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Building a Sustainable Business through Performance, Place, and Culture


  • Photographs provided by Dr. Peter Walker, Dean of the Falk School of Sustainability at Chatham University’s Eden Hall campus
  • Photographs provided by Dr. Peter Walker, Dean of the Falk School of Sustainability at Chatham University’s Eden Hall campus
  • Photographs provided by Dr. Peter Walker, Dean of the Falk School of Sustainability at Chatham University’s Eden Hall campus

Recently, the Pittsburgh Business Times and the Green Building Alliance hosted a panel entitled “Building Sustainable Business through Performance, Place and Culture.” The diverse group of panelists each spoke on how their businesses maximize their triple bottom line — their social, environmental, and financial framework — and achieve success in their various industries.

“If you really want to change things, you have to look at the whole system,” said Dr. Peter Walker. “What does it really mean to be a sustainable campus with a sustainable community, with students who get it?” Dr. Walker, Dean of the Falk School of Sustainability at Chatham University’s Eden Hall campus, spoke about what it “really means” to be sustainable: In short, it’s a difference between solving a problem now, and mitigating or preventing the problem in the future. This approach relies on a change in perception. “If you can build an economy where you know in real time where your energy is coming and going,” Dr. Walker posited, “then suddenly, things change.” Businesses must move upstream from the crisis—a crisis of waste, ruin, and environmentally harmful practices—and focus on using fewer resources. It’s an investment, to be sure, but as Dr. Walker pointed out, the geothermal loop used to heat and cool Eden Hall’s residence hall and balance energy between buildings will be paid back in only six years. In the meantime, Eden Hall has become a net-zero campus, meaning they produce as much energy as they use.

The Eden Hall campus embodies a goal that all six panelists reiterated: Businesses strive to use fewer resources while generating more income. To do so, Todd Reidbord, President of sustainable developer Walnut Capital, said that businesses must take advantage of existing infrastructure. For instance, his company’s renovation and expansion of Bakery Square was a relatively inexpensive investment because, as he pointed out, “sustainability is market-driven.” And as Pittsburgh continues to grow, so does its market for sustainability. In Walnut Capital’s case, such an environmentally-sound investment attracted high quality tenants like Google, who want to grow and flourish in a sustainable environment.

Chris Klehm, Vice President of Sustainability and Director of Business Development at Jendoco Construction, echoed this point about the viability of such investments. “The business case for green initiatives is when performance benefits outweigh the initial cost,” he explained. As a result of these initiatives, businesses receive a powerful (and environmentally-friendly) return on investment. Building on those green initiatives, businesses can move towards ultimate success, which is sustainability at no cost. With a collaborative work environment and integrated processes, managers emphasize the importance of these initiatives and illustrate the positive impact of sustainability on employees.

Within the past few years, sustainability has become less of a top-down goal. Jim Fields, Chief Operating Officer at PITT OHIO, notes that the “sustainable” mentality must start with an owner who supports and truly believes in the ethic, to be sure, but this mentality must then proliferate through the whole company in order to actually achieve that goal. Thinking towards the future, PITT OHIO asked themselves how they could recruit the best new talent. So, they reached out to their younger generations of current employees and even interns, and asked them what they wanted to see from their employer. The conclusion was overwhelming: Sustainability is incredibly important to up-and-coming generations. In subsequent years, PITT OHIO has effectively proven its commitment to improving its environmental efficiency and social sustainability performance. At their Pittsburgh terminal, for instance, they installed 180 solar panels and the company’s first WindStax turbine in a partnership with the University of Pittsburgh’s Swanson School of Engineering. This holistic approach to conservation and energy has created a company culture committed to sustainability for future generations.

Beyond technology and practices, Kim McDonald of Covestro—a world-leading supplier of high-tech polymer materials—agrees that businesses must focus on having the right people and culture. To inject sustainability into a corporate culture and preserve it, businesses must also have development goals that are fueled by thought-leadership but also maintained by a strong business case. To support both sides, these sustainable solutions must be creative. For example, Covestro is currently building a production line that will use CO2 to produce high-quality plastics, a process that does not rely on fossil fuels and paves the way for future advancements.

Similarly, Peoples Natural Gas is also using resources in innovative ways. As Barry Kukovich, Manager Communications and Community Affairs, explained, the company has shifted from a utility to an energy company—one committed to implementing new or less familiar technologies to reduce CO2 and methane emissions. In two dozen recent fuel switching projects—such as converting St. Vincent College from coal to natural gas, and switching 17 stations from gasoline over to natural gas—Peoples has collectively reduced CO2 emissions in those locations by 41.6%. In addition, Peoples continues to work with its partners to install fuel cells, combined heat and power (CHP) systems, and microturbines. This spring, for example, with the help of Peoples, Chatham University will install their first microturbine at their Eden Hall campus, hopefully inspiring other universities and businesses to pursue a self-supporting energy model.

As this panel showcased, sustainability success takes many forms. Whether it is teaching a new generation of students on a completely sustainable campus, resurrecting thriving business districts, or raising bees on the roof of an office building, individual sustainability goals must never forget how all of the pieces—performance, place, and culture—tie together. Today, many companies struggle under a 19th Century business model, when a 21st Century full of fresh ideas and groundbreaking technologies is well under way. When will these companies catch up? As Barry Kukovich resolved at the end of the seminar, as long as those companies focus on sustainability, “It’s only a matter of time.”