Sustainable Organizations

Is your organization looking for a new director of sustainability? If so, you are not alone. Private companies and even university’s like Columbia have added staff to help organizations reduce their environmental impact. Often, these new organizational units have a public relations purpose (green sells), but many of them are serious efforts to reduce energy and water consumption and to save money by reducing and recycling raw materials.

At Columbia University where I work, we have a couple of year old Department of Environmental Stewardship. It was set up by Robert Kasdin, Columbia’s Senior Executive Vice President and the person who manages everything nonacademic at Columbia. Kasdin manages Columbia’s buildings, computers, finances, security and people—and the Department of Environmental Stewardship works for him. According to their web site the office “initiates, coordinates and implements practical programs to reduce the University’s environmental footprint and promotes a culture that values the environment and acts to protect it.” The woman who runs this operation is Nilda Mesa. Nilda is new to Columbia and is an experienced environmental professional. Following her graduation from Harvard Law School in 1988, she worked for the California Attorney General on enforcement of toxic management and natural resources laws. During the Clinton administration, she was the lead legal negotiator on the environmental side agreements made subsequent to the ratification of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). She was also Assistant Deputy for environment at the US Air Force. Nilda is working hard to teach this big bureaucracy the do’s and don’ts of sustainability.

Nilda’s making her presence felt all over campus. I live in an Apartment building owned by Columbia and a few weeks ago I found (or I should say my 14 year old daughter found) a leaflet under my door from Nilda telling me how I could switch light bulbs, turn off my computer, seal my windows and otherwise reduce my carbon foot print. Every time I do something the brochure listed as wasteful, my daughter threatens to report me to Nilda…

While I’m most up to speed on what’s a happening at Columbia, all of New York City’s universities are committed to reducing their carbon foot print. This past June, Barnard, Columbia, Cooper Union, Fordham, New York University, Pratt, St. John’s University, The New School and CUNY accepted Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s challenge to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 30% over the next ten years. With over a million undergraduate and graduate students in the five boroughs —higher education is a big business in New York– and this commitment by our colleges to sustainability is a critical element of New York City’ green campaign.

Is this push for sustainability on my campus and in your office real? My gut tells me that sustainability is sustainable. The key indicator that this stuff is for real will be when sustainability offices start closing as they become absorbed into normal facility management operations. It reminds me of all of the international or “global” operations offices we used to see in businesses and universities when the global economy first hit about a generation ago. These days, businesses, media and universities take global operations for granted. Nearly all business units have a global dimension. A few decades ago we needed to learn how to think and operate in global terms and so we set up offices to help us understand international and non U.S. laws and regulations, as well as non U.S. cultural and social norms. Eventually, organizations learned to act globally and the separate units started to fade away.

In a similar way, our organizations need to learn how to operate with less waste, more efficiency and less environmental impact. We will learn how to do that and integrate them into all aspects of life at work and at home. Along the way we will see some silliness and some symbolism. Not all sustainability offices are for real. Some will do important work and some will be PR operations. Let me know about your organization. If you have a sustainability office is it for real? If you work in one of these offices in New York, let me know if you’ve got some success stories to share or failures to warn us about.

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Sustainable Organizations