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Covering sustainability: An introduction

Solar Energy

By Flickr user Port of San Diego.

The sustainability story is as big as the Wal-Mart Store chain and as a local as your neighborhood coffee shop. So, where exactly do you start your coverage? This beat guide gives an introduction to covering sustainability principles that are driving business pursuits.

A retail shop trims electricity costs by installing efficient, energy-saving light bulbs. A manufacturing company commits to zero-waste, retools its product development, and now saves on materials that were once thrown away. A restaurant recycles its cooking oil for biofuel. And, an advertising agency puts in a locker-room for employees who ride their bikes to work or exercise during lunch breaks. These are among the hundreds of sustainability stories in your community.

Let’s first tackle the definition of sustainability. Broadly, if a company adopts sustainability as a business practice, then it has made a long-term commitment to have no negative social, economic and environmental consequences from its business strategies and activities. The business does this while also remaining a profitable entity. A 1987 United Nations report had this definition: “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Sustainable business practices aren’t seen as a tradeoff between environmental regulations and profitability. Rather, businesses have learned that sustainability can lead to an improved environment, economic gains, social and community well-being, and a competitive advantage in the marketplace. More businesses than ever are now emphasizing sustainability.

To make sense of the sustainability story, a reporter should look at it through this lens: Our economy and society are constrained by the environment. Everything we need for survival depends on a healthy natural environment – clean water, clean air, and natural resources. Because the business sector produces a large share of the world’s greenhouse gases, some businesses are making a long-term commitment to produce less waste, use less energy, and reduce their environmental footprint. They are creating work environments that help foster positive attitude among employees and improved health. And, they are being transparent about these practices by reporting these sustainability measures, often looking for this goodwill to win-over “green” consumers.

Put simply, sustainable business considers the triple bottom line: people, planet, and profit.

People. The person element in this equation is the employee, the consumer, the citizen of the community, or the member of society who is impacted by the business. Ways businesses contribute to sustainability among employees includes allowing employees paid-time off to contribute to community projects and community development. Patagonia provides locks for employees who bike to work. At Hasbro, workers have Fridays off in summer.

walmart green

By Flickr user Walmart

Planet. While transportation, fossil fuel, and utility sectors have the largest potential to reduce environmental risks on the planet, businesses have the ability to influence consumers through their products and supply chains. For instance, Wal-Mart measures the sustainability of every product it sells. Countless companies strive for paperless offices, as emphasized in email taglines, “Please consider the environment before printing this email.” Other businesses are looking to green their supply chain and report on environmental performance. Any story on sustainability will likely have an environmental element to it. Given the range of ideas and problems out there, the toughest challenge on this beat is figuring out the news element.

Profit. The principal objective of business is to make money. Perhaps that’s why sustainable business stories are often tagged with the slang term for money: green, as in green business, green technology, green energy, green innovation. You get the picture. The profit motives for going green and choosing sustainable business practices are far ranging, from competitive advantages, improving efficiencies, and reducing operating costs to environmental stewardship, boosting employee morale, and a healthier work environment.

As sustainability practices expand, so, too, is business coverage. And, your stories can be a part of it.

About the Author

Lisa Palmer is a writer and editor covering climate change, energy and green business topics. Her work has appeared in a variety of national and international media including Scientific American, Fortune, Fortune Small Business, CNNMoney.com, Slate, Popular Mechanics and U.S. News & World Report. Lisa is also a regular contributor to The Yale Forum, where she writes about climate change and how it is communicated in society. Last year Lisa was a freelance development editor for the America's Climate Choices study at the National Academy of Sciences. She has a bachelor's degree in business and a master's degree in communications.

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