Sustainability in Business: A New Environment

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What if a company could eliminate waste, save millions, turn a profit, create new products and help the environment and communities at the same time?

Interface, one of the world's leading carpet manufacturers in LaGrange, Georgia, is based on these principles. George Bandy Jr., the company's vice president of sustainability, offered an example.

"One of the greatest challenges to our oceans right now is abandoned fishing nets," he said. "The nets wash up, gather other things and create these big plastic islands that look like landfills. We're taking those fishing nets because they are made from the same type of nylon that we use to make our carpet."

Interface uses fishermen in the Philippines and off the coast of Cameroon to retrieve the tangled nets – giving them much-needed income – and extrude the nylon back into their product. What was an environmental waste is now an asset.

"We used to be going to our suppliers and battling with them about prices," Bandy continued. "Now, we're helping them create innovative solutions and we're finding alternative materials for their products. We're also increasing recycled content, which is what the customers are asking for, and creating the same product that we've always offered by using a product that would have been an environmental hazard as an environmental attribute instead. It opens up our eyes to say, 'What other products are out there that we can use?'"

Sustainability isn't confined to nylon fishing nets. On March 2, Auburn University's Harbert College of Business, Academic Sustainability Programs and the Office of Sustainability will co-sponsor the first Sustainability in Business Summit at Lowder Hall. Industry leaders and academic experts specializing in sustainability will lead a number of classroom programs during the day, with the event highlighted by a panel discussion – open to the public – from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. in Lowder Hall room 113.

What will people learn at the event?

"How important this global mega-trend of sustainability is to business and to business schools," answered Mike Kensler, director of the Office of Sustainability at Auburn University. "More and more corporate CEOs are recognizing that sustainability is now, or needs to become, absolutely at the core of everything they do – every discipline – finance, accounting, supply chain, marketing, strategic planning and management, you name it."

Kensler added "mega-challenges" await businesses.

"But with every mega-challenge, there are mega-opportunities," he said. "To quote [the late Interface founder] Ray Anderson, 'There are billions of dollars just sitting out there waiting to be discovered by somebody who gets this and starts to embrace the principles and practices of sustainability.'"

Did you know that DuPont reduced its energy use by 6 percent and increased productivity at the same time – saving the company more than $6 billion? Did you know that General Electric saved $100 million through waste initiatives and generated $17 billion in annual revenues with the introduction of 80 new products? Did you know what 3M Corporation lowered emissions by 50 percent and saved the company more than $500 million? The book, "The Sustainable Business," explains how sustainability initiatives are fiscally and environmentally responsible.

"The old model of the industrial revolution was "take, make, waste," Bandy said. "The new model has to include a more holistic vision. How do we balance having a good, functioning business that yields a great profit but also has a positive influence, creates a nice social balance or contributes to being a restorative enterprise rather than one that depletes restoration in the environment?'"

Kensler believes businesses must exist for a higher purpose other than making money. He calls it "shared value."

"Businesses should exist to help solve society's problems and create a better society – and by doing that, they will generate profits," he said. "Doing business that way, you make sure that products are made in a way that do no harm and add only benefits to societies, future generations and the planet."

More information about the Sustainability in Business Summit is available on the summit website.

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