Sustainability for Profit – Drifting from the Core Message

Is a sustainability initiative best justified by showing the potential benefits to your companies bottom line? At first look, it would appear so.  One of the great things about sustainability initiatives is that they often go hand in hand with maximizing efficiency. When your goal is to reduce your carbon footprint, you inevitably find opportunities to reduce the resources required to operate your critical processes and even eliminate ones that aren’t so critical. For me, this is the slam dunk argument for going green. Who wouldn’t want to be sustainable when you can save money and contribute to saving the planet at the same time? It’s an argument that we can all understand and agree on no matter what your priorities are.

Photo Credit: Pixomar

Not only are these money saving initiatives great for the bottom line, but more importantly, they have staying power. With the recent economic downturn it was clear that many corporations were downsizing their operations along with many of the green initiatives that didn’t have obvious tangible benefits. But when a sustainability initiative helps out your bottom line, its hard to argue that its not part of your core business.

However, two recent news articles make it clear that this isn’t always the best way to project success. The first article, from the Hamilton Spectator, outlines how the City of Hamilton, Ontario has taken a hit on the order of $50 million since 2008 due to water conservation efforts that are reducing water-use revenues. The end result being that water and sewer rates may need to increase as much as 6-7 per cent. The second article, in the Toronto based Metro, outlined how Ontario’s Fall Economic Update revealed that hydro rates are expected to increase 46 per cent over the next five years as a direct result of the transition to renewable, green power sources.  In both these articles the general mood was that these conservation projects were becoming a burden to the system.

How could an effective sustainability strategy suddenly become a failure for actually working?  The reason is the general expectation of cost savings ingrained in the sustainability message.  On one hand, framing sustainability from the economic and process efficiency angle is a great option since it presents an argument in the familiar language of business and bank accounts. No need to talk about the trees, frogs and saving the planet. A spreadsheet will do just fine.

However, as effective as this is for generating buy-in, it also creates an expectation that sustainability is all about improving profit. It’s like donating to charity for the sole purpose of getting the tax credit at the end of the year. You end up missing the point.  Even worse, what happens if your money saving initiative ends up costing money instead of saving it? Will people still take heart that you’ve done your part as a good corporate citizen, or will your green initiatives now be seen as a risky venture?

Although the profit argument is an effective first step, there is a real danger of losing the message of sustainability if it’s not framed correctly.  When saving money becomes the end goal, we’re not tackling the change in culture that needs to happen for an organization to truly become a leader in sustainability. Therein lies the true challenge of being green in the corporate world. Not all of your ideas will resonate with the language of business.

Don’t get me wrong; sustainability to help the bottom line is a great place to start, but its good to remember that true green is not only about the money.

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About Jody Addah

Jody Addah is an environmental professional with over 12 years of experience in consulting and the public sector. With a background in environmental science and engineering (and an MBA to boot), Jody’s interests lie in finding sustainability through process improvement and strategic opportunities. When not trying to figure out the problems of the day, Jody spends his time trying the figure out the two little people that have recently come into his life.
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4 Responses to Sustainability for Profit – Drifting from the Core Message

  1. Henrike says:

    hi there, great wordpress blog, and an amazing understand! just one for my bookmarks.

  2. Good food for thought: anyone who has thought through making full supply chain truly green has encountered some of these issues and more; we have much to grapple with to reach a sustainable green solution. And every contribution helps.

  3. Pingback: Tweets that mention Sustainability for Profit – Drifting from the Core Message | Sustainability Learning Centre Blog --

  4. I had to bookmark this too. It’s important to go beyond the bottom line and realize that change and innovation will deliver its own rewards. often times with financial rewards.

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