In order to fully appreciate the future direction of the environmental field, professionals should understand the connection between sustainability and environmental science, policy, and regulation.
When I started out in the environmental field, sustainability and corporate social responsibility weren’t terms in the forefront of my mind. My field of study was environmental systems, a mix of the “hard sciences,” environmental science and geology, and environmental policy. I thought about discrete chemicals, and environmental media such as air, water, and waste. Then I went on to think about policy frameworks, regulations, and compliance.
It always seemed that the topic of sustainability was separate from my field, and for some time, I didn’t quite know where to place it. It is worth noting, however, that it is all a matter of perspective and the concept of voluntary standards, meant to raise the bar for corporate practices, isn’t new. In fact, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) was founded back in the late 1940’s.
Today, many professionals (myself included), recognize that the fields aren’t quite that disparate and it is vital to connect the two to fully appreciate the future direction of the environmental field.
“Compliance” is the baseline and should be the foundation. Track your air emissions, ensure that your water discharges don’t exceed permit limits, and manage your hazardous waste disposal properly... but then expand your view.
You can start with the below questions:
- What is your company doing to recycle water?
- Are your buildings and processes energy efficient?
- Should your facilities invest in renewables?
- What is the entire life cycle of your products and what can you do to lower your company’s overall environmental footprint?
- What is the image of your company and what do you want that image to be?
These are all important questions. We live in a time where there are expectations of sustainability. For example, whenever I stay at a reputable hotel, I always expect to see the sign to place towels on the floor only if I want them to be washed. What was once an anomaly is now the norm. If I don’t see that sign, there’s the impression that the hotel just doesn’t care and maybe I’ll find another hotel next time.
Likewise, whether or not a building is LEED certified makes a difference for this generation and will continue to be important for future generations to come.
When “nice to haves” turn into expectations, that shouldn’t go unnoticed and this is, in my opinion, the direction of the environmental field (beyond compliance obligations). The concept of sustainability is a holistic one. It is hard to grasp at first because it doesn’t fit neatly into a traditional category and, in fact, it is broader than environment, covering topics such as health, safety, and quality.
It is important to “know what you don’t know”:
- Ask yourself meaningful questions about what sustainability means to you and your organization
- Research the universe of sustainability standards (e.g., GRI, SASB, ISO 14000, UN Sustainable Development Goals)
- Reach out to sustainability experts (e.g., Sustainability Management Association)
- Figure out what’s feasible both now and in the future within your budget
- Connect sustainability with your brand and image (and truth check that your message to the public/investors to ensure that it is accurate).
- Develop a plan to track your progress
It is also important to keep in mind that the meaning of sustainability will likely grow over time as new technologies become available and new challenges are presented. Therefore, you should recognize the overlap between environment and sustainability, be aware of developments in the field, and never stop evolving.
Do you want to learn more about sustainability? Here are some helpful insight reports:
On Environment is a twice monthly post by Jessica Sarnowski, Intelex’s Global Compliance Content Lead.
As Intelex’s Global Compliance Content Lead, EHSQ Content Strategy, Jessica drives overall content strategy, with a particular focus on overseeing the delivery of high-quality compliance content within the EHSQ Alliance.
Responsible for identifying and cultivating valuable compliance content for EHSQ professionals, Jessica fosters engagement in the EHSQ Alliance by working with experts in the field.
Jessica has over 10 years of public and private sector experience in environmental policy and law. Jessica received her Juris Doctor from Vermont Law School and Master of Laws degree in Environmental Law from The George Washington University Law School. You can follow Jessica on LinkedIn by clicking HERE.
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