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Business and the triple bottom line

UW–Platteville conference ponders profit, planet, people

POSTED August 31, 2017 1:55 p.m.

The concept of “sustainability” has become a relative buzzword in today’s society, but what it really means to be “sustainable” is up for debate.  

UW–Platteville set out to define the term with examples of what sustainability looks like in practice during its conference, “Getting to the Bottom of the Triple Bottom Line,” Aug 21.

“‘Sustainability’ and ‘environmentally friendly’ aren’t synonyms,” said UWP assistant dean Philip Parker. Although the environmental aspect of sustainability is widely discussed, “sustainability” is a far more all-encompassing, interdisciplinary term, he said.

“There are no easy, uncomplicated answers,” as to its definition, though, he added.  

“For a lot of people, [the meaning of sustainability is] fuzzy ... it’s a lot of things for a lot of people,” said Mike Penn, professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, adding that sustainability is an “overused term.”  

It’s necessary to place emphasis on “profit, people, and planet” to be truly sustainable, Parker said; this is the triple bottom line.

Penn called the approach an “accounting framework” with three parts — equity/social, economy, and environment. Being sustainable is about more than saving the environment; there need to be jobs available and a profit must be incurred for the practice of saving the environment itself to be sustainable.  

“Profit’s not a bad word ... you’ve got to make money to be able to do other things” both socially and environmentally, said Art Gibson of Baxter Healthcare. He added that taking efforts to be more environmentally friendly can increase sales and investment, citing Carbon Trust products as an example.  

Corporations aren’t evil, Callan Schoonenberg, Engineering Manager of Eaton Corporation said. “Partnering with them” is the best way to make a positive impact on sustainability, she said. “We have an opportunity to recreate products with a positive ‘handprint.’”

A “sustainability enterprise” is considered by a company to determine long-term, meaningful, tangible value for all involved parties, Gibson said.

Gibson added that some of the measures his operation has put into place include implementing recycling programs in hospitals to segregate plastics, working with Non-Governmental Organizations to bring access to healthcare to impoverished populations in Mexico, and commencing efforts to empower women and minorities.  

Gibson also discussed Baxter’s wellness campaign aimed to improve the health of the company’s employees.  He brought up their efforts to reduce “waste to landfill” and greenhouse gas emissions as well; through these projects, Baxter Health has been able to remain profitable while improving the environment and the lives of people.  All these elements make up the company’s practice of sustainability.

Jeff Thompson of Gundersen Health System relayed similar sustainability efforts taken by his company. He said Gundersen had worked to reduce both medical and food waste, “set up a local food cooperative,” and had begun natural-energy-creation projects.

“We had an obligation to the next generation [to be sustainable] ... we started out with conservation,” said Thompson. “It’s all about the health and well-being of the patients”; that’s why the company has thought of sustainability in terms of the triple bottom line.

When faced with the question of whether to take care of the environment, the community, or the company’s profits, Thompson said, “We believe we are smart enough to do both.”

Rob Zimmerman of Kohler Co. too talked about his company’s aspiration to be a “sustainable brand” globally. He said they don’t have a sustainability department because every action should be looked at through a lens of sustainability and surrounded by a culture of sustainability. He added that Kohler is working on a number of sustainability projects like creating a closed loop advanced sanitation system in toilets so “the entire lifecycle of a toilet ... becomes substantially less.”  

Zimmerman brought up the company’s efforts to improve the lives of people through developing a break-even water sanitation unit called “Clarity” to be distributed via NGOs in developing countries.

Michele Pluta of Alliant Energy spoke about the corporation’s efforts to get to the bottom of the triple bottom line.  She said the energy company is looking to build a smarter, stronger, reduced-cost power grid while simultaneously strengthening communities and advancing clean energy.

Pluta said Alliant Energy is planning to work to minimize impacts to wildlife and their habitats with their projects going forward and they’re implementing rubber line hoses to help protect employees. 

Staci Strobl, chair of the Criminal Justice Department at UW–Platteville, had a different perspective on large corporations’ approach to sustainability.

“People still take a backseat to profit,” said Strobl. Capitalization and industrialization are hard on the world, she added; imaginative, creative problem-solving is needed to help solve the sustainability issues the globe faces. “Our disciplines may not have the answer, but our humanity probably does,” she said. 

“We’re running out of time here,” she added, saying the legal framework doesn’t encourage sustainability; there’s “almost no enforcement [of environmental regulations] relative to other crimes.”  

However, Strobl also brought up some efforts being taken in the realm of criminology to make prisons more green by working with NGOs to implement garden projects for prisoners as a “rehabilitative model” with a sustainability component.

UW–Platteville Sustainability Coordinator Amy Seeboth-Wilson mentioned ways the university has become more sustainable, including creating no-mow zones, greenroofs, edible gardens, and a project called Pioneer Restore, which resells products that would otherwise end up in landfills, all in an effort to stick to the triple bottom line.

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