Measuring Progress in Environmental Sustainability
Part I of II

"It Ain't Easy Being Green!"

(Kermit the Frog, Sesame Street)

Aug/Sept 2016 VOL 14 No. 4

Nicholas R. Hild, PhD.

I have assumed a new role with my colleagues at the Polytechnic Campus Environmental and Resources Management (ERM) program: helping students find internships and full time jobs. In researching companies and agencies where internships and jobs might be available, I've had the opportunity to talk to a number of HR people and pick up some helpful information that I can pass along to students. Some of that information came as somewhat of a surprise and might also be of value for practicing EH&S professionals so I thought I would share it here in the Journal where it will get the widest exposure.

A long time ago, in 1996 to be exact, our academic and certificate program in Environmental Technology Management (now ERM) moved to the ASU East campus (now the Polytechnic campus) at the former Williams AFB site in southeast Mesa. At that time, we offered two undergraduate and graduate level courses in Sustainability and Sustainable Development, the first courses in Environmental Sustainability to be offered anywhere at ASU. In those courses, we always taught from the classic (then) definition of what "sustainable development" is: this landmark definition first appeared in 1987 in the World Commission on Environment and Development Report (produced by the UN Brutland Commission) as "Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

Using that definition allowed further refinement for defining sustainability as the implementation of processes, technologies, and programs which, when implemented, allowed us to target the various sustainable technologies that could be a part of any company, agency or industry's Environmental Management System (EMS). By providing the tools for implementing good EMS programs, students graduate with a broad technical environmental knowledge base that allows them to contribute to a company's sustainability (EMS) program early in their employment.

Today, 20 years later, we still teach those sustainability courses but they've taken on new challenges now that the low hanging (sustainability) fruit has been plucked. And, one of these challenges is to prepare today's students with the latest tools to be able to join an environmental team having learned the various ways that sustainability is implemented utilizing today's digital and high tech tools and techniques. That knowledge, most importantly, includes a thorough understanding of where and how to measure (environmental) sustainability.

I have noted in previous articles that we subscribe to the adage that, "…if you can't measure it, you can't manage it!" and that is true of being able to measure the sustainable progress a company has made over a given period of time. Today, most companies issue an annual report that discusses their financial gains/losses as well as providing progress updates on various different products and processes within the company. One of those special sections in most company's Annual Report is how they have performed in the general area of managing their environmental footprint (i.e. just how sustainable are they?). And, most of those reports try to portray a 'positive' view of the company and its efforts to be a good environmental citizen in the communities where they are located.

But, when I spoke to several HR people in Arizona companies about what they liked to see in a graduating student seeking an EH&S position, several of them focused on the general knowledge that there are ways to measure sustainability which they want incoming applicants to be familiar with. The most common feedback they gave me was (paraphrasing): some of the questions we ask in an interview are to find out what they know about the company already, particularly if they know about EMS' and how their sustainability can be measured. Specifically several HR interviewers ask the question: "if you were to be hired, how would you measure our progress in being environmentally sustainable?"

As I reviewed my notes from the interviews over several different companies, I realized this was fast becoming a critical area that our students needed to be aware of if they were going to hope to succeed in becoming environmental professionals when they graduate, so I have compiled some helpful suggestions that I am sharing here in the hope that you will then utilize for your internships and/or for your newly hired EH&S professional.

Certainly, all our students (and, students majoring in the environmental sciences everywhere) and EH&S professionals everywhere are familiar with the LEED Green Building program that was one of the earliest certification programs that "measured" sustainability.  Companies that are LEED certified use that in their Annual Reports, so that would be the most common response to the question in the interview has been: "…achieving LEED certification is a measure of a company's sustainability." But, from the HR people I spoke to about this question, they want more from today's grad than LEED. They want to know that job seekers have done their research and looked at new and innovative ways that sustainability can be implemented---they want to know what sustainability measuring tools are out there that they may not know about. And it is a key area where pre-interview efforts should be focused: knowing where to find those 'measurement' resources demonstrates that you are prepared to be a contributing member of their EH&S team.

In the next issue of the Journal, in Part II, I will share some of my findings from the literature on the methods that companies can use to measure the effectiveness of their sustainability programs. In the meantime, give some thought to how you might answer the question: what methods would you use to measure the effectiveness of a company's sustainability program? And, just perhaps, together, we can help reduce the environmental footprint of companies in the future, to benefit our children's, children's, children.

This area will be reformated at a later date.