When asked what sustainability means to Pittsburgh's businesses, guests at Duquesne University's Beard Symposium cited job creation, water protection and long-term viability for emerging companies as critical factors.
But to Peter Senge, keynote speaker and author of "The Fifth Discipline" and "The Necessary Revolution," the concept of sustainability needs to go beyond waste and emissions reductions to the hearts and minds of consumers and businesses that believe a cycle of constant spending and dumping can continue unabated.
"It's a finite planet with finite resources and a finite ability to store our junk. That doesn't mean businesses can't grow. It does mean that we have to redefine growth," he said.
Mr. Senge's address was one of the highlights of the Fifth Annual Beard Symposium, "Sustainable Business: Responsibility & Results." More than 200 attendees representing more than a dozen local and national businesses gathered at the Fairmont Pittsburgh Downtown to hear Mr. Senge and to participate in an executive forum on the future of sustainability in businesses locally and internationally.
The symposium also recognized science and technology corporation 3M with the Beard Institute's "Green to Gold" award, which is given to organizations that implement sustainable business practices and maintain commercial success.
Andrew Winston, co-author of the green business guide "Green to Gold," said 3M's history of sustainable practices and recent successes made it an easy finalist for the award. From 2002 to 2007, the company reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by 60 percent.
"3M is one of the first companies to make a concerted effort for pollution prevention to be a focus of the company's mission and they have since the 1970s," he said.
While Mr. Senge applauded the efforts of 3M and other companies that hold themselves to high standards for certain sustainable practices, he said those practices represent only the start of a truly sustainable global business economy.
Companies hoping to achieve true sustainability will have to expand outside of their own properties and operations to take into account the natural and human resources used to create their products. Not only that, companies must find ways to conduct truly comprehensive audits of how much of any given resource they are using.
He cited a study conducted by Coca-Cola in the early 2000s that determined the beverage company used 3.2 liters of water for every liter of Coke created.
But once the company decided to work with the World Wildlife Fund to expand the study, results showed the company actually used 250 liters of water for every liter of Coke. The discrepancy: Coca-Cola failed to account for how much water was used to grow sugar used in the product.
"As people on the planet, as a society, as business owners, we have to learn how we're going to manage water sustainably. End of story," said Mr. Senge.
He has been encouraged by collaborative efforts for complete systems sustainability overseas, particularly an initiative between Unilever, a London-based nutrition and personal care conglomerate, and Oxfam International, a European non-profit focused on issues surrounding poverty and injustice.
The organizations joined forces in 2002 to create a partnership on smallholder sourcing intended to help poor rural farmers plug take part in commercial farming and to encourage fair trade of the world's commodities.
He also applauded efforts by Chinese party leaders and businesses. The party leaders have pledged to reduce carbon emission intent by 40 to 45 percent by 2020 and Chinese businesses have taken the lead in creating alternative energy sources, energy storage products and innovations designed to decrease greenhouse gas input.
One Chinese company is creating massive algae farms to be placed directly on top of coal burning energy plants to sequester their heavy carbon dioxide emissions directly at the source. From that point, the algae can either be eaten or be used as a biofuel product.
He said the company can capture 20 percent of emissions made from coal-based energy using this technology today. Company leaders believe they will eventually capture 100 percent of emissions.
Misconceptions about climate change in America have led to a decrease in the number of citizens who believe sustainable policies should be a priority in business, said Mr. Senge.
But he also noted that individually, more than 1,000 American cities have signed on to the Kyoto Protocol -- an international agreement that sets targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Regardless of those small steps, Mr. Senge said it is imperative to get the message out to all Americans that sustainability is about maintaining the resources that make it possible to do business.
"We have to make a compelling business case. People have to start to see these issues of waste, water, energy, toxicity, poverty ... as literally part of who we are as a business," he said.
"Obviously we need to find practical ways to make a contribution that makes sense to us in business. There's nothing wrong with that. That's what I call the beginning of the beginning."
Deborah M. Todd: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1652.