By Cindy Wallis-Lage
It has been more than 50 years since Senator Gaylord Nelson organized the first Earth Day in 1970, when 20 million Americans — 10 percent of the total United States population at the time—took to the streets to voice concerns over the growing impacts of industrial development and environmental degradation.
The event sparked major action, shining a light on not only industrial environmental transgressions like pollution, biodiversity loss and more, but also on social desire for change. By the end of that year, the first Earth Day had led to the creation of the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of several landmark environmental laws, including the National Environmental Education Act and the Clean Air Act.
Half a century later, Earth Day is widely regarded as the largest secular observance in the world, celebrated in more than 190 countries. Though this time has seen significant progress in environmental consciousness and stewardship, there is still a long way to go toward establishing a global culture of sustainability.
Climate Pressures Continue to Rise
We are all feeling the effects of climate change, from increasing wildfires and hurricanes to agricultural disruption and drought. And while the decarbonization and sustainability movements are supported more widely than ever, we’re still climbing uphill.
The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recently released a report to announce the world is warming much quicker than previously believed — on our current trajectory, global warming is on track to raise to 3 degrees Celsius, twice the target set by the Paris Agreement. This revelation has shattered the efficacy of many long-term sustainability goals and decarbonization targets by asserting that greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions should peak no later than 2025 to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
Rather than dwelling on our potential doom, the report shines a light on the myriad of technologies and national success stories that are ready to accelerate global decarbonization, like the 18 countries who have proven it is possible to reduce GHG emissions for 10 years’ running, and the advent of carbon-free and low-carbon technologies like nuclear and hydroelectric power.
Earth Day in the New Age
In 2022, the main goals of Earth Day are the same as they were in 1970: drive positive change in environmental stewardship and sustainability.
Though we have made significant regulatory and social progress toward these goals, many of the concerns that initiated the first Earth Day — pollution, environmental degradation, reliance on fossil-fuels — remain top concerns in today’s social consciousness, made more complex by the contemporary megatrends of globalization and digitalization.
With these megatrends have come shifts in our understanding of sustainability. In this new age, companies still juggle long-standing concerns around waste, pollution and what are now considered Scope 1 GHGs, but also are looking beyond to Scope 2 and Scope 3 emissions, water loss mitigation, and incorporation of environmental, social and governance factors.
Though the depth and breadth of sustainability considerations have grown since 1970 (and will likely continue to evolve far into the future) the modern Earth Day is a chance to rejoice in the progress we have made and to renew and restructure our goals in light of our changing understanding of climate and environmental challenges.
The theme of Earth Day 2022 — “Invest in Our Planet” — gets to the heart of what we need in the sustainability strategy of our globalized, digitalized world: to make meaningful change, we must band together across differences to invest time, resources, funding and brainpower into cultivating a culture that embraces sustainability at all levels.
The Need for Corporate Sustainability
Individuals, organizations, communities and governments all contribute to shaping our conceptions of sustainability, and all play a role in ensuring we honor those conceptions in action. But if we’re being honest, major companies have the biggest role to play in making changes that measurably affect threats to our climate, environment and ways of life.
This realization barreled into the public consciousness in 2017, when the CDP Carbon Majors Report 2017 revealed that 100 corporate and state producers account for 71 percent of the global industrial GHG emissions. It went on to explain that more than half of global industrial emissions since 1988 can be attributed to just 25 corporate and state-owned entities.
Recognizing this, and their power to sway global trends for better or for worse, many large companies have taken the growing decarbonization and sustainability movements as opportunities to enact positive change. Companies across all sectors are turning attention to sustainability as a main pillar of their business practices.
Black & Veatch’s 2021 Corporate Sustainability Goal Setting and Measurement Report, developed in partnership with GreenBiz Group and based on a survey of fortune 500 companies, found that more than 80 percent of companies surveyed with revenues greater than $250 million have set GHG reduction goals.
And they aren’t just limiting their own emissions, they are also looking to influence the companies around them to do the same — 67 percent of the survey’s largest companies (those with a revenue greater than $10 billion) have set Scope 3 emissions targets, according to the report.
While these commitments are a beacon of hope to those passionate about decarbonization, sustainability on the whole is so much more than just emissions reduction. True sustainability takes a holistic approach, considering everything from building materials to water loss-mitigation to social justice.
4 Ways to Develop a Corporate Culture of Sustainability
As companies continue to work toward being more sustainable, they should look beyond the obvious areas for improvement, like mitigating their carbon intensity, also working to be more thoughtful about the various impacts their practices have across the three pillars of sustainability — people, planet and profits. To start, companies should work to build internal cultures of sustainability within their organizations, considering responsible, equitable use and action at all levels of operation.
As companies take on this challenge, there are 4 high-level objectives they should prioritize:
- Embrace Innovation The most powerful tools we have in successfully reaching sustainability targets are new ideas and technologies. Whether it be low- or zero-carbon energy solutions like hydrogen and sustainable aviation fuels (SAF), or restructured approaches to recycling of building materials, innovation has the power to accelerate decarbonization and sustainability. Investing in and embracing innovation within companies is key to optimizing all available routes for progress and staying ahead of evolving notions of sustainability.
At Black & Veatch, we embrace innovation through our Ignite programs, which accelerate sustainability solutions and drive rapid growth of new ideas, offering funding, mentorship and more to internal and external entrepreneurs.
To date, the Ignite programs have invested at least $1 million in innovation. What is more, the efforts demonstrate our dedication to cherishing and fostering new, creative sustainability solutions, setting the tone for all work done by and with Black & Veatch.
- Build Individual Accountability: When it comes to creating cultures of sustainability, it is imperative that companies not just develop overarching goals for the company but also foster these values from the bottom up, starting with each employee.
In order to truly develop a sustainable culture, a company must work to ensure every team member takes individual accountability to acting more sustainably, whether it’s as small as printing less documents, or as large as working with a major client to choose carbon-free generation over the fossil-based option. Encourage each employee to take an active role in sustainability, taking the initiative to implement it whenever and wherever possible.
To do this, focus on hiring and amplifying the voices of people passionate about sustainability, and place emphasis on educating employees about the importance of sustainability not just to the company, but to humanity.
- Harness Data Analytics: Never has the world been this connected, having so many tools to collect, analyze and share information on just about any metric you can dream up. With so many possibilities, harnessing data analytics is a no-brainer for any company looking to improve.
For sustainability specifically, there are a wealth of ways to utilize data, from modeling potential system upgrades to mitigate emissions or water loss, to demonstrating the advantages of sustainable investment to company stakeholders. According to the Corporate Sustainability Goal Setting and Measurement Report, more than three quarters of companies with revenues greater than $10 billion are using analytics to reduce energy and water usage, as are more than half of all other companies.
Beyond aiding upgrade and investment decisions, data analytics are key to demonstrating the effectiveness of sustainability strategies by offering key metrics and benchmarks for improvement. Sharing this information inspires and energizes sustainability efforts by demonstrating progress and by revealing what more can be done.
- Choose Like-Minded Partners: You become who you surround yourself with, whether personally or professionally. To ensure you develop and maintain a sustainable culture within your company, choose to work with other companies that hold similar values, even if it is less convenient.
Putting your values first and enforcing them by working with like-minded companies will elevate and sustain your own goals while sending a message both internally and externally about who you are and what you value.
Asking for Help
Although the Corporate Sustainability Goal Setting and Measurement Report proved most companies have sustainability goals, it also found that 25 percent of those companies are unsure of how they will reach them — and that’s okay!
You don’t need to have all the answers to make a difference. When in doubt, reach out to trusted partners with experience in sustainable strategy building and development.
Black & Veatch can be that partner for you. We are serious about promoting sustainability as we work to build a world of difference. Although sustainability targets are often widely publicized, the actions taken to reach those targets are often taken behind the scenes. That’s where we come in.
At Black & Veatch, we specialize in making the invisible invaluable. While your clients and customers may not see the time, resources and system upgrades you have invested in your sustainability strategy, they will recognize the invaluable benefits of your targets being reached.
As you reflect this Earth Day on what sustainability means in the modern day, consider how building a culture of sustainability at your company can accelerate your sustainability and decarbonization goals while matching society’s growing desire for responsible, thoughtful industry. More than 50 years after the first Earth Day was established, we still need significant effort to enshrine sustainable practices into all levels of the economy. So, cultivate a culture of sustainability at your company — and watch as the positive effects reverberate through your workforce and beyond.