The Path to TRUE Sustainability

On September 25, 2015, the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit set an agenda of 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Among them was a goal to ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns. In “Sustainable Advantage: Accelerating from Regulatory Compliance to Environmental Sustainability”, Charles Lee of the University of Newcastle in Australia has created a four stage process in achieving what he refers to as “true sustainability.” Though he does acknowledge the difficulty to achieve this otherwise environmental version of Nirvana, he does cite various examples of companies that have taken the initiative to get there.

Regulatory Compliance

Lee’s first stage is regulatory compliance, which is regarded as the bare minimum of the path to sustainability due to disregard for accumulative impact of environmental harm and inadequacy when considering long term sustainability goals. An example of this is a facility that discharges wastewater, while meeting a standard of 0.1 mg copper per liter which amounts to 3.7 kg per year. Over the long term, the discharge of copper would most certainly have a negative impact on the ecosystem. Industry must also consider the risk of continuing to pollute versus changing the way that they’re thinking about consumption of resources and the benefits that come along with it.

Environmental Management Systems

Stage two involves incorporating an Environmental Management System or EMS into industrial processes. The implementation of an EMS requires an industry to continuously improve environmental performance by assuring that the industry meets the best practices that are environmentally acceptable. A more common example of an EMS is ISO 14001. This system allows industry to shift from reactive thinking to proactive thinking regarding their environmental impact. An EMS also empowers industries to evaluate the environmental performance of their supply chain, or suppliers and contractors involved in their production process.

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Industrial Ecology

To most, industrial ecology sounds like an oxymoron or a green-washing term that companies use to say they are planting trees once a year, but it’s much more than that. The third stage is a combination of ecological principles embedded into industrial processes. Lee refers to the multiple concepts familiar to the sustainability realm but not always grouped together: Life Cycle Assessments (LCA), Design for the Environment (DfE), dematerialization, green manufacturing, extended producer responsibility, and industrial symbiosis. LCA is a way to measure the environmental impact of making a product or providing a service at any point of its life, whether it’s at sourcing the materials, manufacturing, transportation or disposal. Design for Environment is more straightforward, as it considers thinking about the environmental impact of a product in its design. A great example of Industrial Symbiosis is the Kalundborg Industrial Park in Denmark which combines the Asnaes power station, an oil refinery, a pharmaceutical firm and a waste handling company. The combination of these industries resulted – to name a few – in a reduction of 240,000 tons CO2 emissions, 3 million m3 of water saved through recycling and reuse, and 30,000 tons of straw converted to 5.4 million liters of ethanol. Lee stresses that these stages are not mutually exclusive. In other words, industries can use industrial ecology principles within their environmental management systems on the path to Stage four.


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Zero Emissions

A Circular Economy (the fourth stage) is defined as “an industrial system that is restorative or regenerative by intention and design. It replaces the end-of-life concept with restoration, shifts towards the use of renewable energy, eliminates the use of toxic chemicals, which impair reuse and return to the biosphere, and aims for the elimination of waste through the superior design of materials, products, systems and business models.” Through their “Energy Independence Project,” the City of Gresham Wastewater Treatment Plant eliminated their dependence on the power grid by installing a cogenerative plant through the digestion of fats, oils and grease.” The carpet producer, Interface, set a goal to source 100% of energy from Renewable Sources by 2020. They are well on their way with four out of seven factories operating with 100% renewable energy!

Lee has laid out a framework of four stages to considerable reduce the (negative) impact on the environment. Although seemingly simplistic, these goals are not easy or cheap by any means.. It is very clear that all stages are achievable and have been implemented for all kinds of industries. Although regulatory compliance is more legally driven, there is much to be gained from a risk and financial management standpoint for considering changing the status quo and reevaluating the course of an industry from a sustainable framework.

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Valerie Thorsen

Valerie Thorsen

An environmental engineer with a passion in emission reduction and sustainability, particularly in what businesses can do to reduce their impact and provide environmental outreach for their stakeholders.

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