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Idaho companies are starting to climb aboard the sustainability bandwagon

Anne Wallace Allen 2015As a corporate sustainability professional, John Bernardo walks a tightrope. Bernardo, an executive in residence at Boise State University’s College of Business and a sustainability strategist at Idaho Power, can’t identify himself with environmentalists in a state and industry where that group is viewed at best with suspicion. Yet he’s charged with saving money and energy at the state’s public/private utility, a place with a gigantic impact on Idaho’s carbon footprint and its future energy use.

So Bernardo, like his counterparts elsewhere in the corporate world, has come up with a formula that puts the financial benefits of sustainability first. He describes sustainability as a three-legged stool where the business, and its profits, are the seat. The legs – all the same length – are financial, environmental, and social considerations.

“I lead with, ‘What are the financial benefits from doing this project?’” Bernardo said.

At Idaho Power, projects include things like increasing Idaho Power’s reliance on renewable energy sources, including wind and solar. The company says its carbon dioxide emissions dropped 12 percent between 2015 and 2016, and the company now buys power from 47 independent solar and wind projects.

Bernardo belongs to a growing group in Idaho. Nationally, the idea of having a dedicated corporate sustainability leader on staff just started taking hold 12 to 15 years ago. The positions have multiplied rapidly in response to shareholder and customer pressure for things like ethnic diversity and better working conditions in the supply chain, and for the cost savings that come from saving energy. Last year, 80 percent of Fortune 500 companies produced a sustainability report, Bernardo said.

Nearly half the U.S. companies surveyed by Weinreb Group, a sustainability recruiting firm, reported they had increased sustainability positions in their organization in the last two years. The report, “State of the Profession 2016,” said companies were spending more on sustainability in functions such as supply chain and product innovation.

In Idaho, the J.R. Simplot Company hired its first dedicated sustainability director, Brandy Wilson, in April. Simplot was already well known in agribusiness for the energy-saving measures at its food processing plants, and the company has had corporate-wide energy savings goals for years.

Wilson joined Simplot after 21 years at CH2M Hill, where she had worked as global sustainability director at the engineering company’s Boise office. Like Bernardo, she stresses the triple bottom line of social, economic, and environmental benefits.  Wilson’s job is to help Simplot work toward corporate-wide social, economic, and environmental sustainability goals. The move toward a more holistic position was driven by customer demand, Wilson said.

“Businesses are looking at their supply chains and saying, ‘How can we be more sustainable?’” Wilson said. “That’s a rising tide that brings up all boats.”

For these professionals, social sustainability means more diversity in all positions at the company, including leadership; reducing waste in order to reduce environmental impact; and making operations more efficient throughout the company, including in the supply chain.

Bernardo’s been in his position at Idaho Power for seven years; before that, he worked as a sustainability consultant for large companies like Albertsons and St. Luke’s Health System. Other companies that have recently hired sustainability directors include Micron, where Demi Fisher has been director of sustainability for about a year and a half, and Katie Clark at Happy Family Brands, a Boise company that makes baby food. The city of Boise recently hired a sustainability coordinator, Haley Falconer. HP’s Environmental Leadership Program Manager Shelley Zimmer has led seminars on sustainability for the Boise Metro Chamber with Bernardo. Albertsons has a corporate sustainability director, Darcie Renn, who works out of the company’s Pleasanton, Calif. office.

For Bernardo, sustainability has nothing to do with recycling or being green. For him, it won’t work unless it includes the financial, environmental, and social considerations. He uses electric vehicles to illustrate how some sustainable initiatives can serve the needs of his position.

“Start with financial: If I can get people to use my fuel instead of gasoline, that’s greater demand for our product,” he said. “Environmental: Emissions associated with our generation sources are less impactful than an internal combustion engine tailpipe. And the social benefit: If you compare a gallon of my fuel, electricity, vs. a gallon of gasoline, you’re going to pay 95 cents a gallon for mine, plus an electric vehicle has a lower operations and maintenance cost.”

Clark said the sustainability person’s position in the company is a measure of the company’s commitment.

“Sometimes you see the position reporting to PR or legal, and that means they see it as either a marketing opportunity or a risk to be managed,” said Clark, who works as part of the operations team at Happy Family. “When it is under the operations team, it’s a good signal that it is seen as work that needs to be done on the ground to make a lot of impact.”

Bernardo held seminars for Boise Metro Chamber members with Zimmer because he wants to educate small business owners on ways to operate more efficiently and reduce their costs. He also serves as a sustainability mentor on the Chamber’s b|wise program.

“I’m not trying to save the world,” he said. “I’m just trying to make an impact around me.”

About Anne Wallace Allen

Anne Wallace Allen is the editor of the Idaho Business Review.