Tag Archives: Portland State University

Seek Out and Learn from Sustainability Leaders

In a recent article, How to Become a Sustainable Company, in the Summer 2012 issue of the MIT/Sloan Management Review they ask the question, “What differentiates sustainable companies from traditional ones?” To the answer in a minute.

Although the article references commitment to sustainability, noting that few companies are born with it, an issue arises for me that goes beyond terminology and suggests a fundamental misunderstanding  – to be a sustainable company is not equal to being a company committed to sustainability. The adjective, sustainable and the noun sustainability are not one in the same. Unfortunately, the former is what is popular in business, both public and private and the answer to the question above demonstrates what I mean. According to the article the differences are:

  • Sustainable organizations are effective at engaging with external stakeholders and employees
  • They have cultures based on innovation and trust
  • They have a track record of implementing large-scale change

These are not unique to sustainability nor to sustainable companies. Petroleum and  toxin-based companies, for example, may be successful at all three and yet have no commitment to sustainability, to the seven generations, mired as their leadership may be in the short term, and, ultimately, in denial about global warming and the inability of an economic system that externalizes risk and costs to ever bounce back.

Sustainability is a goal, a desire, a hope and it signifies the ABILITY to drive change, first, at the personal level. We need sustainability leaders to drive a sustainability culture in their organizations. This point is raised in the MIT/Sloan report:

“When leadership commitment drives the process, it usually comes from the personal resolution of a CEO to create a more sustainable company. In general, top-level executives have the ability to create an enterprise-wide vision and the clout to see that it is realized. Without this commitment, becoming a sustainable company is a “nonstarter.”

While leadership commitment is talked about as critical,  the report continues with the language of ” leaders of traditional and sustainable companies” rather than sustainability leaders of companies directing our attention to how things are not working rather than who is working. Our sustainability leaders need to influence their “traditional” peers, first,  to raise their consciousness as quickly as possible.  There are two very effective ways to advance the personal and model the behavior that is desperately needed.

Online Video

Screen shot 2012-06-19 at 11.30.53 AMHere’s an interview with Dominique Conseil , Global President of Aveda and Karl-Henrik Robert founder of the Natural Step, both sustainability leaders. Or listen to The Regeneration Project’s Ray Anderson Memorial video series, here is one video, Why Meaningful Progress Depends on Activists – Spotlight on Civil Society, featuring sustainability leaders Jonathon Porritt, Vandana Shiva, Nitin Desai, Lester Brown, Bill Ford, Kris Gopaladrishman, Yolanda Kakabadse and Gro Harlem Brundtland.

Online Video and Research

Dr. David Hall of Portland State University stepped out of the box and advanced the personal by producing a series of sustainability leadership videos as part of his research called Native Perspectives. Here you can listen to the indigenous voices, sustainability leaders, of the Salmon Nation.


The Regeneration Project, between July and October, will host a number of Salons – curated, facilitated conversations sustainability leaderswith influential stakeholders from across industry and sector. These Salons will take place in major international cities across the world. Attendance is to be limited  to approximately 50 people, on an invitation-only basis.  Great work and hopefully the start of something fresh in sustainability awareness, education, and innovation.  The project is an inititiave of GlobeScan, a public opinion research company and Sustainability, a think tank and strategy consultancy.

All of this is to say go ahead and read the research digging into sustainable companies,  but give more time to listening to your peers who are sustainability leaders, pioneers, heroes, and innovators.  Look for research and events that emphasize the personal over organizational. Rely less on processed information when you can now hear directly from the sustainability leadership as found in the hundreds of companies that are for-benefit and in the hundreds of voices of sustainability from across the Web, the reason we invested in bringing together these voices for you in one place, EarthSayers.tv, voices of sustainability.

Ruth Ann Barrett, Sustainability Advocate, June 19, 2012, Portland, Oregon.

Sustainability Curriculum

An apology to my readers for the delay in writing more about what has consumed a good amount of my time over the last few weeks and in hours of Wednesday meetings over the summer months.  Last year I attended the Friday lecture series sponsored by the social sustainability folks at Portland State University (PSU). When summer came along and most of the University folks decamped and the University was quiet, Marion Sharp who leads the Social Sustainability Colloquium on the PSU campus, suggested that if anyone was interested we ought to meet during the summer and explore how we could make the Colloquium more action oriented. A small group, less than ten people, met at that first meeting in June. Today we are having what may be our last meeting, certainly our last summer meeting as we move into fall. One of our actions was to respond in the last few weeks to a “Request for Proposal” from the AASHE – the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education.  Parts of that proposal including an overview of the three programs we outlined as needing the development of a plan and design for action are described at our Website, sustainabilityadoption.com. Here’s a quick look:

AASHE Program OverviewThis is a whopping big topic, sustainability curriculum, and for many of us the RFP presented the opportunity to take a step in the right direction. The RFP covers the development of business plans for these ideas, not the implementation of them: not yet anyway.

What started out as an informal group of  concerned people meeting together during a summer break has turned into a Wisdom Council of twenty people and one action step in the right direction.

Sustainability and Higher Education

The Greening of Educational Institutions

When we began to build the collection of EarthSayers.tv, we reviewed many videos featuring professors and students from colleges around the world, mostly addressing issues of how to make their living, learning, and working spaces more sustainable.  It was how I became aware of the growing movement of “greening” campus operations and endowment practices. The Sustainable Endowments Institute publishes The College Sustainability Report Card and is the only Picture 6independent evaluation of campus and endowment sustainability activities at colleges and universities in the United States and Canada.  The rationale behind investing in this report card is the same reason many companies are touting their green initiatives: “Colleges are now taking pride in greener campuses and sustainability-savvy investments—increasingly important concerns for parents and students in choosing a school…They can find the first comprehensive college sustainability selection tool at GreenReportCard.org.”

