Vancouver companies lead panel on the challenges and methods of embracing sustainability

Panel of VPs discusses challenges at Sustainable Brands conference


How does a company embrace sustainability? Vice-presidents from some of Vancouver’s top companies, including Teck Resources (TSX:TECK.B), QuadReal and Lululemon Athletica Inc. (NASDAQ:LULU) took to a panel at the Sustainable Brands conference at the Vancouver Convention Centre to speak on the issue June 6.

The panel was led by Stephanie Bertels of the Embedding Project, a research project hosted by Simon Fraser University’s Beedie School of Business, which works with companies in Canada and internationally to help them integrate sustainability goals.

The research project received a $2.5 million grant from the Canadian government to continue its work on sustainability with companies, institutions and non-profits.

One of the earliest challenges faced by companies working to embed sustainability is having a solid definition of the term, something the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority found itself addressing five years ago.

“We didn’t understand what sustainability meant, in our context,” said Duncan Wilson, vice-president of corporate social responsibility at the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority.

“We had high practice at tackling issues, but our lowest practice was sustainability goals.”

Wilson highlighted the work done by the Port Authority’s Enhancing Cetacean Habitat and Observation (ECHO) program, aimed at reducing the effect of ship traffic on orcas living in British Columbia’s southern coast, as a great start. Moving forward, they’ve worked with Bertels on developing sustainability metrics that will help measure and define what port activities deserve more focus.

One of the Embedding Project's major partners and sources of funding, Teck Resources, faced similar hurdles in defining sustainability. Teck's president of sustainability and external affairs, Marcia Smith, recalled initial confusion within the company about the term.

“People didn’t agree [on] what it was,” said Smith. “Those in the room remember it was a hot topic.”

The mining company eventually developed long-term visions in key focus areas, such as having a net-positive impact on biodiversity by 2030, but kept the focus on short-term goals to stay on track.

“We were talking a lot about air quality and climate change in a way we hadn’t before,” said Smith.

But a lack of understanding about sustainability continues to hinder Smith when she engages with others in the mining industry.

“I really want to work out of the title of SVP of Sustainability,” said Smith. “People still ask what it means.

“We need to move to when sustainability is not a part of someone’s title, it’s just a part of the company.”

One way to get company shareholders on board with sustainability, according to Jamie Gray-Donald, vice-president of sustainability at QuadReal, is to drive home the benefits.

“Green certification is shown to have a strong correlation with better financial returns,” said Gray-Donald. “You avoid obsolescence [with older buildings], and reducing energy use means tenants pay less in energy bills.”

QuadReal’s sustainability plan has been to set one context-based goal for each year. This year, it’s reducing carbon output.

“Lots of internal education right now to get people prepared for carbon on their scorecards,” said Gray-Donald. “They might understand energy efficiency but not carbon.”

Still, Gray-Donald sees that lofty sustainability goals are potentially frightening to his colleagues, including QuadReal’s commitment to meeting their share of Canada’s climate change commitments.

“[Originally] it was 30% intensity reduction by 2030 so it wasn’t a threat,” said Gray-Donald, “But over time I’ve talked more about what that meant. 80% by 2050… People’s eyes widen but no one said no.”

Gray-Donald attributes his partial success in embedding sustainability to adapting his presentations and pitches to the world of real-estate development, a sentiment echoed by others on the panel. Esther Speck, vice-president of global sustainability at Lululemon Athletica Inc., spoke at length on the importance for sustainability heads in companies to adapt.

“People get into the field with a science background, but then understand it’s the how that gets things going,” said Speck. 

While Lululemon is working on developing its next strategies to make its products more sustainable, Speck said that all of the company’s distribution centres will soon be zero-waste.