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Covering sustainability: Identifying local stories

clean energy

By Flickr user Open Market

Looking to advance the story on sustainability in your own backyard? Get a handle on the big issues and bring them down to the local level. In so doing, you’ll bring some meaning to your readers and better explain the larger concerns. Get started with these simple steps.

Watch the water factor. While water is a global concern, it’s impacts are as local as your nearest watershed. Consider a recent dilemma that Molson Coors faced. Barton Alexander, Chief Corporate Responsibility Officer at Molson Coors, said his company strives for increased water efficiency, but other factors make sustainability decisions a little more complex. A Molson Coors facility in Canada recently changed the way it washes returnable bottles. The company found it was more energy efficient to use cold water in the new washing process, but this also meant more water was used. “We had to think about which was more important: energy savings or water use,” Alexander said. That location in Canada had adequate water supply, so Molson Coors decided on the cold water washing process and reduced its carbon footprint.

Cultivate your knowledge of clean technology. Clean technology, or simply clean tech, is a pumped-up phrase that means modernized infrastructure. Examples of clean tech include smart grid, energy efficiency measures, systems that manage water, transportation, and waste systems. New buildings and renovated structures alike offer story ideas on clean tech advances, as do companies that offer these goods and services. Ask your business sources about their energy management practices. More and more companies are participating in demand-response, the practice of consuming less electricity during periods of peak demand. From grocery stores to manufacturing plants, businesses are often compensated to curtail energy use during periods of peak demand. An example is that every third light is automatically shut off on a long hallway, and the thermostat is raised a degree or two in summer.

Find the green jobs. In an interview a couple years ago, I asked Duke Energy CEO Jim Rogers what he thought about green jobs. “Every job should be a green job,” Rogers said. While entire books have been written on the subject of green jobs, Rogers’ short answer aptly describes jobs in sustainable businesses. If a business is implementing sustainable practices, then many of its jobs fit the description of green jobs. According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, the government’s official definition is “A) jobs in businesses that produce goods and services which benefit the environment or conserve natural resources; and B) jobs in which workers’ duties involve making their establishment’s production processes more environmentally friendly or use fewer natural resources.”

Chat up the operations manager. Just about every company has a manager in charge of keeping costs down and running the day to day business activities. This person will have a direct line to the company’s efficiency measures, waste management, recycling, and energy conservation that will be good measures of a company’s sustainability efforts. Compare and contrast sustainable business decisions of three different companies. What factors affected their decisions to pursue, for instance, energy efficiency over a new waste management practice?

green jobs

Photo by Flickr user US Department of Labor

Talk with local environmental groups. Five years ago, Greenpeace began protesting against McDonald’sfor its practices of buying unsustainable soy to feed chickens, which ultimately became McNuggets. The feed came from farmers who were burning down Amazon forests in order to plant soybeans. So what did McDonald’s do? Bob Langert, vice president for corporate responsibility at McDonald’s, sought input from Conservation International and WWF, and eventually listened to Greenpeace. Other environmental groups have succeeded in changing unsustainable business practices. To localize this story, look for trends of multiple stakeholders working together to solve a local environmental problem.

Read sustainability reports. Similar to financial reporting, sustainability reports assess and disclose business sustainability performance. One person’s job that has changed with the advent of the sustainability report is the Chief Financial Officer, whose role has expanded from financial reporting to also include social and environmental reporting. Ten years ago sustainability programs were often considered costly but a boost to marketing. Today, the costs are far less material and in many cases add to the bottom line. A Q&A with a CFO could yield new information on performance goals and metrics for that business’s energy efficiency, water usage and carbon emissions. Also, look for unique ways companies are reporting on human capital and sustainability. One very significant intangible impact of sustainability reporting is employee morale when employees have a strong interest in sustainability. For example, ArcelorMittal, MT, the biggest steel maker in the world, now reports their safety numbers as part of their corporate responsibility reporting. This was unheard of a few years ago but certainly a sign of the changing expectations from the investment community.