Sustainability Research and Curriculum

At the same time, I was seeing on EarthSayers.tv many colleges addressing the academic side of sustainability with courses and programs such as Harvard’s Program in Sustainability and Environmental Management and Portland State University’s (PSU) Graduate Certificate in Sustainability, an integrated series of post-baccalaureate courses that comprise a multidisciplinary study of the environmental, social, and economic dimensions of sustainability.

This interdisciplinary approach is called out in a recently enacted Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 (HR 4137) which included the University Sustainability Program (USP).  Under this Act, individual institutions are eligible for funding to “integrate sustainability curriculum in all programs of instruction, particularly in business, architecture, technology, manufacturing, engineering, and science programs.”  At the original intended authorization level of $50 million, USP will annually support between 25 and 200 sustainability projects as reported by the Campaign for Environmental Literacy.

This growth of the academic side of Sustainability is tracked by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE).  AASHE is an association of colleges and universities working to create a sustainable future. The AASHE notes “from the creation of 70+ sustainability-focused academic programs compared to 27 in the Digest in 2007 and the hiring of 57 new sustainability faculty, to the opening of 13 sustainability-themed research centers and nearly triple that number in the planning stages, it is clear that curricular transformation is underway in the academy.”  They expect a big  boost in numbers and activities given funding of the University Sustainability Program at the Department of Education.

Now that I have relocated EarthSayers.tv and myself to Portland, Oregon from San Francisco, I am taking the opportunity to become more involved in the education side of sustainability. While having worked for the last twenty plus years for corporations, including my own for the last fifteen years, a high tech direct marketing agency, I wanted my understanding and experience with sustainability to be more integrated encompassing education and government as well as business.

Picture 9So for grounding purposes and to help in any way I can with marketing and communications,  I have begun working with the Social Sustainability Network at PSU. The Network is a funded project by the Miller Foundation to develop an infrastructure to support and extend social sustainability work and make a tangible and critical difference in the world.  “The focus is on truly integrating the academy and the community; and theory, research, and practice” says Network organizer, Marion Sharp.  Of particular interest to me is a  colloquium series co-sponsored by the Center of Professional Integrity & Accountability.  Jesse Dillard is the Center’s Director and Retzlaff Chair, Accounting, and a professor of accounting who introduced me to the Network and has been very helpful in introducing me to faculty and staff members.

In upcoming posts I will be reporting back the work of the Network, the Center, and other sustainability-related programs at Portland State University.  This week the School of Business Administration and the Center for Global Leadership in Sustainability is sponsoring the 3rd Annual International Conference on Business and Sustainability, November 5 and 6, 2009. The theme of this year’s conference is regenerate. We hope to include some of the content in EarthSayers.tv, the voices of sustainability.


November 5th and 6th, 2009

Social Sustainability

On Friday I attended a kick off meeting at Portland State University (PSU) addressing social sustainability. It is a  PSU Collaborative Focused on Improving Community Health and Well Being and it took place in the School of Social Work.  What is meant by social sustainability?  The definition for social responsibility refers “to both the processes that create, and the institutions that facilitate, social health and well-being both now and in the future, recognizing that attaining social sustainability requires achieving both economic and environmental sustainability.

When we created EarthSayers.tv to highlight the voices of sustainability, the first thing we ran into was the lack of a taxonomy for the term so we created one. Actually, Dr. Joanne O’Brien-Levy is the author.  The taxonomy, called a content map, is used by us to classify videos as we add them to the EarthSayers collection. We have also found it useful in helping organizations focus on what they are going to do (action) given the length and depth of the concept and the inefficiency of doing a little of this and some of that.  Organizations need to put all their wood behind one arrow.

Content MapThe content map identifies four major elements of sustainability – Systemic Change, Planet, People, Prosperity – with twenty-three categories under these four elements. All keywords and phrases roll up to one of the elements e.g.  consumerism (keyword) to culture and consciousness (category) to people (element).

So, social sustainability I see as part of the element of People and in the category of cities and communities, with the keyword  being social. It also crosses with the category health and well-being which suggests two strong aspects of their work.  I wonder if the group sees it this way.  The Social Sustainability Colloquium is going to be discussing the Ethic of Accountability in an Era of Scarcity: Acting in the Public Interest by Jesse Dillard of the PSU School of Business (People:Governance:public interest), Community Resilience by Kristen Magis of the Leadership Institute, social sustainability funding and social sustainability and social work.  There is also a call for papers for an edited book, Building Social Sustainability in an Era of Scarcity,  featuring the work of the PSU Social Sustainability Network.

What I came away with is there is a very committed group of people, mostly in the school of social work, who have been  active over the years in building the concept of social sustainability.  They are seeking to include community groups in their projects through a network which supports their emphasis on community wellbeing and, to a lesser degree, health and wellness.

Given our economic collapse and deteriating planet there is sense that it is no longer business as usual and this is reflected in their upcomig programs.  Now if only I can convince the group to become EarthSayers and use video and audio to get their story out there, I will feel I have made a contribution.  The academic community is heavily book laden in their communication, but maybe since it isn’t business as usual, they may be open to using the Web more effectively to support people networks (more inclusive) and communicate sustainability principles and practices using audio and video.

I’ll work on it.