Sustainable Business Challenge Not Just About Saving Water, Pushes Companies To Embrace Diversity

Jan 5, 2018

For eight years, Sustainable Pittsburgh has encouraged hundreds of local businesses to adopt environmentally friendly practices as part of its annual Green Workplace Challenge. 

The organization also pushes local businesses to think about diversity and inclusiveness, and is rebranding the competition this year as the Sustainable Pittsburgh Challenge.

90.5 WESA’s Kathleen Davis talked to Sustainable Pittsburgh executive director Court Gould about why sustainability is about more than just saving water and electricity. 

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

KATHLEEN DAVIS: It seems like a wide range of companies can get involved, everything from the Pittsburgh Zoo to breweries.

COURT GOULD: Well you're right, it's a wide range of organizations that participate from petrochemical to prisons. It's inclusive really of any type of organization. So businesses, universities, nonprofits, K-12 schools even are welcome to participate. Over the course of the four competitions, as we enter the fifth, some 250 organizations in our region have participated, representing tens of thousands of employees who took nearly 8,000 sustainable actions over the course of the competitions. Some hundred million gallons of water have been saved which, having some fun with the social math, is equivalent to filling Heinz Field to a depth of 232 feet. The energy saved, put into something we're familiar with, equates to almost 12,000 homes being provided their 12 months worth of energy needs for a typical American home. So these are real tangible savings that relate to environmental, social and governance performance for our region as well.

DAVIS: Your goals are based on sustainability, but not just in terms of energy consumption or the environment. You also focus on fostering diverse and inclusive workplaces. Can you tell me a little bit why it was important for you to include metrics like these? 

GOULD: In the global market economy, the measures that account for a corporation's prospects of being successful in attracting talent and attracting investment come down to a portfolio of measures that can be captured in "ESG" -- environment, social and governance. So you see, the way a business governs itself, the number of women on its board of directors, equal pay among workers, inclusion and diversity strategies, these are as material to businesses and organizations' success as is how much energy it uses, how much it spends on excessive use of water and so on.

DAVIS: What are some examples of changes you've seen companies make during the challenge?

GOULD: Some 250 participants in the sustainable Pittsburgh challenge to date have implemented actions that range from low flush plumbing systems to adding plants in their offices to cutting back on portable heaters under their desks to save energy. A story that touched the public's interest -- prisoners at the Allegheny County jail often flush their toilets to communicate with one another, causing a real clamor, but also wasting a lot of water. As a participant in the Sustainable Pittsburgh Challenge, the jail installed innovations such that toilets can't be flushed more than a certain number of times over a given period and saved a remarkable amount of water.

DAVIS: I'm sure that the spirit of competition and working toward a good cause is appealing for a lot of companies. But once the competition is over, do you see that these changes stick?

GOULD: First, it's more than just doing nice things. These are business bottom line actions that are saving money, avoiding risk, keeping employees happy and productive and winning in the constant competition among all types of organizations for investment, consumers and business. So yes, indeed the organizations that have participated in the Sustainable Pittsburgh Challenge keep coming back. We have about a 50 percent retention rate which is remarkable, given that it probably is harder each time an organization participates because they have already reaped the low hanging fruit of some of the actions. For example to not waste energy or creating an inclusion policy. So those organizations are demonstrating that they really understand the necessity of continually upping their performance measuring and reporting transparently.