State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Transforming Organizations with Sustainability Management

From left: Steve Cohen, James Ossman, Curtis Probst, Celine Ruben-Salama, Zachary Suttile
From left: Steve Cohen, James Ossman, Curtis Probst, Celine Ruben-Salama, Zachary Suttile

By Alix Schroder

The Earth Institute and the School of Professional Studies’ MS in Sustainability Management program hosted a panel event March 29 on “Transforming Organizations with Sustainability.” Over 150 students, faculty, alumni and local professionals gathered in the Low Library Rotunda to hear a panel of experts speak on the evolving role of sustainability management in today’s top organizations, and how these organizations are integrating key sustainability concepts into their core business strategies and everyday decision-making processes.

Watch the video of the event here.

The panel, moderated by Steve Cohen, executive director of Columbia’s Earth Institute and professor of practice in the School of International and Public Affairs, featured a panel of sustainability professionals who all graduated from masters programs built and managed between the Earth Institute and Columbia graduate programs:

  • James Ossman, a graduate of the MS in Sustainability Management program and former senior operations manager at the Earth Institute, who is now the senior manager of global operations at Etsy.
  • Curtis Probst, a graduate of the MPA in Environmental Science and Policy program, who is now the managing director of sustainable finance at the Rocky Mountain Institute and a lecturer in the MS in Sustainability Management program.
  • Celine Ruben-Salama, a graduate of the MPA in Environmental Science and Policy program, who works as the principal at FOR THE LONG-TERM, a consultancy focused on sustainability strategy, and teaches in the MS in Sustainability Management program.
  • And Zachary Suttile, a graduate of the MPA in Environmental Science and Policy Program, who is now a director at Willdan Energy Solutions.

Ossman provided insight into sustainable supply chains, recycling and green building from his recent work at Etsy. Probst, who leads the Rocky Mountain Institute’s sustainable finance practice, spoke on the ways in which sustainability is being factored into corporate finance. Ruben-Salama shared expertise on sustainability strategy and communications. And Suttile, who leads the development of clean energy programs at Willdan, brought knowledge of energy efficiency and renewable energy.

Cohen emphasized that in order to transition to a sustainable economy we must develop the organizational capacity to make our vision a reality.

“We must transform the old-fashioned, industrial style organizations of yesterday into the agile, sustainable organizations of tomorrow,” he said. He noted that energy efficiency, waste reduction, sustainable supply chains, recycling, green building and concern for environmental impact are starting to become routine elements in many organizations. Cohen then asked the panelists, how are you seeing these principles and practices in your organizations, and why do you think this happening?

“Sustainability has always been a core part of Etsy’s mission,” began Ossman. “What makes Etsy unique is how sustainability is embedded in every layer of the company. Its mission is applied equally to both internal and external operations.” In April 2016, Etsy announced a public commitment to be powered by 100 percent renewable energy by 2020 and pledged to work towards running a carbon neutral workplace. The company’s new headquarters in Brooklyn, completed last summer, was designed and constructed to align with criteria of the Living Buildings Challenge. This meant vetting and ensuring that every material used adhered to rigorous sustainability standards, down to the wood used to make the furniture. It was a challenging project, Ossman admitted, but a testament to Etsy’s commitment.

Probst said he’s seen an increase in corporate investment in sustainability in recent years. In 2015, for example, private companies purchased more renewable energy than the public utilities sector. The reason for this shift, he argued, is sustainability makes economic sense. It is also positive for companies’ brands, and in many cases, crucial to attract the best and brightest talent.

Ruben-Salama said she has seen a huge change in the attitude around sustainability in her consulting work. “A few years ago, sustainability management was primarily an operational issue,” she said. “Now it’s being included in risk assessment for investments, supply chain considerations, and more.”

Suttile said that since he joined Willdan’s energy group in 2010, interest in and demand for energy efficiency has grown significantly. The company now offers comprehensive energy solutions that include clean energy, such as wind and solar, that help clients navigate longer-term concerns. Today, Willdan’s energy business makes up about 70 percent of the total firm.

