None of the world’s leading companies pursuing sustainability are U.S.-based, reports Oekom Research, a German company in its annual Corporate Responsibility Review. What could we do about this in New Jersey? Researchers from the Fairleigh Dickinson University (FDU) Institute for Sustainable Enterprise (ISE) can offer some ideas. The mission of ISE is to “bring people together to learn how to live and manage sustainably by solving problems and capitalizing on opportunities in ways that simultaneously enhance economic, social, and environmental vitality.” It is the intellectual hub of sustainable business thinking in New Jersey.
ISE’s 2010 report Developing and Implementing a Sustainable Growth Strategy for New Jersey provided several guidelines for developing a “Green Economy” – an economy that includes and extends beyond clean energy, potentially penetrating all business sectors to protect and restore the environment while creating economic growth. The report, which urges all sectors to practice corporate social responsibility and aim towards greater levels of sustainability, concludes that “New Jersey has a unique opportunity to play a leadership role.”
More recently, ISE and FDU’s PublicMind, at the request of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection’s Sustainable Business Initiative, conducted the First Annual Survey of New Jersey Business Sustainability for 2012. The New Jersey Chamber of Commerce, regional Chambers, and other business organizations helped distribute it. Almost 300 responses were received and analyzed by the main authors Joel Harmon, Ph.D. and Kent Fairfield, Ph.D. The Survey’s purpose was to discover how and why New Jersey companies are managing for sustainability. Results were both expected and deeply surprising.
Key Findings of the First Annual Survey of New Jersey Business Sustainability
Over 50% of the respondents reported their businesses as being at least moderately engaged in all specific sustainability practices asked about in the survey. Recycling was by far the most implemented sustainability practice reported, with 92% saying their companies are recycling to at least a moderate extent and almost three-quarters to a great extent. Improving energy efficiency and supporting employees in community volunteerism were the next most engaged-in sustainability practices.
The two strongest reported sustainability motives were a belief that it is the right thing to do and potential cost savings, with over 85% reporting at least a moderate amount of, and over 61% a great extent of influence. Other strong sustainability motives for which over 75% of respondents reported at least a moderate extent of influence included satisfying customers’ interests, potential to improve image and reputation, fostering a healthy society, and satisfying regulatory demands.
The enabling conditions inside a company that best facilitate sustainability were top management support, awareness of sustainability issues important to the company, and deeply-held company sustainability values.
Respondents reported that the most important sustainability-related external factors for their continued business success were energy affordability and availability, and social stability. The next strongest factors were water quality and availability, and air quality. After that, about two thirds reported climate change (e.g. sea level rise, extreme weather events), and food quality and security as moderately important external factors. Businesses seem to recognize that both environmental and social conditions are important to their success.
The three bold-type phrases above together show a strong “values-oriented” motivation; a cluster we can broadly call “because it’s the right thing to do.” This is the most surprising finding from the Survey. Smaller companies were not utilizing as many sustainability practices as large companies, but were found to have similar motives.
Some of the Report’s recommendations are:
- Pay greater attention to the need for sustainability management and its benefits.
- Don’t be afraid to go beyond the narrow financial “business case” in discussions about sustainability.
- Educate more businesses about the relevance of key sustainability issues and provide suggested actions they could take.
- Put greater emphasis on sustainability benefits other than cost savings and regulatory
One implication is for an “opening up” of how we typically communicate and even think about the case for business sustainability practices. Not everything has to be couched in terms of “cost savings.” As the Report notes: “…the sustainability challenges we face are great,” and “values for community benefit also seem to matter a great deal to New Jersey business leaders.” Companies seem ready for such a message.
According to ISE Executive Director Joel Harmon, “The fact that the business leaders we surveyed seemed to be investing in sustainability as much because it was the right thing to do as for pragmatic reasons was a little surprising but very gratifying to those who see the potential for business to strengthen society while helping their bottom line.”
“This survey provides a much needed baseline from which New Jersey companies can move forward on their journeys to sustainability,” added Dr. Jeana Wirtenberg, co-founder of ISE and CEO of Transitioning to Green. “While there is much progress that has been made, clearly more needs to be done. I believe that we are close to a tipping point, and leadership, culture change, training, and employee engagement will be the keys to making needed progress. I also hope this survey can provide a model and drive similar actions for other states throughout the United States, if not the world.”
ISE anticipates repeating this Survey annually, but with a larger sample size to allow for more statistically relevant findings and detailed analyses of specific sectors.
As the “because it’s the right thing to do” cluster of responses is so surprising, one of the co-authors (Polsky) anticipates writing a four-part series for the journal Sustainable Brands on its implications. It will discuss other areas of sustainable business where complementary evidence is emerging, but is not being collectively noticed, or recognized as a potential new paradigm, perhaps because it is so counter-intuitive. It will point out that businesses caring about global concerns may not be as crazy as it appears.
Finally, we might ask ourselves, “How could the business version of ‘having a heart’ help New Jersey companies and the state’s economy in general take big steps towards forging a Green Economy?” Building on the guidelines and recommendations of ISE’s reports, we have the building blocks to create a new way to improve both the state’s economy and environment. It would be a shame not to take advantage of this opportunity. We hope this article and these reports generate new discussions about the possibilities.
Aravkar is a Graduate Assistant at ISE.
Image of FDU’s Gold-Level LEED Certified Monninger Center courtesy of Fairleigh Dickinson University