Imagining Sustainability

I attended the opening day keynote at the Promat convention entitled: Building Supply Chain Sustainability for Competitive Advantage: Lessons learned from leaders in innovative facility design. I will focus what caught my attention below. For other details on the speakers and what they said, you can find it here with write up:

When you have a group of speakers from large and successful companies like UPS and Boeing which have tremendous resources to do things, when they speak about sustainability, it is easy to think: Yea, they have the money and they can do anything. I have trouble getting a extra box of pens in my budget!

I was in that mode of thinking until I heard Rick Bingle, Vice President of  Supply Chain Recreational Equipment Inc. (REI) discuss his company’s brand new warehouse in Arizona which is LEED  Platinum certified, the highest level green. The key thing that caught my attention was  his comment  that before there is a green building, the internal processes of your firm within the building must be thought out in a green way so that building can achieve LEED certification status.  In short, one has to use his imagination to envision a green future and have that as part of one’s thinking. For REI the key decision was making most of the machinery use electrical system that used 24 volt electricity. That led to a lot of tradeoff decisions between various methods of doing things. The bottom line result is that the solar panels will supply 100% of the power to the building. So when the solar panels are paid off in 3 years, there will be almost no energy cost to run the operation. I assume the extra building costs to build LEED building will have a similar payback.

In the business world there needs to be tangible benefits to being sustainable and green. In REI’s case, if they did not imagine sustainability benefit, their warehouse would have been like every other one out there, with higher than necessary costs.  To be successful at this they had to allow themselves to imagine that things could be different and improved.  When doing any capital project, just by asking how to do this particular project can be done in a green and sustainable way has a chance, sometime a good chance, as being the most economical way to do things and bringing productive innovation to the process.

There are a couple practical issues choosing sustainability, both of which deal with time. One is time and the lack of it. It is just so easy to do what has been done in the past. It is certainly less time consuming.  One has to make the effort to bring sustainability into the conversation and process, Yes that does take time. This is something where a person, an individual, has to prioritize this because of the potential benefits.

The other issue is how much time does your company allow for return on investment. This is much less under many individuals control. Andrew Wilson, who led the pannel discussion noted that lack of long enough time horizon is a major block to sustainability efforts.  Many sustainability projects jsut have a longer payback period. Generally the payback will not be in a quarter or two.  Maybe the best strategy is  start with small sustainability projects with quick payback to build credibility necessary to do projects that take longer to payback.



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