Environmental Sustainability: Best Practices and Trends

Corporate environmental sustainability is undergoing transformation from a footnote in annual reports to a fundamental pillar supporting a company’s financial disclosures to shareholders.

CEOs are starting to recognize that issues such as climate change, water scarcity, and impacts on natural resources concern society, and that these issues affect their business. As greater attention is paid to these new issues, a series of best practices have evolved, and a movement is now under way to elevate sustainability performance to a status nearing that of financial performance.

Energy Efficiency

For most companies, reducing energy consumption is considered low-hanging fruit. Some companies are teaming with EPA and DOE to develop energy efficient products and corporate energy efficiency programs.

For example, Alcoa, the world’s leading producer of aluminum, partnered with DOE to form the Energy Efficiency Network consisting of internal Alcoa experts, outside energy consultants, and selected vendors. The group conducts energy assessments at company facilities worldwide to develop and implement energy saving opportunities. This program has identified more than $100 million in potential savings and has directly contributed to Alcoa’s reduction in emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide by more than half since 2000.

GHG Emissions Monitoring and Reporting

The Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Protocol continues to be the accounting tool used most widely by businesses and governments to understand, quantify, and manage greenhouse gas emissions. The GHG Protocol is a partnership of the World Resources Institute and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development. These organizations work with businesses, governments, and environmental groups around the world to build credible and effective accounting programs to reduce GHG emissions and ultimately stem the effects of climate change. The GHG Protocol Corporate Standard is used by companies and other organizations preparing GHG emissions inventories.

Green Chemistry

Efforts to incorporate green chemistry practices into product design have been voluntary to date. High-end manufacturers such as Nike and retailers such as Walmart have become leaders in this arena, mainly due to increased demand by consumers.

By reducing waste, selling recyclable components, and reusing by-products to create a new product, business managers are pragmatically focused on cutting costs. For example, in its 2010 sustainability report, Walmart predicted an annual savings of $20 million by reducing the number of automatically printed store reports.

Sustainable Remediation

By incorporating sustainability factors into the feasibility phase of a remediation project, stakeholders are able to spend less on the overall remediation system while being more protective of human health and the environment. For example, the Oregon Army National Guard realized a savings of more than $5 million by employing a green soil remediation technology instead of excavating contaminated soils and disposing of them off-site, which would have produced high levels of dust emissions during transport.

EPA has released a Green Remediation Strategy document for the purpose of reducing GHG emissions and other negative environmental effects that might occur during site assessment and remediation at Superfund sites. Therefore, entities responsible for hazardous waste site cleanup that includes sustainable remediation technologies will be more likely to achieve remediation goals in a short time at a significant savings.

Integrating Reporting

There is a movement toward linking a business’s sustainability activities with its bottom line. To improve environmental reporting, a coalition of businesses, regulators, accountants, security exchanges, and not-for-profit groups launched the International Integrated Reporting Committee.

The Committee’s goal is “to respond to the need for a concise, clear, comprehensive, and comparable integrated reporting framework structured around the organization’s strategic objectives, its governance, and business model and integrating both material financial and nonfinancial information.”


Corporate environmental sustainability has become an essential component of 21st century business operations. As public demand for environmental accountability increases, sustainability reporting will play a greater role in how businesses demonstrate their environmental leadership, capture market share, and sustain themselves for future growth.

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