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"
Oct 21, 2013 11:00 AM ET

The Bottom Line

This article is reprinted by permission from The Environmental Forum®, Nov./Dec. 2013.
Copyright © 2013, Environmental Law Institute®, Washington, D.C.

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 Read more about sustainability at Weyerhaeuser: