they track has increased dramatically. Leveraging these metrics to address risk, resilience and cost in the supply chain poses significant data management challenges. Another shift has been the realization that companies can’t go it alone. They need to collaborate—maybe even with competitors—to move their own business and their entire industry forward. The Sustainability Consortium and the Sustainable Apparel Coalition are great examples of this melding of “compete” and “collaborate.”

BK: How can a practitioner best serve a company’s sustainability journey?

TG: Companies need sustainability professionals that are partners in understanding their business, their data, their products and supply chain. I’ve found that every company’s sustainability program goes through an arc, and our role is to accelerate that journey. Early on, we may look for opportunities in the facility and the company’s own operations. Then we may engage the suppliers and energize the innovation pipeline. Eventually, we help companies work with the larger systems they are part of and collaborate to transform entire industries and supply chains, such as the work we are currently doing with Walmart and The Sustainability Consortium.

BK: What are the major sustainability challenges facing business?

TG: With a rapidly growing population, water will certainly be a big issue in the future. We also haven’t thought through what changes in climate mean for the huge sectors of the economy whose supply chains are based on the way climate used to be. As a society, we’re going to have to deal with the difficult topic of consumption. Very few companies—Patagonia and Interface being notable exceptions—are thinking about this in any kind of meaningful way. We’re going to have to move away from the business models like Apple’s toward a more circular economy where product stewardship—by regulation or not—is integral to business model.

BK: Are you optimistic about the future and our ability to solve the field’s many challenges?

TG: Our challenges are so great. And let’s face it, business and government leaders haven’t been willing to move very quickly on so many key issues. It’s going to take a concerted public movement to get change at the scale we need. Still, I’m an optimist at heart. Recent college graduates are keenly interested in sustainability. I see this in engineering, the sciences, business, education, and many other disciplines. I’m hopeful this new workforce, coupled with a large-scale social movement like that being led by Bill McKibben and the folks at 350.org, can drive the change we need.

Tim Greiner is co-founder and Managing Director of Pure Strategies, specializing in building environmental and social integrity into products, brands, and businesses. Mr. Greiner consults with domestic and overseas manufacturers, socially responsible business, and environmental advocacy groups.

Bart King is the principal of Cleantech Communications. He works with Pure Strategies and other organizations in the emerging green economy to tell their stories to a broader audience.

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