Business Brains

8 filters for my 2011 corporate sustainability coverage

Posting in Energy

From water conservation efforts to renewable energy investments to agribusiness, my focus will be on case studies and cautionary tales in the year to come.

I have ALWAYS believed that businesses didn't just exist to make a profit, although as a business journalist, for a long time that element has been all many of my peers have been interested in covering. So, when I had the chance to start covering corporate sustainability issues for this Web site -- in particular, how information technology could play a role in advancing the cause -- I jumped feet-first.

It took me a while to find my rhythm, but 2010 was definitely a breakthrough year for the cause of corporate sustainability and social responsibility -- not just for me but for the companies that I cover.

A recently published study from KPMG and the Economist found that roughly two-thirds of all companies now have some sort of active sustainability program, whether it is a focus on energy efficiency, conservation, smart transportation, supply chain management, or waste management policies.

In short, there is no shortage of topics that I could cover. But here is what I resolve to focus on during the next 12 months:

  1. Water, water, water. Energy efficiency gets the most attention, because it is easy to find on the balance sheet. But does anyone really understand that true cost of fresh water? 2010 saw the big beverage companies, PepsiCo and Coca-Cola, step up their investment in this area. But this one is big. People can live without electricity, they can't live without water.
  2. Regulatory imperatives: It is pretty clear to me that Congress won't take a leadership role here, so I'll be watching what some of the federal agency continue to mandate with respect to carbon emissions reporting via scrutiny by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and "risks" associated with failing to use resources sustainably, which is something that the Securities and Exchange Commission is watching more carefully.
  3. Ongoing disclosure: Progress won't be made if all companies do is collect data for a once-per-year data dump to shareholders. The best corporate citizens when it comes to reporting will start using metrics such as carbon emission, water consumption, energy usage, and waste-to-landfill as part of their overall operational health. If sustainable data is managed off in a vacuum by a special team, little progress will be made by the company at large. It's time for more regular follow-ups and progress reports.
  4. R&D investments: One of the most fascinating stories we've been following is that of the GE Ecoimagination division, which is putting seed money into technologies that could be vital to a sustainable future -- everything from electric vehicle charging infrastructure to smart grid technologies to LEDs. Intel has been another major corporate investor in clean-tech. The extent to which these investments find their way into corporate giants' product portfolios AND their operations is unfolding.
  5. Biotechnology and agribusiness: This kind of goes back to item number 1, water, because agriculture is the biggest user of water. So I'll be looking closely at companies in the food business and where and how they are sourcing their produce, eggs, meat and so on. Of course, biotechnology is increasingly playing a role in those plans -- to the dismay of more than a few SmartPlanet readers. This uneasy relationship is controversial, but its kind of like the water issue: Food and human survival are inextricably entwined.
  6. Smart transportation and fleet management: The dual promise of these programs is not just reductions in carbon footprints for corporate entities or communities, but substantial savings in fuel costs and productivity improvements. There are many proven examples of how green fleet efforts are great for the bottom line. I'm looking for more.
  7. Renewable energy investments: I scrutinize the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Green Power Partners and leaders lists very carefully on a quarterly basis. In 2011, I'll be looking to highlight the companies that are making direct investments in this technology, not just in renewable energy certificates. The next update is coming at the end of January 2011.
  8. Energy efficiency: OK, so I kind of dissed energy efficiency at the beginning of this blog, but the fact is that this is by far the best short-term way to cut electricity use and our dependence on fossil fuels. It is a big focus, for example, of retailer Target's formal sustainability program: the company hopes to achieve an Energy Star rating for up to 75 percent of its stores. An example: Motion sensors in the refrigerated cases. At the community level, energy efficiency will be big in the form of building and facilities retrofits that save municipal governments money and let tax money go elsewhere. I'm eager to hear actual results from some of the contracts signed in the past year.

These days, I love talking about my job, because by writing about how companies and communities are reorganizing around sustainability initiatives, I feel like I'm doing something meaningful on behalf of the planet. In 2011, I'll focus on both case studies for progress and cautionary tales that can serve as models for businesses large and small. I can't wait to start telling those stories.

Happy New Year to all of you have helped make this blog so fun to write.

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Heather Clancy

Section Editor

Heather Clancy has written for United Press International, ZDNet, Entrepreneur, Fortune Small Business, the International Herald Tribune and the New York Times. She holds a degree from McGill University. She is based in New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure