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green@work : Magazine : Back Issues : Jul/Aug 2005 : Metaphor

Feature

Forests as a
Metaphor for
Sustainability


By Mark Evertz


One way for businesses to make the idea of sustainability more real is to think about it in terms of their relationships to the forests of the world. Forests are found on every human-inhabited continent of the world.

They provide breathable air, clean water and the products required by businesses every day, such as packaging, user manuals, forms, marketing materials, boardroom tables—even brake pads for delivery trucks. Forests also contribute to a stable global climate—helping to minimize business risk.

Forests, then, play a vital role for any business, and it follows that ensuring the long-term viability of the world’s forests is important to business success. When businesses begin to think about their reliance on forests they can start to act in ways that align financial objectives and daily practices with environmental and social outcomes.

A framework for identifying key issues

Whether one thinks of forests as a defining metaphor or not, it is important to view a company’s practices through a broad life-cycle lens. This allows companies to recognize the intricate and inter-related nature of environmental, social and financial issues. It also places the company within the context of a larger supply chain, recognizing that a company’s footprint does not begin and end at its doorstep.

Understanding the key social and environmental issues associated with a company’s business can be challenging. Companies need a simple framework they can apply to their own unique business operations and use to identify key issues. A framework should be broad enough to capture the major issues facing every business and establish a common language that stakeholders (such as suppliers, employees and others) recognize and value. The framework should also be presented in the context of the outcomes one hopes to achieve, which will drive actions toward sustainability.

As an example, Metafore’s recommended reference framework considers four broad objectives, each described in detail below.

• Maximize the value and utility of raw materials
• Employ clean production practices
• Maintain the productivity of natural systems
• Respect people and society

Maximize the value and utility of raw materials

The process of making, marketing and distributing products requires multiple raw-material inputs such as cotton, cellulose fibers and petroleum for making plastics and other composites. While some raw materials come from renewable sources, others can only be used by depleting finite resources over time.

Maximizing the value of raw materials entails favoring processes that yield the most benefit with the fewest renewable resources that require few, if any, nonrenewable raw-material inputs. It also means capturing the value of raw materials at the end of a product’s useful life for reuse in another application or for energy creation. In this sense, the idea of maximizing the value of a raw material goes hand-in-hand with minimizing waste.

Some companies have addressed this issue by reducing the thickness—also known as the basis weight—of book and magazine paper, or designing products using materials that can be easily recycled and reused.

Employ clean production practices

Manufacturing, production and distribution processes can create concentrations of substances that negatively affect air, water, earth and climate. These include air emissions and pollutants such as solvents, mercury and greenhouse gases. They may be part of the final product, such as a finish or bonding agent, or even a by-product of production.

For businesses, some of the greatest challenges and opportunities related to sustainability are in energy. Since companies use energy directly in their operations and indirectly through the products they buy, there are many ways businesses can make a positive impact—such as buying renewable energy or purchasing products created with cleaner energy profiles.

Maintain the productivity of natural systems

Natural systems are the dynamic ecological processes that provide and sustain renewable resources that living beings require. Natural systems such as forests, oceans, wetlands and prairies produce fiber, food and other products. They also provide other benefits such as clean air and water, biodiversity and climate regulation. The long-term productivity of natural systems can only be maintained through careful management designed to ensure the continuous function and production of a range of benefits over time.

There is a growing number of independent standards for managing natural systems that can be used to certify the quality of individual operations. Third-party certification can be used to ensure that forests, farms and fisheries are managed well and maintain ecosystem values.

There are some areas in which natural systems are so sensitive that management for the production of products for broad human consumption may be inappropriate. Natural systems may also be degraded through the conversion of one natural system (such as a forest) to another (such as agriculture for soybeans, cotton or bamboo). In either case, companies should ensure that products they buy or use are not derived in ways that result in the loss of natural system functions.

Respect for people and society

To conduct business, companies rely on people, communities and the legal structures and institutions they create. Through their products and operations, all businesses have a range of explicit and implicit relationships with workers, consumers and communities. Companies have a choice of acknowledging these connections and acting in ways that respect their importance, particularly as operations and purchasing becomes increasingly global in nature.

Wood and paper products are traded globally. In regions of the world with higher risks of corruption and criminal activity, large volumes of timber can be harvested, transported, processed or sold illegally. This illegal activity robs national governments and local communities of needed revenue, undercuts prices of legally harvested forest products on the world market and finances further conflict.

Where there are inconsistent or conflicting laws within developing countries, the rights of indigenous peoples may be compromised, particularly where there are valuable resources at play. International protocols can provide standards to help businesses recognize those rights through the supply chain.

Another point to consider when factoring in the respect for people and society into business decisions are health, safety and labor practices. These vary widely at a global level and regulations may be absent or poorly enforced in some developing regions of the world.

Businesses can look to international standards such as the United Nations Norms on the Responsibilities of Transnational Corporations and other Business Enterprises with Regard to Human Rights’ to ensure that their actions and those of their suppliers are reasonable and responsible.

Action steps for aligning business operations with social and environmental outcomes

A framework is helpful for sorting through issues, but there are several steps any business should consider to infuse environmental and social goals with financial goals and general business operations. They involve education on the issues, building alliances internally and externally, and collaborating across the supply chain to turn mutually beneficial solutions into business opportunities.

Clarify the company’s objectives based on core values, and determine what you hope to accomplish. A comprehensive internal sustainability framework guides future action, points the organizational compass toward measurable outcomes, and establishes a common language that has meaning to employees, companies within the supply chain and others. Companies that lack clarity on core values or end goals may find themselves in a situation where corporate decisions on environmental and social issues are determined by outsiders rather than the company’s business-management team.

Identify and evaluate the key social and environmental issues relevant to your business practices using a comprehensive life-cycle perspective (see framework).

Gain the support of senior management and encourage key internal champions such as environmental specialists and procurement personnel. Company-wide energy will be needed when the business engages its buyers and vendors to make sure they can achieve the organization’s goals.

Conduct a preliminary supply chain audit to assess the social and environmental issues associated with all products purchased and used for operations, facilities and product lines. A preliminary audit will identify the types of products the company consumes, and can reveal the complexity of a company’s supply chain, presenting ways to streamline it.

Engage and listen to suppliers to better understand how they can help you achieve your objectives and where they may have challenges meeting your needs. Early engagement with suppliers and vendors will also reveal those who are most willing to help the company.

Engage external interests and stakeholders to hear their thoughts and concerns. There may be community groups and environmental non-governmental organizations with a vested interest in your actions. Effective stakeholder engagement focuses on informing, listening and responding.

Seek out experts who can help the company understand issues and terminology, and navigate the social, political and technical landscape. Recognize the difference between organizations advocating for specific issues or solutions and those that can help you achieve your aims.

Communicate the company’s objectives and actions clearly to all those interested, and continue to listen to input from both internal and external parties. Communicate by acting with transparency whenever possible.

Seek partnerships with suppliers and others based on an alignment of values and a mutual interest in shared outcomes. Business relationships based on shared values provide opportunities for stronger and more effective supply chains, in which companies help each other meet social, environmental and financial business objectives.

Putting it all together

Sustainability does not have to be an abstract concept. Given that every business is in the forest business, forests offer a very tangible proxy for beginning to think and act in ways that lead a company toward sustainability.

Knowing a company’s core values is a fundamental first step in developing corporate objectives that can align financial objectives with environmental and social outcomes. Once values and objectives are clear, a simple but comprehensive framework can be applied to identify key social and environmental issues unique to a particular company’s operations.

Since the social and environmental footprint of any business extends beyond its own walls, this is a journey that no single company can take alone. In fact, there are enormous business opportunities in seeking out partners of all sorts—suppliers, customers and stakeholders—that have shared values and common interests in integrating environmental, social and financial objectives within a business process.

These efforts can improve business partnerships and supply-chain relationships, build allegiance with both customers and employees, and position a company brand as a values-driven leader of positive change.

Metafore is a Portland, Ore.-based non-profit that works with business leaders to align business objectives with environmental and social outcomes. To learn more, visit www.metafore.org or call (503) 224-2205.

1 University of Minnesota Human Rights Library Web site, http://www1.umn.edu/humanrts/links/norms-Aug2003.html; U.N. Doc. E/CN.4/Sub.2/2003/12/Rev.2 (2003).

 


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