Are you sustaining?

How’s your business in this economy – are you sustaining?

Maybe you should try that. Sustaining, I mean.

It happens to be the biggest thing in business since the spread sheet itself. Nearly every day, we encounter another success story about sustainability in business.

By working smarter, and using less, sustainability-focused companies are boosting performance, increasing profitability, improving reputations, reducing operational costs, eliminating waste, and generally making their customers, investors and employees feel good.

Since sustainability emerged as a leading business influence (almost five years ago for the Upper Cumberland mainstream), the principles of a leaner, greener world have proved beneficial to those innovative enough to be on the leading edge.

According to the Edelman Good Purpose consumer study, more of shoppers are spending money – despite the economic downturn – on brands that have developed their social and environmental reputations. As Interbrand CEO Rune Gustafson says: “It is becoming the hygiene factor.” Without a good sustainability record, people will be turned off by your brand.

Statistically, the case grows more compelling. The respected research firm AT Kearney says green companies are 15% more profitable than traditionally modeled ones; at sustainably-focused companies, stocks trade 45% higher. Four out of five people said they were still buying green products and services, even in the midst of the recession, according to Opinion Research Corp.

From LEED-certified (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) to SSI-ready (Sustainable Sites Design) to ISO-compliant (International Organization for Standardization), industry best practices can intimidate even the hard-nosed veterans among us. Established and emerging jargon can cause doubt and, no question, sustainability has many science-sided elements that require specialized knowledge, training and skills.

But I promise the movement also includes easy concepts for you, your employees, your colleagues, your company and partners to grab a hold of and understand. Simple matters like conserving water and energy. Carpooling. Reducing paper or other waste.

When individuals begin to think “less” and innovate more, impressive things happen. In the last year alone, The Outdoor Advertising Association committed to eliminating paper poster boards (the industry’s smaller-sized billboards) and dress them with recyclable plastic. Aramark introduced a reusable takeout food container, diverting an estimated 2 million disposables from college landfills each school year. And maybe you’ve heard that extra rustling (or been the cause of some) in a cubicle near you from Sun Chips’ ully compostable bag.

Perhaps you don’t know where to start – energy, IT, facilities, supply line, materials, the list of possible impact areas is long.  The sound advice of people who started a sustainability journey before you is usually short: Just pick an area to work on, and go.

That’s the attitude of Chris Clark, a Tennessee businessman who improved the lives of thousands of Upper Cumberland residents this year alone. The president of a land planning and site design company in Nashville, SC&A Natural Resources, donated 101,000 trees to people of Tennessee. His reasons were two-fold.  One, he knows the critical role trees fill with respect to air and water quality, carbon savings, soil erosion, energy conservation, aesthetics and more.

His second motivation?  “I just wanted to show others how simple it is to step into sustainability,” Clark said.

Together, the 15 counties that comprise the Upper Cumberland Business Journal’s readership area adopted 10,200 of Clark’s trees. Clay, Jackson, Smith and Trousdale requested 1,000 trees each for public distribution and municipal projects, alike.

In the end, the EPA says Clark’s contribution could yield an annual economic impact of $11,260,000 starting in the 20th year. Now consider most of the species he chose will live between 60 and 100 years.

With some help from the Chris Clarks of the world, we all can find ways to “sustain” in this economy. All that’s really missing is a willingness to ask, “How can I do what I need to, while using less?”…and a willingness to start today.

Mark Thien is president of Envolve Strategies, Inc., a sustainability and marketing consultancy in Nashville, Tenn.  Your questions and ideas for a future columns about sustainability in business are welcome at info@ucbjournal.com.

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