Sustainability Is The Bottom Line
Sara Kendall, VP corporate affairs and sustainability, shares her first column in the Environmental Law Institute's "The Environmental Forum"
This article is reprinted by permission from The Environmental Forum®, Nov./Dec. 2013.
Copyright © 2013, Environmental Law Institute®, Washington, D.C. www.eli.org.
This column is undergoing a change and I’m thrilled to take on the role, although following Alison Taylor from Siemens is daunting. She’s capably authored this column for the last couple of years. I know I’m not alone in having enjoyed her perspective as someone focused on the sustainability of a large multinational company that manages a diverse portfolio of technology businesses.
My voice, however, will come from a different perspective. I’ve spent my career working on sustainability and environmental, health, and safety issues for a large natural resource company that owns and manages millions of acres of forestlands across North and South America.
Many companies wrestling with their commitment to sustainability want to do things that are good for natural ecosystems, but their primary business may not be directly connected to nature. At Weyerhaeuser, nature is our business. The forest floor is our factory, which means our outputs include not only 2-by-4s, but also clean air and water. While all individuals and businesses impact or use natural resources in some way — whether they realize it or not — ours is a pretty direct connection.
So my topics will tend to lean toward the experiences and perspective that come from working in a natural-resource company. People who work in natural resource industries tend to think about basic societal needs, because that’s how and why our businesses developed and evolved. My business deals with basic needs such as shelter (we make building products from wood and build homes) and personal hygiene (we make cellulose-fiber pulp that goes into diapers and tissue). Our sustainability goals include improving how we make our traditional products and finding compelling new technologies that enable our customers to make innovative use of the natural material we sustainably produce.
We’ve learned a few lessons along the way that I’ll explore in more depth in future columns. One clear lesson: science matters. While this seems intuitive, sometimes it’s easy to assume an idea that’s popular or superficially appealing must be true before we have a foundation of facts based on scientific analysis. Sometimes assumptions turn into what I call “sustainability myths.”
For example, a lot of people believe that by not using a tree, you can “save” a forest. It sounds good; who doesn’t want to have more trees? Judging by people’s email signatures, a lot of them truly believe this statement.
But think about it. If we all collectively decided to stop using the products that come from trees, would private woodland owners (who produce more than 90 percent of U.S. timber) keep their lands forested? Probably not. They’d look to another source of economic return, which would lead to a conversion of that land from forest use — which can range from annual crop agriculture to more sprawling development.
“Saving” a forest by not using a tree is exactly opposite of the long-settled economic law of supply and demand. A thing not demanded will result in that thing not being supplied. Which leads to another clear lesson: economics matter. We need to generate green (read: dollars) to be more green (earth-friendly), whether we’re private forest owners, technology manufacturers, or internet companies.
The bottom line of sustainability is that we shouldn’t be making either-or choices. A more sustainable society creates wealth from the conversion of natural resources to improve global living conditions in a responsible way to ensure that those natural resources are available for future generations.
It isn’t about saving the planet. The planet has been around for four and a half billion years, in a constant state of evolution. So sustainability can’t be about never changing; nature is dynamic whether through evolution or human-induced change. The planet will survive, necessarily different over time than the planet we now know.
A more sustainable planet will still change and evolve. The issue is whether life, including human life, can thrive on the planet as it changes. To thrive, people need to be fed, sheltered, and clothed first, and then we can succeed with education, development, and enlightenment. Responsible wealth creation is needed to support all of those goals.
I look forward to further expanding on these and other views in this column. The field of natural resources is unfamiliar to many people, but is vital to our lives, our businesses, and our individual choices. I’m honored to continue the work of my predecessors in this column, while bringing a different perspective.
Sara Kendall is vice president, corporate affairs and sustainability, Weyerhaeuser Company. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more about sustainability at Weyerhaeuser: http://bit.ly/1f0tW3N.