While today’s top organizations are embracing sustainability, the federal government is rolling back environmental regulations, like the Clean Power Plan. Can the government stop this trend?

“Trends are always nonlinear,” Probst said. “Adoption accelerates because of policy and sometimes in spite of policy. Even if Washington has a different view, businesses and capital markets care about sustainability, and the movement will continue in spite of them.”

Even Wall Street is embracing this trend. Probst said that while some investors have mandates to invest in sustainability, the majority only care about maximizing returns. This shows that sustainable brands and renewable energy firms are capturing the market because they’re delivering better returns.

Ruben-Salama said companies can no longer afford to ignore the reality of climate change, which brings increased risk and less stability. “As more investors take a longer-term view, we’re starting to see a shift away from the historically stable and dependable fossil fuel industries,” she argued.

Suttile also pointed to the importance of state level work regarding sustainability. “Look at what states like New York and California are doing in spite of the federal reluctance. There’s a tremendous amount of people that see this as an opportunity to do more on the state level,” he said.

The discussion then turned to the importance of supply chain sustainability. How are today’s organizations approaching this?

“I see companies influencing each other, placing pressure on each other to increase sustainability along the supply chain,” Ruben-Salama said. Ossman said that Etsy provides sustainability guidelines to all of its employees and sellers, broken up by major purchasing strings, which provide guidance but are not overly prescriptive. For larger contracts, the company uses vendor surveys to ensure transparency.

Suttile talked about Community Choice Aggregation, an energy supply model adopted by several states that gives cities and counties the legal option to source different fuels for public energy generation. Through the model, communities can lower their overall energy costs while spurring clean energy innovation and investment in public utility companies.

The panelists also spoke to the challenges of implementing and monitoring sustainability standards with suppliers. Etsy’s supply chain is dependent on small entrepreneurs, local if possible, Ossman said, so they can visit many of the suppliers to ensure standards are being met. The company also takes an active role in helping its partners adjust. For example, when building their new headquarters, instead of seeking out individual furniture firms that were already FSC-certified, Etsy obtained group certification for its makers and even some of their timber suppliers.

Ruben-Salama added that if an organization can’t visit its suppliers, legal routes can be used as effective control mechanisms, while Probst emphasized the importance of providing consumers with information on suppliers and the power of consumers to influence supplier sustainability.

Cohen asked the panelists to share the most useful skill they gained during their education at Columbia.

Suttile said the ability to understand diverse bits of information is an important skill he learned during the MPA ESP program, since what he does at Willdan involves communicating with people on a diversity of topics. He believes this is a key skill all sustainability managers must have today.

“You need to be a generalist, but also able to find those linkages,” he said.

For Probst, the most valuable part of the MPA-ESP program was learning to work in groups, since sustainability issues are complex and managers need to address these issues through heavy collaboration.

Ruben-Salama said her time as a student in the MPA-ESP program taught her to stay optimistic and focused on playing her role in solving the pressing issues of sustainability.

Ossman, an alumni of the MS in Sustainability Management, benefited from the program’s diverse curriculum, which allowed him to gain a general understanding of sustainability management while also targeting specific courses for more specialized knowledge. “The key to being an effective sustainability manager is balancing general knowledge with a specific area of expertise,” he said.

The discussion concluded with this question: What would a truly transformed corporation look like? According to Ruben-Salama, for large companies to be truly sustainable, they need to have a long-term perspective. Long-term goals enable systems thinking.

Probst said a truly sustainable organization will be sustainable reflexively. It won’t be a separate thing; it will be included in every decision and  process naturally.

Ossman agreed. “There’s a practical way to make this happen,” he continued. “Every job should switch from MBA preferred to sustainability degree preferred.”

Alix Schroder is the special assistant to the executive director at the Earth Institute.





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