Sustainability – the term alone conjures up a concept that is itself “sustaining,” as gauged by the permeation of the term into diverse areas – from manufacturing, to the building industry, even to hospitality and the food industries – that one is seemingly inundated with sustainability in day-to-day activities. To get a better handle on this phenomenon, let’s take a closer look at what sustainability is all about.

The term, basing its origin to the Latin, “sustinere”, to uphold, means to support, endure without giving way or yielding. In our context, sustainability refers to how an organization behaves relative to how its decisions could affect society and the environment as a whole. In essence, how an organization conducts its business while being sensitive to those affected by its decisions, both positive and negative.

Helping to bring the concept of sustainability to the mainstream has been the rise of non-governmental organizations such as the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) and the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP), among others that have developed reporting guidelines for organizations that desire to showcase their sustainability efforts. The defacto guideline most widely accepted is the GRI’s Version 3.0.

Yet, what really is sustainability at the core?

While its real function, if we take into account the GRI version, is to list the actual metrics of what an organization is doing to be sustainable, such as the amount of energy is used or saved, the amount of emissions, effluents and waste generated or saved, (some environmental indicators); employee and customer health and safety, product labeling and marketing (some social indicators); and the like, at the end of the day, it’s all about PR, and a vehicle for an organization to help promote its corporate image, which could also translate to increased sales.

One much-referenced example of this is GE’s re-branding of itself as the company known for Ecoimagination. Not too long ago, GE was synonymous with PCB contamination in Pittsfield and New Bedford (MA), to name a few, under the helm of its former CEO Jack Welch. At that time, GE had been at loggerheads with the USEPA about the contamination and the extent of remediation and subsequent fines levied.

Recently, Engineering News Record posted a news item that senior managers of one of the companies involved with the BP Gulf Oil spill, Transocean, had been rewarded with bonuses for exemplary safety records, the spill notwithstanding. Don’t tell that to the shrimpers of the Gulf region.

One article in Industrial Safety and Hygiene News points to sustainability as an item that could be either spin or substance, and makes valid points for each, to which we would like to add our footnotes as well.

Sustainability, as a corporate function, should take its cue from the ISO family of standards, specifically, ISO 14001 (environmental), ISO 26000 (social responsibility), and ISO 31000 (risk management) – with ISO 14001 as the foundation – to craft a more comprehensive and readily adaptable sustainability management system with metrics that encompass salient and relevant elements of these ISO standards. Embedded within ISO 14001 is a marvelous tool – continual improvement – that sustainability practitioners should embrace as a means to improve upon their sustainability efforts/programs.

Continual improvement is not just a concept; it is actually a mechanism via the PDCA (Plan, Do, Check, Act) process to channel improvements within an existing program to get the most value. At present, the sustainability movement lacks such a mechanism and can be readily seen in the large disparity of sustainability reports and metrics that companies generate for public consumption. Some are great examples to use as templates; others need much tweaking; and many others are in between somewhere.

Had BP taken a closer look at its programs – whether sustainability reporting or its ISO 14001 program – to take the time to evaluate more fully at the local level emerging issues related to employee and equipment safety, Prudhoe Bay may not have occurred, and possibly avoided or greatly decreased the Gulf disaster.

Interestingly, Chevron in its 2010 Sustainability Report, describes a work stoppage function in which either an employee or contractor may call for a work stoppage should a safety issue be seen.

Another concern is that some corporate sustainability officers (or CSO, a newly-minted term placing these employees at the top of the management chain), are coming into this position with limited or no environmental, health and safety expertise, and may be woefully unprepared to move the organization forward in its sustainability push. This sentiment was echoed in the article referenced. Unfortunately, organizations have the say in this matter, and unless highly qualified EHS professionals within the ranks speak up for themselves and articulate this concern, HR will continue to recruit these unqualified individuals for these plum corporate spots in some organizations.

So while sustainability is seen as an emerging trend to make an organization more environmentally and socially conscious, organizations seeking to build their sustainability ranks should first start by culling the ranks of their EHS/EMS champions to build up their programs and rely on the strengths of their core competencies. They should also not lose sight of what ISO 14001 and company can bring to the sustainability banquet.