2012 Sustainability Symposium a Success

November 8, 2012
William McDonough

By Zvi Ben Feder, MBA Sustainability, 2012

Sustainability thought-leaders William McDonough and Andrew Winston delivered keynote speeches on the pending challenges and opportunities facing 21st-century business at the sixth-annual Sustainability Symposium at Duquesne University.

Around 150 executives, academics and students gathered on campus Thursday, Nov. 1, for this year's event, titled "100 Years of Sustainability."  The speakers, which included the seminal authors along with a panel of local business leaders, convened here to reflect on business innovations over the past century, and what the potential future trajectory of industry has in store.

Winston said that an event like the symposium, which brings communities together to tackle broad, complex issues, is an encouraging sight.  "The problems we are facing today are big and systematic and the only solutions are going to come by bringing different sectors together."

Hosted by the Beard Institute, as part of the Palumbo Donahue School of Business at Duquesne, the symposium attracts local businesses, policy-makers, academic leaders and students from around western Pennsylvania.  Each year, they focus on best practices and research surrounding ethics, sustainability and responsible corporate management.  The event's panelists included Urmi Ashar, board member of Excela Health; Greg Babe, CEO of Orbital Engineering, Inc.; Al Neupaver, CEO of Wabtec; and Mohammed Zaidi, the former Vice President of Technology and current member of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development.

Each year, Duquesne hosts a current thought leader. One year ago, business scholar and author of "The Fifth Discipline," Peter Senge spoke. This time it was McDonough's turn at the podium.  The lauded architect and co-author of "Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things," explained that the future entirely depends on the intentions of business.  McDonough painted a vision of a regulatory-free market, where companies operate ethically and offer products that pose no risk to society.  Government influence is not required in this sustainable future, according to McDonough, because business intentions will be rooted in principles of smart design.

"Why don't we start designing things so we understand what's going to happen next," he asked. "Because then we can create an economy that we can accrue to our benefit... let's revalue, which means we have to understand our intentions and then we can manifest them."

McDonough spoke to his well-known mantra of "less bad is still bad," explaining that businesses need to shift their focus from just reducing emissions.  Instead, companies should optimize positive impacts and set values-based goals.  He spoke to his work redesigning the Ford Rouge plant in 2003, which included ambitious green roofs and wetland space for native species.

"Now we are creating value," he said, referring to the project.  "We aren't just measuring our destruction and trying to reduce it with our steps. Why do we think we have to have bad footsteps? What if we increase it?"

Earlier in the day, Winston discussed the need for companies to "future-proof" their strategies.  With commodity prices increasing, global investment in clean technology and renewable energy outpacing similar investments in the US, and security issues looming over world resources, sustainability is becoming an operational requirement, he said.

"This is not about philanthropy", he said.  "Dealing with these pressures is just dealing with how your business operates, and dealing with rising cost pressures and the opportunity to innovate."

With the remnants of Hurricane Sandy swirling outside - a storm that caused immense damage along the Atlantic coast earlier in the week - the talk inevitably turned to climate change.  Winston, a Connecticut native, dealt with the storm's aftermath.  His message boiled down to a business imperative.  The author noted that arguments around climate change are moot when pushing for the types of investments he promotes in his book, "Green to Gold."  However, Winston believes that, regardless of their stance, company leaders who do not seek to understand the science behind the climate will be unable to adapt quick enough to meet impending market changes.

"This is about direction and speed," he said.  "Unless you understand the science and understand climate change, the speed you need to move is off the table."

Part of the day's proceedings included presenting the Green to Gold award, which was a collaborative development between Winston and the business school.  Duquesne, which offers an MBA program integrating sustainability concepts throughout the curriculum, developed the award to celebrate companies that exemplify responsible practices.  This year's winner was Procter & Gamble (P&G).

Associate Director of Global Sustainability Jack McAneny accepted the award on behalf of P&G. He acknowledged that the organization committed itself to a long-term vision with new environmental goals, including using 100 percent renewable energy, products and packaging made entirely of recycled materials, and maximizing the conservation of resources, amongst others.

"This is a very long-term, aspiration vision," he said.  "As a company, [we need] to demonstrate incremental and credible progress toward that long-term vision."

For more information about the symposium, see the article on CSR Newswire.

AllFacilities Energy Group features Sustainability Symposium on company website.  Click here to read the article.